Author Note: I deviated from my standard formatting and added two sections: First is “History”, because I wanted to delve into WWII, second is “Writing”, where I discuss what writing merits and examples can be learned/emulated in this film, for all you writers out there.
I love war movies. Let’s start with that. In fact, I’m firing up Black Hawk Down at this very moment while I am writing this. And Gods and Generals is currently in my BlueRay player. Okay, let’s be honest, it’s my PS3. War movies hold a very special place in my heart: maybe it was the childhood sleep overs watching BraveHeart, the Patriot, and Gladiator. For me, War movies have drama, action, amazing conflicts, the human struggle and spirit. Heck, sometimes they even have a little romance in them. And a good war movie has a clear narrative to follow, and a protagonist to root for. Sometimes the narrative will have to resort to locating personal justice, and right and wrong, and often skirts the more global morality of the conflict or war. Sometimes our protagonist might not even be that good or great of a guy, but we want him to stay alive. And I think that is what I like about the newer breed of War movies. Right and Wrong, Good and Bad, these are often hard lines to draw and identify. But the ideas of personal sacrifice, heroism and courage, and loyalty and camaraderie are often resounding, even if they sometimes defy logic.
Fury is one of these new breed. Sure there are some aspects of propaganda going through the movie, but it keeps the thread of grittiness and realism intact throughout the narrative.
“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” -WarDaddy
And make no mistake, Fury is violent. And it doesn’t excuse it or try to glorify it either. In fact, a large chunk of the movie focuses on the protagonist’s struggle to come to terms with this grim truth. But I digress, before I start discussing the movie itself I want to discuss the military ramifications and historical background of Fury.
First off, Fury, specifically is an M4A2E8 Sherman Tank, but for the sake of using a simpler designation, a M4A2 Sherman. You should likewise recognize the naming convention from the famous M1A1 Abrams main battle tank which was used extensively in the Gulf War and Operation Dessert Storm, and is still in service today.
Named after American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, it is a medium tank whose line and development would lead directly to the creation of the MBT class, or main battle tank, which now dominates the armored battlefield (a battlefield, which by all accounts, seems to be a thing of the past). The development of medium class tank represented a drastic change American Armor Combat Doctrine that was upset by the development of Blitzkrieg style attacks and combined force attacks. The history of Fury, and medium tanks in general, are a result of violence.
Conventional armor doctrine post WW1 had four roles. Light tanks, Medium tanks, Heavy Tanks, and Tank Destroyers. This discounts the special Super Heavy tanks, which were never widespread nor practical in use. Light tanks were fast and supported heavy tanks by exploiting the breaks in enemy lines they were supposedly to create, and also provided reconnaissance to the tank group. Medium tanks provided infantry support. Heavy tanks provided fire, and were to penetrate the enemy lines by amassing force. All the 3 aforementioned tank classes were to avoid tank to tank combat at all cost, and instead a reserve force of Tank Destroyers were to seek out and hunt enemy armor on the field.
This proved to not be the case, and the roles were severely modified. Heavy tanks, to be the mighty hammer of Armored divisions, proved to be too slow to break through enemy lines, and instead were better defending stationary positions and supporting infantry and lighter tank classes. Their lack of mobility was their main weakness, exposed by the German’s ease of invading the Maginot line and the French defenses based on old WWI trench fighting philosophy.
The light tank, no longer supporting heavy tanks, proved too lightly armed and armored to deploy on their own. Anti tank crews could easily counter light tanks, Light tanks were often relegated to quick hit and run tactics, reconnaissance, or stripped of their armaments and used as glorified APCs, armored personnel carriers.
Tank Destroyers, meant to engage Heavy tanks in tank to tank combat, instead became snipers that would ambush enemy tanks and then retreat, having very limited capabilities to fight combined armed forces or fight on even footing with medium or heavy tanks.
The medium tank, then, became the unlikely star. In possessions of both good armor and high mobility, as well as some of the earliest gyroscopic stability systems, they were able to support infantry, gain battle field dominance over light tanks and thin skinned mechanized vehicles, engage in tank to tank combat, and even take on heavy tanks with the aid of tank destroyer units or more medium tanks. Medium tanks formed their own divisions, instead of being organic components of an Infantry division. This gave the latitude to maneuver at will and engage with or without the support of infantry as needed. The mismanagement of armor units was a prevalent in the beginning of WWII before this change, Infantry commanders not choosing tasks appropriate for the medium tank’s capabilities, forcing them to move at the speed of the slower infantry.
