RECAP: Fury

Fury (2014): David Ayer

Written and directed by David Ayer, Fury rolled into theaters with a palette of green and a smirking Brad Pitt. The titular tank might be the first tank character in a World War II movie.

Fury, the tank, is named for the word “Fury” painted in white across its cannon. Nazi war medals dangle inside amongst a crew of five: commander, gunner, loader, driver, and assistant driver.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Five American soldiers drive a tank, Fury, through Germany in April 1945. 

Hero (7/10)

Logan Lerman plays clerk typist Norman Ellison, a young soldier forced into a tank gunner and assistant driver position late in World War II. The previous tank gunner of Fury, a Sherman tank patrolling Germany in the late war, died in a firefight. Norman, who has no combat experience nor seen the inside of a tank, is tasked with replacing him.

Norman greets his fellow tank crew by asking them which way to the front, as in the war’s front, as if he didn’t know they were in Germany. Front’s everywhere. Norman is told to grab a bucket of hot water and clean his seat in the tank. That involves sopping up the blood of its previous occupant and, in one of the grossest props in film history, removing the slab of face he left behind.

Cue Daniel Powter: Norman's had a bad day...
Cue Daniel Powter: Norman’s had a bad day…

Pretty soon Norman and the rest of the Fury crew embark on a series of missions meant to liberate American soldiers and German citizens alike from the dying grip of the Nazi army.

Not long after surviving an assault on his first day in combat, Norman has a breakdown. He shouts that he can’t do it. He can’t do it. He can’t do it. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) tells Norman that Don’s job as tank commander is to keep everyone alive. “You’re getting in the way of that,” he says. Norman says, “I’m trained to type sixty words a minute.” Those reports don’t fill themselves out.

Shortly after that exchange, Don demands Norman kill a German prisoner. Norman must prove he will fight to keep Don alive. “I’m trying to teach you something.” Norman refuses, asking to be shot in the prisoner’s stead. Don won’t accept that, so he head locks him and they both pull the trigger.

It’s not long before Norman screams “Fuck you” to the Nazi scum he mows down with his front-mounted machine gun. And by not long I mean the same day. Norman guns down enflamed German troops, not from mercy but from rage. “Keep stacking ’em up,” Don commends. Norman claims later that he enjoyed that.

Norman shows a softer side in that town. He and Don eat ham and eggs with two German women hiding from the skirmish and American victory celebration. He plays piano. He reads palms. He probably bedded one of the women. Later he’s called a “good man,” by his chief antagonist amongst the tank crew.

Lerman is likable in Norman’s role. He has the baby face we’d expect green soldiers to have, probably a nightmare scenario for seasoned vets like those fighting with Fury.

Villain (2/10)

Fury‘s Real American Heroes are opposed, of course, by Germans. In the long history of American war films from Birth of a Nation to Fury and through the centuries, Germans might be the most often used villain nationality.

These aren’t your fathers’ Germans. Few troops appear on screen long enough to make for an individual villain worthy to counter Don and the Fury crew. The body count is exceptionally high, so we can’t hate individuals for long.

No matter. Many of the troops captured and killed in Fury are children. The first kids to appear shoot at a tank and set an American on fire. That enflamed American falls out of his tank, screaming, and shoots himself. Don, his resolve hardening, blames his death on Norman for not killing them when he spotted them.

Later, in the liberated town where Norman and Don meet the German women, a group of “soldiers” is willing to surrender. Don accepts their surrender, and out stream a couple dozen children. Why did they fight? Well, here comes an SS officer who had several kids strung up light poles for refusing to fight the Yanks.

Germany may have child soldiers defending the Reich, but plenty of adults still fight. Toward the end of Fury, Norman spots a battallion of SS marching toward their treadless tank. These are the army’s tried-and-true warriors who are fighting on their home turf. For them, glory is not be found in Stalingrad or Normandy, glory is to be found by keeping the Americans from killing their families.

