When Brad Pitt, as Sergeant Don (Wardaddy) Collier, tells his raw, kill-shy new tank gunner Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) that “ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” the words land with the crushing authority of a round of earth-rattling mortar fire. That they’re spoken by a guy with a face like burnished Naugahyde, eyes glazed icy blue by the horror they’ve seen and enough scars on his back to resemble a street map of Mexico City, only adds to their aura of gravitas. That they’re spoken in a movie that has about as much to do with real history as your popcorn does with daily nutritional requirements is a point best left for spoilsports and yes, historians. Fury is a war movie with balls of steel and marbles for brains.
It’s April, 1945. Hitler’s army is in a state of desperate retreat. It’s scorching all earth in face of the Allied advance across the Fatherland, and consists – in this movie anyway – of forcibly recruited children (boys and girls) terrified by the ruthless lycanthropes of the SS. Those who refuse to comply are strung up on lampposts and left for display, their villages reduced to smouldering rubble.
It’s apocalypse right here and now and, while unpleasant for the citizens in harm’s way, an excellent arena for the playing out of writer-director David (Training Day, Sabotage) Ayer’s blood-and-guts fantasy of macho purification through carnage and glorious self-sacrifice. Into those killing fields rides the Sherman tank named Fury (written, with needless phallic suggestiveness, on the length of its big gun), packed not only with Wardaddy’s selectively represented all-American kids – Shia LaBeouf’s scripture-quoting “Bible” Swan, Michael Pena’s token non-white Garcia, Jon Bernthal’s peckerwood good ole boy “Coon-Ass” Travis, and Lerman’s ripe-for-blooding typing-pool transfer Ellison – but enough pure war-movie corn to feed an army of make-believe Hollywood GI Joes.
While this falls as thick and densely as the heavy metal ordnance ejaculated so furiously from the tank’s heavy metal spout, the movie’s core dramatic cliché is also its hands-down hoariest: The grizzled, seen-it-all, Zen-like vet – the war daddy – who initiates the wide-eyed child into the necessary testicular rite of drawing blood, and whose own rueful practicality concerning the matters of life and death (but mostly the latter) are a simplistic war movie’s most reliable cover for the real agenda of rendering the hell of war as the best damn man-making machine this side of a pro football field.
Born in 1968, and therefore of a prime generational cohort to be susceptible to the romantic allure of the Second World War as the last clearly defined, morally unambiguous and politically consensual conflict fought by the United States – and more likely steeped in Sylvester Stallone Rambo revisionism and Saving Private Ryan retro-romanticism than the grand tradition of anti-war movies – Ayer is drawn to the fields of nearly defeated Germany for obvious reasons: The enemy can remain facelessly evil and unambiguously eligible for slaughter, imminent victory looms as a justification for killing anything and everything that moves in any way possible and one can happily avoid the sticky situational, moral and political complexities that have so inconveniently marred just about every American military conflict since. Yes Wardaddy, history might indeed be violent, but Fury ain’t history, far from it. It’s pop myth, and Germany circa April, 1945, serves that nicely. Where else would you get away with naive romanticism?
Inevitably, given its steel-plated thinking, Fury heads toward a gesture of ultimate coming-to-glory and self-sacrifice, as the wounded tank is repurposed on a muddy German country road into a canned variation of the Alamo, and the logic of transcendent masculine rebirth in blood is played out as one of the Old West’s most venerated myths, in which a group of brave men fight ceaselessly oncoming waves of inhuman attackers to the death. It’s a stirring and well-mounted sequence to be sure, as is much of Fury when it’s indulging in the clearly relished business of making fake war. (The movie’s finest and easily most harrowing moment is a close-quarter tank battle on an open field.) But it’s as caked in thick layers of pure, war-loving b.s. as it is mud and blood, as loving a tribute to the cleansing baptism of righteous killing as only someone who’s confused movies with history could possibly create.
Imminent among Ayer’s forthcoming projects is a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which, as horrifying as the prospect might be for admirers of the original film, sort of makes sense: That movie is the ultimate western genre expression of the bloody rite of male self-sacrifice, and an irresistible spectacle for somebody who loves to play with toy guns.Report Typo/Error
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