The doctrine developed for Medium tanks in WWII would be the predecessor of the Universal Tank, a medium tank that could fill all roles, and then finally the Main Battle Tank, which would upgrade the Universal Tank concept, but, with the aid of higher powered engines and lighter and more durable armor, inside the body of a heavy tank. The Sherman would begin the age of a Tank dominated battlefield, and it’s spiritual great-great-gransuccessor would bring the end of it.
“I started this war killing Germans in Africa. Then France. Then Belgium. Now I’m killing Germans in Germany. It will end, soon. But before it does, a lot more people gotta die” – Wardaddy
Returning to Fury and his ilk, we see Don “WarDaddy” Collier, a veteran of the 66th Armored Regiment. He is has seen it all, and has developed a strong hate for the SS. The story begins with WarDaddy’s platoon having been destroyed except for his Fury, and that barely operating. He is able to return to the forward operating base to rearm, repair, and then return to the fight. Fury, however, sustained one casualty, and will need to pick up a replacement. Enter our protagonist.
::As a side note, there is a reason that 4-6 tanks of 5 men each, (in descending order of rank) commander, gunner, driver, loader, and bow gunner count as a platoon. The rest of the men are supposed to be allocated as support to the tank company and battalion organically, and tank battalions would cross attach companies to joint mechanized infantry battalion for combined operations, but I digress.
Enter our protagonist Norman Ellison. Now, while Wardaddy is immensely the more interesting character, having Norman as the protagonist allows us to view the atrocities and grimness of war through his eyes, and not Don’s. We also get to feel the alienation and contempt of his crew mates, all veterans, all together since Africa.
Fury follows the formulaic story pattern of the FNG (the F—— New Guy) as he first must be faced with his inadequacy to fill his role, be initiated into the reality of the war around him, and then finally gain acceptance and even respect from his crew mates.
There is also a very conflicted (if not subtle) play on the ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, as is found in all movies. The end of WWII is rich with these conflicts, even without the use of the Holocaust as the backdrop: Hitler youth and the expanded conscription ages as Hitler became more desperate for men. Where to dray the line between German citizens and German war combatants. To visit the sin of the leader among the people.
Norman has his previous rules of right and wrong stripped before his very eyes, as a Hitler youth he refused to shoot (because he was just a boy) kill their platoon leader and the 4 men in his tank crew from an anti-tank weapon. Then when he kills a German in an act of mercy, because he is on fire from an HE (High Explosive) round. And then he learns that he enjoys killing, or at least killing to live.
The plot moves masterfully along, even spending time in a war torn German town to provide a quick respite from war to display the humane side (or inhumane) side of Fury’s crew. War movies have the advantage of being able to employ actual conflicts as focal points for plot conflicts and their resolution as plot advancement. Each battle proves more difficult then before, as Don’s platoon must face more daunting odds with less resources. The final “true” tank battle is tense and heartbreaking, and provides some of the best action in the movie, as well as showing some of authentic feeling tank mechanics, and also character competence. It also is one of my favorite character scenes.
The plot finalizes in a heroic conflict, outnumbered, out gunned, and also somewhat based on a true WWII incident (or several). Though cliche, it never losses it’s visceral and grim grip on the viewer. It is unforgiving till the end
“Best job I’ve ever had.” -Crew of Fury
I’ve already discussed at length Norman’s character arc under setting, and how colorful Brad Pitt’s Don is, but the rest of the crew also are a treat and are wonderful dimensional characters. Using very minimal interaction and dialogue, we immediately get the sense that Fury’s crew is a well oiled machine.
Shia LaBeouf’s Boyd “Bible” Swan as T5 (modern day rank, Specialist) Gunner, while controversial during the filming of the set, is spot on and heartfelt, and loyal to Don to a fault. Bonus: This Video.
Michael Pena’s Trini “Gordo” Garcia is colorful next to Norman, as the Corporal Driver. He provides a great counter point to Norman’s life dilemmas, seeing as they are only a chair away and have the same view of the battlefield. Pena has always been, to me, a very powerful actor. Yes, he can play a stereotypical Latino, but he is always better being subtle while breaking those stereotypes. Simply with sparse dialogue, body language, and emotive acting, we know that he looks at Norman and sees someone who will never replace a dear friend. Also, seeing him argue with Don about racism and culture is entertaining.
Jon Berthal’s Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis is polarizing as the Private First Class gunner’s assistant/mechanic/loader. His acting is intense, for sure, but for me seemed to lack direction. Intense for the sake of being intense. Don call’s him a rabid dog, but I know there should be more to this character than a foul mouthed, xenophobic, crass redneck, but either the script or the acting prevented that from coming across.
And they support the amazing performances of Both Brad Pitt’s Don, and Logan Lerman’s Norman. Logan Lerman starts of as a Private FNG typist who is trust into a war and a role he was never trained for. His performance is heartfelt and his horror and reluctance is believable. We see him go from the FNG to earn his call sign, “Machine”. Sincere and believable throughout.