These SS troops are patriotic and enjoy the fight. Their commander has the energy to taunt Don mid-battle, telling him to get ready to be skinned alive. They aren’t the smartest soldiers, though, attacking the front of a tank on foot. If many tank rounds cannot penetrate tank fronts; what damage will pistol rounds be?

The best German opposition comes from a Tiger tank. Its commander was bold, attacking four Shermans by his lonesome. One tank he killed from hiding. The next two he got with superior firepower and tactics. But the last tank, Fury, finished him. One against four, though, shows much courage, or desperation.

German skill never seemed a threat to Fury’s crew. Their numbers, sure, but not their skill.

Action/Effects (9/10)

Spectacular action comes at you like a raging tank commander. Fury offers three terrific scenes of tank warfare, one of which concludes the movie, detailed below. I want to discuss the two earlier scenes.

Don receives orders from a grizzled CO to capture a village down the road. Germans are holed up with anti-tank guns and a bunch of prisoners. Don’s to lead four tanks and a few dozen foot soldiers to take the village. They roll out.

The village is smoking. Black billows mark Don’s target. He orders the foot soldiers hitching rides to shove off and walk behind the tanks.

Explode-y time!
Explode-y time!

Fury and the others drive through hedgerows toward the village. A tree line separates the row of tanks and the village. Germans watch the advance, waiting for the tanks to come in range. The foot soldiers lie on the ground and roll back into cover behind the tanks.

A German machine gun with green tracer rounds opens up. Its crew sits in a hole in the center of an open field. One tank shot misses; the next one strikes the hole, sending a German body 30 feet into the air. Don chuckles.

Now the real shooting starts. A German tank, waiting in the woods, fires. A tank round ricochets off a Sherman as a bright orange streak, harming no one. The Yanks pepper the tree line with shells and bullets, destroying the enemy tank.

“Squirt the tree line,” Don orders. All four tank cannons and their machine gunners spray the trees and the anti-tank artillery hidden there. All except Norman, who is having a moment. He won’t shoot. He sees a German rise from another hole in the ground, an anti-tank rocket resting on his shoulder. Norman misses this guy, but the tank treads on him, popping his head like a grape.

The foot soldiers are in range, and they easily kill their targets. Without anti-tank guns the getting is easy. Gordo wants Norman to shoot a quartet of dead Germans. He won’t because they are already dead. Gordo asks him how he knows they are dead. “This is what we do,” he says.

As the battle ends, the American loot their vanquished foes. Bible prays with a dying soldier.

That scene showed what the Shermans could do to enemy ground troops. It showed why tanks were essential to infantry advancement. The next scene showed why tanks allowed Germany its staggering advances in the war’s early years.

After liberating another German town, Fury and company roll out toward the next town and the next town and the next, until Germany quits. “It will end soon,” Don says, “But before it does a lot more people got to die.”

Some of those people die down the road. The rear of the four tanks, this time without an accompanying group of infantry, is shot from out of nowhere. The remaining three tanks reverse in unison, their commanders scouting the surrounding fields for the shot’s source.

As the tanks reach a tree line behind them, one spots a Tiger tank hidden in a copse. Fury sends smoke shots toward it, in a terrific image from the tank’s viewing window of a smoke round arcing toward the Tiger, one of Germany’s most feared armored units.

The Tiger comes out to play. Don orders them to bum rush it. The Tiger scores a direct hit on Fury’s front, but the shot does nothing. The Tiger turns its cannon onto another American and blasts off the head of its commander, then the head of the tank.

Reduced to two tanks, Don wants to squeeze the Tiger from either side. The Tiger chooses to shoot the not-Fury tank, exploding its turret. Fury tries to get behind the Tiger, where its armor is much weaker, though the Tiger knows this, too, and doesn’t allow it.

A fine aerial shot shows the two tanks circling each other, trading cannon fire. One hits Fury’s side and sends oil into the tank’s interior, Fury’s first significant wound. Fury is hit again in the front, again to no harm. Don wants them to send a shot up the Tiger’s ass.

