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In the maelstrom of war


David Ayer’s Fury is an often horrifically vivid illustration of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous post-war declaration that “War is all hell!” Fury depicts incidents that even Sherman might have refused to go along with.

Ayer, who both wrote and directed, has presented an in-close picture of the hell that is warfare, as he imagines it. His film is set in the very last days of the Second World War’s European Theatre operations, among American tank crews invading Germany in April, 1945, only several weeks before German forces surrendered. But this by-now inevitable defeat hasn’t lessened the ferocity of the war there. If anything, it seems to have increased it.

Fury’s focus is on one tank crew of five men led by Sgt. Dan Collier (Brad Pitt), four of them since the Allied landing in North Africa two years ago. Another vet dies in the movie’s opening minutes and is replaced by a dismayed, confused and frightened clerk-typist. Green-as-grass Norman (Logan Lerman in a sensitive, persuasive performance) has been pressed into service without ever even being in a tank, probably without having fired a gun since basic training. The Third Reich may be crumbling, but the onward-pushing Americans seem perilously short of qualified personnel.

Fury begins with an admission of another even more serious American weakness, and a candor rarely if ever allowed in Hollywood war movies. An on-screen message tells us, “In World War Two, American tanks were out-gunned and out-armored by the more advanced German tanks.” Fury never explicitly returns to this point, but several of its fierce battle scenes seem to dramatize it. (Many experts say the Soviet tanks were better, too.)

Fury is the name the men have given their tank and the movie opens with it sitting amid a grim landscape of destroyed machines and the dead, partly lit by dying flames. A sudden, unexpected act of intimate and extreme violence interrupts the scene’s ghastly quiet. It may not seem to make much sense, but this expertly staged and photographed sequence sets the tone for what follows.

The heart of Fury’s narrative is the changing relationship of Collier and Norman, and the kid’s change from scared innocent to fiercely motivated and efficient soldier—a killer, under the sergeant’s deadly tutelage. “Are you going to get me killed, Norman?” Collier insistently asks, as he rides the youth and then forces him to help commit what is a brutally criminal act even in wartime. It’s a central thrust of Fury that cynicism and savagery are natural consequences of war.

Ayer wasn’t concerned to convey the horror of war as an antidote to martial patriotism. The film concentrates on the tank crew and Norman’s somewhat unrealistically quick adaptation to the grim requirements of survival. The movie’s main focus is the men and their sergeant’s deep commitment to getting them through to the war’s end. This is by no means a negligible subject: The immediate unit and one’s comrades are what matter, not a grand cause.

But if this is what Ayer wanted to convey, his treatment undercuts his aim. In his central character, Collier, he’s created an outsize, almost caricatural figure.

Collier is a leader of quasi-mythic dimensions. He’s like a profane but all-American warrior-saint. He’s not just an inspired battle tactician, and an uncommonly courageous leader; beneath the ironically gruff persona, he’s a worried protector of the men. And his gifts exceed these attributes: He speaks fluent German to prisoners; he’s conversant with war aims (he studies Stars and Stripes newspaper); he’s something of a philosopher on the war’s vicissitudes, and he knows the Bible’s Book of Isaiah. Not to mention, as one ostensibly peaceful interlude is supposed to show, he has an old-fashioned command of dining room etiquette. “Do as you’re told and don’t get close to anyone,” he tells newly arrived Norman, but both of them ignore this advice. He’s a tough-love paternal figure for the boy. (He even pushes him into a tryst with a German lass.)

Collier is like a juvenile pulp-fiction fantasy, and he’s a vanity role for Pitt (who also produced). By the last overblown, drawn-out, catastrophic battle scene, Fury has become impossible to take seriously.

Watch the trailer for Fury

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