And finally Brad Pitt’s Don “Wardaddy” Collier, as Staff Sargent tank commander steals the show. Some might say he is simply a toned down version Lt. Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds, but what we really get to see a dedicated and courageous soldier who has seen the horrors of war and understands them (unlike Bible) but has drawn a line where past which he will not let the war sully him (unlike Gordo and Coon-Ass). Through Pitt’s top class acting (which I believe is present in almost every role he plays) we see that he is a man who has desperately held on this his ideals despite the death and violence around him, and though he has been scarred by it, both physically (a visceral scene involving Don’s fire scars) and emotionally, he has not let it become him. We see that, he in fact cares for Norman, because he sees a younger, more innocent version of himself in the Private.
“This [referring to Fury] is home. It’s the only home know.” -Wardaddy
There are two takeaways for setting in this film. One is close of WWII Germany. The scenes of blood and desperate combat in muddy fields and brambly woods is broken up by scenes of serene and unblemished German country side and idyllic German towns. It’s not an unfamiliar setting, for those who watch many WWII movies and films (the amazing Saving Private Ryan and it’s spiritual TV successor, Band of Brothers) and is done effectively here.
The Second “setting” would be Fury herself. The movie does a great job displaying the claustrophobic confines of the M4A2 Sherman as a place of safety and refuge, a home. Much of the movie takes place within and about Fury, and the interplay of the characters within elevates the museum loaned tank as a character herself: Ben/Harry as the M4A2E8 “Fury”. You can feel almost tangible affection from the Tank crew, and rightly so. The tank feels so much like home, like a character, that I am nervous when the characters leave her, feel pain when other tanks damage her. Effective director of photography and directing.
“If you think it can’t get worse, it can. The killing’s not done. The dying’s not done.” – Wardaddy
So what can a student of writing take away from the film “Fury”? Lots. First off, it does hit the somewhat formulaic FNG war film. New guy gets thrust into a role he isn’t ready for. Veteran’s despise him/resent him. He must learn the rules of war the hard way, and then he gains his squad’s/platoon’s/company’s/wingman’s grudging respect. The format lends itself to awesome character development and conflict, using the backdrop of the military culture and theaters of war.
Also, the idea that a tank, ship, car, or spaceship can be a character. It is all about the way the other characters interact and speak of it/her/him. Also the vehicle in question must have personality. If you want to see another vehicle treated like a character, watch Joss Whedon’s cult favorite Firefly and Serenity
Another takeaway is the power of being part of a unit. Conflict fosters camaraderie, and nothing more so than being brothers in arms. Also, an easy way to increase a reader’s attachment/sympathy towards a someone or a group of someones is to show their professionalism and teamwork. By the time I saw them in their first battle, I was instantly attached to this crass yet professional tank crew.
Lastly, Fury plays with the contrast of the opposing ideals of Right and Wrong, versus Good and Bad. Morality, of course, is a tricky subject to write about. It’s too easy to get to preachy, and also easy to get too philosophical. Many authors and tv shows and movies often resort to the impromptu sermon: a character monologuing about the conflicts of morality around them, often standing still, sometimes in a prison cell (I’m looking at your Benedict Cumberatch and Star Trek Into Darkness), sometimes in a heated “argument” (Pretty much every episode of Gotham). Preaching often comes with a bad connotation, not because of the content of the sermon (though, Gotham, really? Your character dialogue is about as impactful as dirty dish soap) but rather the context and length. Think about the last time you had a friend or parent or sibling lecture you osn something you did wrong. Yes, it reads just like that. Take notes of Bible’s and Wardaddy’s subtle interactions on points of morality and the big reveal on Wardaddy’s character in the end. Also, when a character preaches about write and wrong, Norman’s pleas of “my hand’s are clean!”, it is appropriate to the context (he had just been forced to kill a man) and is effective and not overly dramatic (looking at you again, Gotham).
Fury is visceral from beginning to end. I don’t believe it glorifies violence or the atrocities of war, but attempts to realize it and put it in the context of the human struggles of the combatants of WWII. The directing is poignant, the writing effective, the visuals and score haunting. And the acting masterful. Though containing several minor historical and military inaccuracies, as well as being more an homage to a collection of historical events then one historical event in specific, the experience is still mostly authentic, and displays the directors respect for the time period and historical events. For War cinema enthusiasts, tank battle junkies, and Brad Pitt fanboys, this is a must see. For WWII romantics (I wholly put myself in this group) I put this on the shelf along side Enemy At The Gates, Flags of Our Fathers / Letters From Iwo Jima, and Saving Private Ryan, and give it a 5 out of 5 stars.