Fury battling a German Tiger
Fury battling a German Tiger

Instead, Don has Bible target the enemy’s viewing window. He waits for the right timing, ordering Bible to hit the window twice, which he does. We hear the Tiger’s engine misfire. Two crew members flee the burning tank, and Don kills them both. The tank’s commander, impeccably dressed, pops out the top hatch to fire some Luger rounds. Norman, sick of the fucking Nazis, eradicates him. Gordo celebrates with some pilfered wine.

Two scenes, two dead enemy German tanks. All aspects of great filmmaking are at work in these scenes. Don’s chatter fires as rapidly as Norman’s machine gun. Each crew member does his job. The camera captures the width and breadth of the scene. I mentioned that aerial. Cameras are also attached beside tank treads, cannons, and from viewing windows, as if we are the tanks and the shells. We can see how tanks operated, how quickly and how, I’m certain, at times for its crews, how slowly.

We see shells bounce off the ground and off of tanks. The enemy shows good tactics and fearless fighting, and the truth of German tank superiority is shown. Fighting in the idyllic lands of northern Europe further underscores World War II’s brutality.

Sidekicks (6/8)

A hazy field. Fog (or smoke?) clears. The sun backlights a figure walking, no, riding, on a horse, toward the camera. The white horse carries a German officer through a mud field of burned tanks and dead bodies. The horse trots past a damaged Sherman.

A man leaps from the back of that tank onto the officer, knocking him to the ground and stabbing the German to death. That man unbridles the horse and sets it free. Meet Don Collier, Wardaddy to his friends and enemies.

Brad Pitt begins Fury as he ended Inglorious Basterds, taking a knife to a Nazi. Just like Basterds, Pitt has swell time leading a group of men killing Nazis in Germany. It’s hard to fault Ayer for lack of originality with this role because Pitt plays cool, self-assured leader/savior types in all his movies. Fight Club, The Big Short, World War Z, and Troy are all examples of Pitt’s tendency to play aloof men with all the answers.

Jon Bernthal as Grady
Jon Bernthal as Grady

It’s a type he plays well. Early in the film, Don is charged with leading a squad of tanks to liberate a few towns and villages inside Germany, eventually to Berlin. He’s a great leader because nothing fazes him. “Rain’s coming,” is all he has to say about an impending artillery barrage.

As the only surviving members of 3rd Battalion, Don gets to lead the tanks in their next skirmishes. He’s calm during a fight in which an enemy tank and multiple anti-tank guns shoot at him and three other tanks. He never loses his ability to speak cool slogans like, “Squirt the tree line,” and, “Would Hitler fuck one of us for a chocolate bar?”

He might be having fun, but Don’s got a job to do: keep his men alive. Norman, who won’t shoot kids even though they’ll shoot at him, is getting in the way of that. Norman, replacing the best gunner in the entire Army, better get in the mood to kill quickly.

“Do your job,” Don says, after he’s helped Norman kill a German prisoner. “Do your job,” is also a favorite line of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Perhaps Belichick is killing opposing players?

There’s no question that Don’s crew has his back. They admit it. The other three guys in the tank: Grady, the loader (Jon Bernthal); Bible, the gunner (Shia LaBeouf); and Gordo, the driver (Michael Pena), have fought with Don since Africa and won’t fight with anyone else. He’s like a father to them, and to prove this he orders Norman to eat something because he hasn’t seen the new guy eat anything all day.

Bible quotes The Bible more than he uses original speech.
Bible quotes The Bible more than he uses original speech.

If Don can be said to have one ethos it’s, “Ideals are peaceful; history is violent.” These men believe it, too, and they won’t listen to anyone who says otherwise.

Henchmen (4/8)

I lumped all the Germans into the Villain role. The only Germans named or characterized were two women hiding inside their apartment.

