“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”
These words, delivered by Brad Pitt’s scarred and battle-weary Sgt. Don Collier, are meant to bring some level of comfort to Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), the young man who found himself snatched unceremoniously out of the clerk’s office and placed under Collier’s command in the final days of WWII. Despite having no combat training to speak of, Ellison has been assigned as the new assistant driver of Fury, the Sherman tank that Collier and his men call home. Ellison has spent most of the war behind a desk, hammering out correspondence at 60 words per minute, but over the last few hours he’s been gunning down Nazis in spectacularly gory fashion, and he’s struggling to make sense of the carnage.
Collier offers no other thoughts on the subject, having already forgotten about the previous battle and instead thinking about the skirmishes yet to come. He’s a fierce figure who inspires confidence and loyalty among his men, who affectionately refer to him as “Wardaddy.” But he’s also terrifying to someone like Ellison, who finds himself woefully unprepared for the demands of his new vocation. During one of the film’s early battle sequences, Ellison hesitates just long enough for tragedy to occur, and his subsequent brow-beating by Collier is followed by one of the most frightening and gut-wrenching scenes ever depicted in a war film. Ellison is quite literally forced to shun his own moral code and forsake any shred of humanity he still clings to, because Collier knows that if he doesn’t, everyone in the unit will be dead.
And what a unit it is, a motley crew of the highest order, comprised of a deeply religious gunner (Shia LeBeouf), a pugnacious redneck with a severe mean streak (Jon Bernthal), and a driver (Michael Pena) who drowns the filth and death in bottle after bottle of whatever booze he can find. But these soldiers are bound together by the sort of brotherhood that can only exist between men who have seen combat together: each is more than willing to die for the other, and the introduction of Ellison into their group is met with a hefty amount of resistance. The kid is an unknown, a variable they hadn’t anticipated, and viewed as little more than a liability.
But after proving his mettle during a nail-biting engagement with a superior German tank, Ellison gets the seal of approval from the rest of the boys. Collier even takes Ellison with him to explore an American-occupied village, and the two stumble upon a small apartment and its two female tenants. The film takes an interesting turn at this point, allowing the audience a glimpse into the exhaustion and sadness behind Collier’s rugged exterior. A bath, a shave, and a nice dinner are a welcome respite from the day’s butchery, but it’s the second half of this sequence that truly shows how even the best of men can be transformed by the horror of war.
Every member of the cast is at the top of their game here, even LeBeouf, whose well-documented public meltdowns feel like a distant memory. Despite being hampered by a script that regulates everyone but Collier and Ellison to skin-deep characterizations, the actors make the absolute most of it, bringing depth to characters that could very easily have been one-note portrayals. Pitt and Lerman, on the other hand, are given plenty to work with, and their dialogue exchange during the final moments of the film is one of the most emotionally gripping cinematic moments of the year.
Director David Ayer does a superb job with some of the more human moments in Fury, but his skills are best showcased in the thrilling battle sequences, the majority of which were filmed using actual working tanks from the era. Interior shots are skin-crawlingly claustrophobic, especially when surrounded by the shouts, explosions and machine-gun fire that signify the chaos of battle. Exteriors are also handled well, although the film’s frequent use of tracer ammunition makes some of the combat resemble the major clashes in the Star Wars films. Yes, it’s historically accurate, but sometimes it’s more distracting than engrossing.
While Fury never quite ascends to the level of excellence offered by other WWII epics such as Saving Private Ryan or Cross of Iron, it remains a relentless, unflinching account of the unspeakable nature of war. To quote LeBeouf’s character, “Wait til you see what a man can do to another man.” When we see it, it’s certainly not pleasant, and yet we can’t look away.