Fury, film review: Brad Pitt stars as an unsympathetic hero in muted war movie

Fury is a thoroughly contradictory affair - an anti-war film that also wants to be an action thriller

The great American director Sam Fuller famously observed that "a war film’s objective, no matter how personal or emotional, is to make a viewer feel war."

Fuller’s films were macho, lowish budget affairs that occasionally had very creaky production values but they always had a ring of truth. After all, as a former soldier, he had been there on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He knew war at first hand.

David Ayer’s Fury, set in April 1945 and following the battle hardened crew of a Sherman tank as the Allies make their final push to defeat the Nazis, owes a very obvious debt to Fuller. Like Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980), it is an epic with a warped and delirious feel.

Just as Fuller once did, Ayer tries throughout to combine a grunt eye view of combat with poetic symbolism. Right at the outset, a German officer on a white horse is seen riding through a corpse strewn battlefield. It’s a scene of utter devastation, dark and muddy, against which the horse looks like something from a fairy tale. We all know that the eerie quiet is just a prelude to an act of extreme violence.

Brad Pitt’s character, the tank commander Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier, is the type of gnarled veteran you could imagine Lee Marvin or Robert Ryan playing in a previous generation. Pitt’s face is well nigh permanently caked in dirt. He still gets to show off his torso at one stage but although he may still have the body of a male model, Collier also reveals the scars of battle.

Pitt’s performance is intriguing because, at least initially, he is prepared to be so unsympathetic.

With his appetite for violence (“you’re no goddam good to me unless you can kill Krauts!”) and his cynicism, he is the utter antithesis of the all American GI-type celebrated in Ernie Pyle’s wonderful wartime journalism.

Inevitably, as the film progresses, the characterization of Collier softens. By the final reel, he has become a far more conventional, and less interesting, figure: a hero with a sense of sacrifice.

There is a jarring uncertainty of tone throughout Fury. On the one hand, Ayer emphasies the pity and squalor of war. At the film’s London Film Festival premiere, Pitt was keen to tell younger viewers that this was no video game. There is huge suffering and casualties stay dead – you can’t press reboot to bring them back alive. The film underlines the psychic trauma its protagonists faced.


At the same time, Ayer is serving up a riproaring old fashioned boy’s own adventure in which Collier and his  tank crew use the kind of terse, macho language found in old Victor comics. “We’re going to skin you alive,” a German officer shrieks at Collier during one battle scene. “Shut up and send me more pigs to kill,” the American shouts back.

You’d expect such dialogue in a film like Quentin Tarantino’s ironic and self-reflexive Inglourious Basterds but it is surprising in a film that purports to be realistic. When one soldier describes his experiences in the tank as “the best gooddam job I’ve ever had,” he is only being half-ironic.

Fury is set in Germany in April of 1945, that’s to say spring, but Ayer portrays events as if the story is unfolding in the dead of winter. We see the steam from the soldiers’ breath. Fury gives the impression that Germany is one gigantic frozen mud bath. The roads and pathways down which the tanks trundle down are like foetid swamps. The sun never appears to shine.

Production design is deliberately muted. Greys and browns are foregrounded. This means that the pyrotechnics in the battle scenes register all the more strongly. These battles are filmed in truly spectacular fashion – and in a way that underlines the destructiveness. Limbs are blown off. One soldier standing in his tank is obliterated instantly when a missile hits him.

Brad-Pitt.jpg As you might expect of a film about a tank platoon, there are a lot of sweaty close-ups of Collier and his colleagues, Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), Grady “Coon Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) and Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) cooped up inside the vehicle. The interior is full of Nazi memorabilia. Medals belonging to Germans the men have slain clink away whenever the tank picks up sped.

Fury turns out to be as much a rites of passage movie as a conventional war film. Its juvenile lead is a callow young clerk, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), ordered to join Collier and his crew. “I am trained to type 60 words a minute, not trained to machine gun dead bodies,” he complains. His first job is to clean up body parts from the inside of the tank. Sure enough, he retches but we know that, by the final reel, this idealistic, music loving youngster will become just as much a dog of war as his hardbitten colleagues.

Collier’s own motives are hard to surmise. It is a source of pride to him that he has managed to keep his men alive throughout the war. At the same time, he has such hatred of the enemy (in particular the SS), that he is prepared to put them at risk.

Just occasionally, the film teeters into absurdity. When a lookout rushes back from what seems to be a few hundred yards away to warn Collier that a German battalion is marching down the road, the tank commander and his men still have time to makes lengthy speeches and vow undying friendship before the enemy arrives. (The Germans must have been marching very slowly.)

Fury is a thoroughly contradictory affair. It is an anti-war film that also wants to be an action thriller.

One moment Brad Pitt is bemoaning man’s inhumanity to man and the next, everyone is lobbing grenades and shooting up one another as if they’re on a glorified paintball outing.

For all the skill with which the film is made and the full blooded commitment of the performances, what it misses utterly is the psychological nuance and emotional depth you will always find in a Sam Fuller movie.