Irma, wearing a nice, red Sunday dress, and her cousin Emma hide during the American occupation. Irma does a bad job of hiding, because she looks out the window as the whole company parties outside.

Don spots Irma and drags Norman to check on the woman. They find Emma underneath the bed. Don takes a seat. The next few minutes are filled with tension. Emma and Irma fear the worst. Norman has That Look on his face, but Don doesn’t.

Irma never says a word. She’s upset, more angry than anything, and expends her energy making hot water, tea, eggs, ham, a whole breakfast. Emma is bold. She accompanies Norman’s piano playing with song, then follows him into her bedroom.

Here is a key scene. Norman reads her hand, tells her she’ll have one great love in her life. Emma’s eyes shift rapidly, concealing as much emotion as they reveal. They kiss. Norman puts her on the bed.

Who wouldn't enjoy a nice family meal served by two of your vanquished foes?
Who wouldn’t enjoy a nice family meal served by two of your vanquished foes?

Afterward they leave the bedroom. What happened? Norman never tells either way. Emma, in the kitchen with Irma, offers her the slightest smile. Is it an “I got lucky,” smile, or an “I got lucky in that I didn’t get lucky,” smile? Could go either way. Being raped by the Americans was likely the women’s greatest fear, so I think the smile meant that things went well, sex or not.

When Fury’s remaining crew joins the party, Emma cries. Grady disgusts her, rightly so, for he licked her egg. Grady is the type of man she feared, and she knows it immediately.

These women were smart and careful. They don’t know what kind of G.I.s are sitting at their dining table. Their deaths made them all the more tragic characters.

Shortly after the men leave the apartment, artillery strikes the town. The women’s apartment building is shelled and the women die. And for what?

Stunts (5/6)

Most of the fighting in Fury comes in the gun variety. Pistols, rifles, grenades, tank shells, anti-tank rounds, and more fly across the battlefields. Some bounce off tank fronts. I’ve no idea how they pulled that off. Tracer rounds light up the sky. One German has his head plopped when a tank rolls over it. All great stunts and effects; all added much to the fight sequences.

That orange line is a tank round.
That orange line is a tank round.

Climax (5/6)

Norman, plopped beside a tree and enjoying water from a canteen and a K ration, hears marching and chanting. He turns and sees his worst fear: dozens, perhaps hundreds, of German soldiers. And not child soldiers, a “goddamn SS battalion.”

The Fury crew don’t like the sound of it. Their tank is treadless, victim of a road mine, a sitting duck. Should they run and hide? No. “This is my home,” Don says of Fury, and shouldn’t everyone defend their home? They will hold the roads.

Don orders the crew to leave. They consider it. Norman is the first to refuse. Grady cries, and he stays, too. They all stay. Fury is their home; it is their mother. So, they will stave off an entire battalion with a stationary tank, a cannon, grenades, and thousands of rounds.

Before this battle starts, and it will be a battle, they pass around some fine liquor Don had stashed away. “Won’t be around for the hangover,” he says. After gulping some he says it’s “better than good.” Even Bible swigs.

The SS approach the tank. Several German bodies burn on its front. It appears dead. Some men flank Fury and others mount it to inspect its contents. Inside, Don has pulled two grenade pins and readies for the hatch to open. It opens, and a surprised German soldier is shot to death. Grenades pop out several holes in the tank and kill some soldiers.

Game on. Grady and Bible open up the shelling, striking a truck and the barn/hospital abutting the muddy road. “That was beautiful,” Don cracks. He wants Grady and Bible to bounce the hell out of those shells, and some do, which we see as orange streaks of light ricocheting off the Earth.

M4 Sherman, US late-war workhorse. I think it's cute.
M4 Sherman, US late-war workhorse. I think it’s cute.

Having achieved a tactical first strike, the Fury crew fires at will. Norman, recently rechristened Machine, squeezes that trigger and doesn’t let go until his belt runs out. Dozens die. “Murder the fucking ground,” Don orders.

