Director & writer: David Ayer
Producers: Bill Block, John Lesher, and David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, and Jon Bernthal
A Sony DVD for Columbia Pictures
‘We’re not here for right and wrong. We’re here to kill Krauts. You’re no good to me unless you can kill Krauts.’ So yells Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (played by Brad Pitt) to Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) in one of the key scenes in Fury.
After a vicious firefight in which several Americans have been killed, the infantry capture a German prisoner who pleads for his life, parading pictures of his wife and family. ‘Wardaddy’ Collier tears up the pictures and orders the rookie newcomer, Norman, to shoot the terrified German in the back. He refuses but ‘Wardaddy’ grapples him, forces a gun in his hand, and makes him pull the trigger on the German. Norman is distraught. The watching American soldiers are delighted. The scene shows that Fury is not a conventional war movie in which the goodies and the baddies fight it out and the right side wins. It is gritty, brutal, and bleak. The fact that it is against the Geneva Convention and all the rules of war to kill a prisoner is not of the slightest interest to anyone present.
This is a war in which you kill or you are killed. There is no mercy. Battlefields in Fury are full of sudden and vicious violence in which anyone can have their legs or head blown off, or can become a ball of flames in a few seconds. Death is everywhere. And it isn’t pretty.
Fury is set in April 1945, in the last weeks of the war, as American troops advance into the heart of Germany. It is a section of the war often overlooked. The more obviously dramatic episodes of the war in Europe – D-Day, Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge – have all had their films. But the reality of the last days of the war was that even while the German army was disintegrating, a few troops were fighting on with fierce intensity.
As Hitler grew mad in his bunker, ordering imaginary armies to launch counter-attacks, so the Waffen-SS kept a vicious grip on the soldiers and civilians who faced the oncoming Allied soldiers. Anyone thought to show weakness was strung up from a lamppost with a banner around their neck saying ‘I am a coward and refused to fight for the German people’. ‘Wardaddy’ Collier fights his own war of revenge, and announces he will kill every member of the SS that he finds.
It was no doubt the bitterness and cruel immorality of this fighting that attracted writer and director David Ayer to this last month of the war. Ayer had written and directed several films based on his experience with the Los Angeles Police Department, most famously Harsh Times (2005) and End of Watch (2012). His only foray into WWII had been as co-writer of the ridiculous and controversial U-571 (2000), in which American submariners capture an Enigma machine from a German U-boat – an achievement actually carried out by a boarding party from HMS Bulldog in May 1941, before America was even in the war.
The Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, said the film was an ‘affront’ to the Royal Navy. Some years later, Ayer admitted that the story was a distortion of history, and that he would have been outraged if the story of his grandparents’ war had been twisted like this.
To tell his story, Ayer focuses on the crew of a Sherman tank nicknamed ‘Fury’. The crew have been together for three years, fighting in North Africa, Normandy, and Belgium. Tank crews bonded closely in the Second World War. The men not only shared great dangers under fire, but also lived, ate, and slept close together while at war.
Like the crews of bomber aircraft, in order to stay alive every man relied on every other man to do his job efficiently. As Fury opens, one of the five-man crew has been killed in battle, and a young replacement, Norman Ellison, a typing clerk, joins them. He has no experience of battle, and has never been inside a tank. The film covers the end of Norman’s innocence, his transition to manhood, and his becoming a tough fighter like the rest of them.
Fury is set over just a few days of battle. At first, Norman is mocked by the other hardened crew members, partly for his naivety, and partly because he professes to be a practising Christian. This is not a war in which Christian values have much place. When he fails to fire on a Hitler Youth armed with a Panzerfaust, the young German destroys an American tank that ‘brews up’, leaving the crew to burn alive; the tank commander leaps out in flames, and blows his own brains out rather then endure further agony. The rest of his crew blame Norman.
