Fury wins the battle as a buddy film, but too many punches are pulled for it to win the war.By Christos Tsiolkas.
Wanting more from Brad Pitt’s latest film, Fury
David Ayer’s Fury begins with a spectral figure emerging from the shadows. The operatic Wagnerian score begins to build and we can discern that it is a man on horseback who is moving into the centre of the frame. The image has something of the simple but potent beauty of Picasso’s ink drawings for Don Quixote, and it is only slowly we realise that we are watching an SS officer riding towards us on a white horse. He is surveying a field of Allied dead; bodies and burnt-out tanks, smoke and mud and fire, an apocalyptic depiction of war and suffering. In a shocking moment of sudden violence, an American soldier jumps out of a tank, attacks and then stabs to death the German soldier. After the savage but efficient slaying of the German, the American cradles the horse, strokes its snout and mane, then lets it roam off into the hellish landscape.
The caressing of the animal will be one of the few moments of tenderness and stillness in Fury. The American is Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier, played by Brad Pitt, the commander of a Sherman tank nicknamed “Fury”. He is leading a five-man crew during the final months of World War II, as the Allied forces are advancing deeper into German territory. Wardaddy is assigned a new recruit, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who is barely out of his adolescence. The youth has been in Europe for only a few weeks, has previously served the army as a typist and clerk, and he is now to become a gunner in the crew. The more experienced men treat Norman cruelly, mocking him and disabusing his idealism; more pointedly, they have no time for his innocence. For the crew of Fury, killing Germans has become a hunt, detached from notions of their being involved in a just or morally righteous war. The Germans are dangerous vermin to be extinguished. The Kraut boy needs to be killed as ruthlessly as the adult men. This is the first lesson that Norman has to learn and the hardened Wardaddy, the man responsible for his crew’s survival, makes it clear that this is the most important lesson.
Fury is a good movie, a strong movie, by which I mean it has a visceral force that remains with you days after viewing it, but it is ultimately compromised by an unresolved tension about the kind of war film it wants to be. The opening sequence, from the Gothic choral music and the abrupt bloody, messy killing, can’t help bring to mind the hallucinatory amoral universes of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. Our being asked to take the point of view of the young Norman also recalls the terror of innocence betrayed in Elem Klimov’s Come and See, the great and savage Russian film about World War II. But there is another genre of war movie that Fury also seeks to emulate, the buddy combat film, about a group of men forming friendships and testing their loyalty and honour, during the inhuman adversities of battle. I am thinking of films such as William Wellman’s Battleground or, more recently, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In the former films, war is hell and the all-too-human soldiers cannot be redeemed in their engagement in war’s folly. In the latter kind of movie, war remains hell but sacrifice of one’s self to one’s fellow soldiers allows for moral regeneration.
Ayer is best known as the writer on Training Day and the original The Fast and the Furious. He also scripted S.W.A.T. All these movies focus on the antagonisms of men involved in dangerous pursuits that require the breaking down of the antipathy and distrust between them. He has not always been served well by his directors but, just like Fury, Ayer’s previous films have a way of getting under your skin. He is gifted in quickly and elegantly essaying the difference in class, race and cultural background that men need to confront in life-and-death situations where they have to resolve seemingly insurmountable difference in order to work together effectively. In Fury he is also fortunate to have a cast that commits fully to working as an ensemble.
After Pitt’s lazy, and I think disastrous, cameo in 12 Years a Slave – the potency of his star power forcing us outside the world of that movie – in this film he reminded me of what a fine actor he can be. Though still in remarkable physical shape, he is persuasive as an older, damaged man who becomes a father figure to Lerman’s Norman. He also works splendidly with Shia LaBeouf’s Boyd Swan, an evangelical Christian member of the crew. Some of the dialogue between them towards the end is hardly credible, especially when Wardaddy reveals his knowledge of some of the more gnomic passages of the Hebrew Bible, but the two actors convey poignantly and unsentimentally the depth of filial respect they have for each other.
Even when questions of hierarchy and competition threaten the desperate camaraderie of the crew, the hard-won bond between the men remains genuine and unassailable. We are convinced that this group of men have endured years living together in the claustrophobic interior of a tank, that they have watched each other shit, and that they have watched each other piss their pants in fear. As a buddy combat film, Fury has genuine integrity.
But it wants to be more: it wants to cinematically represent the insanity of war. And the unfortunate reality is that Ayer lacks both the formal technical skills and the ruthless daring to succeed in such ambition. The amoral brutality of the men is revealed to be pretence. They may kill young German boys out of desperate fear but their deliberate executions are only of SS officers. They may seduce German women into fucking them for a candy bar or a pack of Lucky Strikes, but they don’t rape them. Ayer keeps pulling his punches, and the last 20 or so minutes of Fury are a disastrous negation of all that has gone before, the film indulging in gung-ho and, frankly, unbelievable heroics. It is a failure of sense as much as it is a failure of nerves, Ayer wanting us to believe that five US soldiers are a match for 200 crack SS troops.
The last great war movie I recall seeing is Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. I can’t resolve my feelings about that movie, a film that I think captures the intensity of what I imagine war is, but is also, I suspect, one of the few truly American fascist works of art. I understand that this is a controversial statement to make but it reminds me that both critics and audiences remain divided by the moral if not the aesthetic achievements of Apocalypse Now, of Cross of Iron and of Come and See. Ayer begins by suggesting he wants us to enter Hades, to refute the moral compass that distances us from the sublime ugliness of war. But then, by the end of the film, any questions of right and wrong, justice and inhumanity, bravery and cowardice are conventionally resolved. Watching Fury is harsh but satisfying. That it settles for satisfying is what makes it only a good movie, not a great movie.
• Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Lucy Culliton
Mosman Art Gallery, until November 30
• Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V
Sydney Opera House, until November 16
• British Film Festival
Nationally, from November 5-26
• London Symphony Orchestra
QPAC, November 22; Sydney Opera House, November 24-26; Arts Centre Melbourne, November 28
• PAX Aus 2014 Gaming Festival
Melbourne Convention Centre, until tomorrow
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 1, 2014 as "The art of war films". Subscribe here.