Outside, night has fallen, or, all the black smoke has concealed the sun. With smoke grenades to conceal their movement, the crew pops out of their hatches, automatics in hand. Norman and Gordo kill some dudes.

Don kills more from the top, runs out of ammo, throws his rifle into another, fires his pistol, is hit in the face with an enemy shovel, stabs a German in the leg, drags him into the tank and cuts his throat. “They’re getting cocky,” he quips.

It’s time for a breather. Bible patches up the painless Don. “He who does God’s will,” Bible says, “is going to live forever.” The Germans finally bring in their Panzerschreck shoulder-mounted anti-tank rocket launchers. An officer helpfully informs the audience that they have no more. They appear to have about eight.

One guy approaches the rear of Fury and misses. Another strikes the side, which explodes, sending shrapnel through Grady’s gut. Bible is breaking down mentally. Soon he leaves the tank to find another gun and gets into a scuffle with a playing-dead soldier.

Norman is still game to kill Germans. He finishes his tank gun’s rounds by sending them through dozens of enemies. They are down to hand weapons and the .50 caliber machine gun atop Fury. The SS officer screams, “This is our land!” as the Americans pop out the hatches and shoot every man in sight.

More grenades are lobbed at the Germans. The SS officer is shot. Gordo is shot. Bible nearly dies in his fight, but he gets the rifle. Don taunts the other side. Bible returns to the tank only to be shot in the face. Then Don is shot.

A sniper has crawled into place. Wearing camouflage and a mask, he looks comically over-prepared for the role. Approaching Fury’s right side, no American could have seen him while inside the tank. All he had to do was run to a spot, lie down, aim, and shoot. The movie makes it seem as if he spent several minutes crawling a few yards while dozens of his compatriots died.

The sniper, serious about job standards no matter the situation, shoots Don in the chest and shoulder, sending the tank commander back into his home and final resting place. “I’m sorry son,” he says. “I did my best.” He and Norman, the only living members of Fury, are scared. This is the end.

Germans mount the tank again, this time prepared. You can barely see the tank for all the shell casings covering it. They drop two grenades into Fury. Don orders Norman to flee from the Sherman’s underside hatch, where he hides in the mud as the grenades pop inside.

As the victorious Germans march away, a soldier shines a light on Norman, who raises his hands in surrender. The soldier appears to spot Norman, but a shoddy light and orders from afar convince him to ignore the lone American survivor.

In the morning, a white horse trots by to awaken Norman. Is it the horse Don freed at the beginning?

Yes.

Is this climax realistic? Hell no. SS troops were the most well trained in the German army. They would know better than to shoot hand guns at the front of a Sherman. They would sit back and pepper all their Panzerschreck rounds at the side and rear until the Americans coughed their ways outside and surrendered or died. All they had to do was drop a grenade in the tank at the start and the thing would be over.

Despite Germany’s poor judgment, the fight scene was stupendous in its creativity and destruction. Yes, contradictory terms, which makes Ayer’s achievement the more impressive.

Jokes (0/4)

A movie with name Fury is not a good candidate for funniest of the year. Fury is fun to watch at times, but it ain’t funny. The characters give it their best, lending just enough levity to a grim project.

Don is best. He’s seen enough of war to know it’s as ridiculous as it is despicable. He’s ready to kill Germans because, as he says, “history is violent.” Well, football’s violent, too, and that’s a game, so why not war? That’s how Pitt acts.

The Fury crew are full of gusto and bravado. As eager for sex as they are for killing. That’s why they lovingly dub Norman Machine. He’s a “fighting, fucking, drinking machine.”

Also, some wise guy grenades a piano as his ally plays it. That was funny.

Setting (2/4)

Western Germany in Fury is full of bombed-out villages and green fields. This is April, so we’d expect the latter, and this is 1945, so we’d expect the former.