After more battles and the occupation of a town, a platoon of four tanks including ‘Fury’ is sent out to take control of a crossroads that is vital to the defence of the division. En route, they are attacked by a Tiger tank. The film clearly shows the superiority of German armour over American.
TIGER VERSUS SHERMAN
A Tiger tank, with its superb high-velocity 88mm gun and thick armour plating, weighing in at 56 tonnes, was a far superior vehicle. It could take out a Sherman at 4,000 yards. But the principle behind the mass production of the Sherman tank was that there would always be an overwhelming superiority in numbers. And by April 1945, there were very few Tiger tanks left, and even less fuel available to operate them.
But in individual contests, the Shermans were easily outgunned, and their crews must have felt they were expendable. In Fury, the Tiger takes out three Shermans in the platoon with direct hits, while 75mm shells from the Americans bounce off its armour plating. ‘Wardaddy’ succeeds in taking out the Tiger only by manoeuvring behind it and getting two direct hits in the rear, where its
armour was weakest.
One of the many improbable elements of Fury is that there are so few Shermans available to the advancing American army. The crew of ‘Fury’ appear to be in the 2nd Armored Division (part of the US Ninth Army) that moved on from the Ruhr and reached the Wesser River on 4 April 1945, roughly where Fury is set. By this point, some tank units were advancing up to 18 miles a day, but they rarely went forward other than in large numbers, and thus had overwhelming firepower at their disposal. In some towns, the local Burgermeister or mayor came out with a white flag to signify an absence of resistance. In other towns, the Americans still met pockets of determined German defenders, although some of them turned out to be young boys from the Hitler Youth. As the Americans advanced, it was certainly impossible to know what they would meet next.
The most lethal weapon to the Sherman was the simple Panzerfaust, a shoulder-red bazooka-type weapon which, if aimed at the right spot and igniting fuel or ammunition, could send the tank up in flames in a matter of seconds. But anyone with a Panzerfaust had to get very close to the target to have any chance of an accurate hit, as is shown in the film. By 18 April, effective resistance in northern Germany had collapsed, and the Americans reached the Elbe river where they were told to halt. Eisenhower had decided to let the Russians fight the bloody battle for Berlin.
So what are the other main themes of Fury? One theme is how the pressure of war brings men together as ‘blood brothers’. The closeness of a Sherman tank crew is an excellent way to demonstrate this. In this micro-world, everyone is reduced to the lowest common fighting denominator.
All of the crew members give superb performances. Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan (Shia LaBeouf) is a Protestant. Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia (Michael Peña) is Hispanic. Grady ‘Coon Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal) is an aggressive working-class hoodlum from Arkansas. Their language is coarse from beginning to end, with barely a sentence without a four-letter word. With such language, Ayer intends to create a sense of combat reality.
Brad Pitt, perhaps for whom the film was written, turns in a commanding performance as ‘Wardaddy’ Collier. He has told his men they will only survive if they follow him absolutely and, although they bicker and fight, they are utterly devoted to him. One minute he is committing a war crime; the next he is worrying that the crew have not had enough time to eat properly. Such is camaraderie, Fury-style.
Another theme is that of sexual violence in war. Since the beginning of time, victorious armies have used rape as a way of demonstrating their superiority over a defeated people. At the end of the Second World War, as the Allied armies moved across the remnants of Nazi Germany, the British and American armies in the main kept their discipline.
The Soviet Army, however, was quite different. It is now estimated that as many as two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers at the end of the war and in the months following. This shocking behaviour in a 20th-century army was endorsed at the highest level. Stalin dismissed all complaints, saying that, having fought bravely for four years, ‘the boys deserve their fun’.
Ayer presents this issue in a different light. Having occupied a small German town after a vicious fight, the GIs begin to fraternise with the local whores. ‘Wardaddy’ Collier and the rapidly maturing Norman visit an apartment occupied by a German woman named Irma (Anamaria Marinca). She is hiding her attractive young cousin, Emma (Alicia von Rittberg). The scene develops in a highly improbable way. Having discovered the terrified Emma hiding under a bed, Norman sits at the piano and plays some Mozart, which Emma then begins to sing to. ‘Wardaddy’ tells Norman that he should take the girl into the bedroom. The young soldier and the Fraulein sit together and (miraculously) fall in love. They spend a passionate few minutes together.