“Nailed it!” Ayer probably said that many times in the editing room, and I agree. Partly what’s alluring about World War II are the picturesque villages, surrounding hedgerows, and open fields. (At least in France, Germany, and Belgium in the late war.) Take everything you love about Rick Steves guidebook drawings and plop a column of tanks in it to get your end-of-war film.

Fury‘s Germany is also dirty. Many times tank treads and soldier boots step on mud three months deep. Sometimes bodies are concealed in them. The opening scene shows a German on a horse walking through a recent battlefield that resembles trench battle lands of the War to End All Wars. Burning husks of vehicles litter the roads.

Fury had everything I expected and wanted in a World War II film set in western Europe.

Commentary (2/2)

When dealing with The Greatest Generation, any moral uncertainty about such characters can cause heads and fists to shake. Fury toes the line. Does it cross it? Maybe, maybe not.

Don and his crew are in Germany for one purpose: to kill Germans. Don hammers this point home early and often. He strikes at an SS officer dragged through 2nd Company’s camp. That’s just the start.

After the first tank fight, the Americans find a German wearing a Yankee coat. Don calls off the hounds and brings Norman to him. He orders Norman to kill the German. This is a war crime. Don does not care. Norman has a job to do (kill Germans), and if he doesn’t he’ll likely get Don and everyone else crewing Fury killed.

A little prisoner-killing practice for Norman.
A little prisoner-killing practice for Norman.

Later, in the town, many child soldiers stream out. So does the SS officer hanging the town’s conscientiously objecting children. Don asks if he’s the guy hanging kids. He is. Don orders him shot. It is gleefully done.

These killings are portrayed differently from such killings in past films. Often the bad guys are killing prisoners, and often for fun or out of rage. Don helps Norman kill the first prisoner to ensure Norman will protect Don later. He has the SS officer killed for killing children, although killing children is exactly what Don wanted Norman to do earlier.

Yes, I am confused. Ayer is trying to say that maybe, just maybe, The Greatest Generation wasn’t as perfect as we consider them to be? (holds hands up)

After the SS offcier is shot, Don enjoys some quality time and home-cooked meal with two German women. He also convinces Norman to take Emma into her bedroom and roll in the hay with her, so to speak.

It’s unclear if they had sex, but let’s assume they did. Is it rape? It’s right there on the border. It’s a lot like asking if killing a man in war is murder. Maybe, maybe not, but having to ask the question represents an amoral, if not immoral, splitting of hairs.

Oh yeah, and finally, war is hell. That’s the thing that about all war movies say, at least the ones post-Vietnam. Of course, since and including Vietnam, the US hasn’t had a single clear, objective military victory without extended draw downs (does the American sector of Berlin count as an extended draw down?). All our recent wars seem pointless.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

How you feel about Fury depends on how you feel about World War II. Some people describe it as the last good war, the last time two sides were so easily defined as good or evil.

Entire nation-states can’t be evil, can they? That seems absurd. Hitler was evil, many of his underlings were evil, but were the youths forced to fight evil? And what about the Soviet officers who shot deserters? They were on the good side.

Hey, war is hell, am I right? I found Fury mostly inoffensive, so I rate it nil.

Others

  • (3) Automatic war movie bonus
  • Fantastic shot as Don looks in the sky and sees dozens of American bombers and their contrails streak toward scattered Luftwaffe craft.

Summary (45/68): 66%

Fury is as gritty as war films come. This film chose to focus on a single tank crew. In doing so, many scenes occur inside the cramped quarters of the Sherman tank. It’s hard to imagine how five people could sit inside it, much less imagine a film crew also in there.

Doesn't David Ayer resemble a bulked-up James Cameron?
Doesn’t David Ayer resemble a bulked-up James Cameron?

Fury shows some of the best tactical tank fighting you’ll see in a war film. The movie is worth watching for that alone. The level of violence is high, but a quiet, tense sequence in the middle divides the noise well.

Good acting and terrific action make Fury a welcome accompaniment to your war movie collection.