‘Wardaddy’ tells Irma that they are young, and should be allowed to enjoy themselves. Strangely, she appears to agree. There is much tension in this scene, especially when the rest of the crew, by now drunk, arrive, and the five hardened American soldiers have a meal with the two vulnerable German women. It is never clear what is going to happen next in this febrile atmosphere. In the end, the tank crew are ordered to move out. As they leave the town, an incoming shell hits the apartment. Norman finds Emma’s body in the ruins, and is devastated. It has been the briefest of brief encounters, but it is another step in his ascent to manhood.
The film ends with a shoot-out that John Wayne at the Alamo would have been proud of. ‘Fury’ is the only tank that makes it to the crossroads they are sent to defend at all costs. But the Sherman goes over a landmine, and is disabled. They spot a Waffen-SS battalion approaching. The Germans are singing heartily, and are clearly still looking for a fight.
The first reaction of the crew is to run and hide, but ‘Wardaddy’ says he will stay and fight. ‘This is my home,’ he tells the crew. The others decide they will fight too. They hunker down inside the tank, wait until the SS are all around, and then open fire, causing the sort of bloodbath that is more like a Hollywood massacre of Apaches than a realistic battle with an elite German fighting unit.
Slowly, the crew members are overwhelmed by numbers, with only Collier and Norman left, and ammunition running low. Unbelievably, the Germans do not seem to be able to aim well and, although ‘Wardaddy’ mounts the exterior of the tank and, using the Browning turret machine-gun, kills dozens more Germans, they are unable to hit him. Finally, a sniper crawls into position and gets him, although it is not at all clear why they needed a sniper to hit such an easy target.
The idea of battle-hardened SS troops throwing their lives away when all they have to do is take out a single tank is absurd. ‘Wardaddy’ tells Norman to get out of the escape hatch in the belly of the tank. This he does, and hides below the vehicle, but he is spotted by a German who, again bizarrely, ignores him and passes on.
The scene is so over the top it lets down the rest of the film. But it does have a fine denouement. When American troops arrive the next morning, they find Norman, the only survivor, surrounded by piles of German corpses. Two medics take him away, and tell him ‘You’re a hero, buddy’. For sure, Norman would have won the Medal of Honour for a deed like this. In this war in which everything is topsy-turvy, it is a fitting end. Fury was shot in Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire in October and November 2013. The residents of nearby villages were warned that they might hear gun fire. The Tiger and the principal Sherman tank were provided by Bovington Tank Museum.
However, it is impossible to film inside a Sherman tank, so – to create the claustrophobic and tense shots of the tank interior – a model was built at Pinewood Studios.
Apart from the final shoot-out, much of Fury offers a more realistic impression of war than many war movies. Ayer introduced the actors to 90-year-old tank veterans of the 2nd Armored Division, men collectively known as ‘Roosevelt’s Butchers’. Pitt said it was a ‘humbling experience’ to meet these veterans, and to hear their stories.
Then the actors spent five days in a US Navy SEAL boot camp, getting up at 5am and enduring a rigorous week of physical exercise and training. It was a bonding experience that helped the tank crew perform convincingly as a close unit.
Every image in Fury is drained of colour, so the predominant look is of browns and greys. The sudden violence looks terrifying. The crew behave, much of the time, in a way that seems authentic. And with no moral code to respect, Fury is very much a contemporary take on the war-movie genre. But what a shame about the shoot-out at the end!
Fury was released in the US and the UK in October 2014, and by the end of the year had grossed over US$208 million around the world.
This article appeared in issue 55 of Military History Monthly magazine.