Tanks for Nothing
'Halloween approaches, and we could use something spooky for this week's issue,' quoth ye editor. Well, I always try to do my best to meet a brief, but given my general antipathy towards the modern American horror movie this has proven rather difficult. Spookiness I may not be able to offer, but I can do you some real-life horror, and a genuinely impressive film, in the form of David Ayer's Fury.
Ayer's movie is set during the death throes of the Second World War, at a time when any potential glamour and nobility the conflict may have had has long since dissipated, and all that remains is a bitter, grubby, futile bloodbath. Brad Pitt plays Don 'Wardaddy' Collier, a veteran soldier in the US Army, whose experiences across North Africa and Europe have made him a lethally effective tank commander with an obsessive hatred of the Nazis.
As the film opens, Collier's crew have taken a casualty, and the vacancy is filled by very green new recruit Norman (Logan Lerman), who has been trained as a clerk rather than a tank driver. Most of the first half of the film is devoted to showing us the reality of war through Norman's eyes, and a horribly grim reality it is too: practically the first job he is assigned is to scrape the remains of his predecessor out of his seat. The rest of the crew have become thoroughly brutalised by their experiences in the war – Fury is not a movie which makes any attempt to depict the American army as in any way heroic. Any German is a potential target, and in some ways the 'initiation' Norman receives from his comrades resembles the indoctrination suffered by child soldiers in more recent wars.
At the centre of this is Collier himself, who would no doubt argue that his own safety and that of the rest of the crew depends on Norman's ability to do what's necessary in the midst of battle. He is part mentor and part tormentor, slightly more than just another of the damaged bravos he commands. I must confess that in the past I have nearly always seen Brad Pitt as either an identikit leading man or just a pretty boy juvenile lead, but here his performance is genuinely impressive, and worthy of a film in which every moment, line, and shot seems well-judged to convey the sheer awfulness of the subject matter: the characters are in the midst of a pointless slaughter, and one in which they are personally in the most terrible danger. The script spells it out in a number of memorable lines: 'We're not here to do good. We're here to kill Germans,' Pitt states tersely, near the start, while later he is in a more philosophical mood: 'Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.' The Allies may be days away from an historic victory, but the Nazis are putting up a monumental fight, and their own armour massively outclasses the American tanks: one of the little-known historical facts Fury brings to light is that American tank losses outnumbered Nazi ones by a factor of about five, the brutal truth being that they were content to rely on their massive numerical advantage rather than invest in constructing a new main battle tank capable of taking on the German Tigers on an equal footing.
Perhaps bravely, in its first half the film is relatively light on action, choosing to concentrate on establishing the characters and atmosphere. This it does with a journey through a nightmare landscape: mobs of dispossessed civilians roaming fields, hanged 'traitors' on every telegraph pole, burning cities in the distance. Things have reached the point where liberated German women offering themselves to American soldiers has become a joyless ritual for both sides, but one which continues to be acted out nevertheless. One of Fury's most daring choices is to pause for what feels like ages in a supremely uncomfortable sequence in which Pitt and his men take advantage of the reluctant hospitality of two young German women. The performances of Logan Lerman and the other actors are also excellent, even – perhaps surprisingly – Shia LaBeouf, who has managed to claw second-billing from the more deserving Lerman.
Soon enough, though, Collier and his men are ordered back into action – their mission, to hold a strategic crossroads and protect the flank of the Allied advance on German. However, luck is not on their side, and they find themselves caught in the path of an advancing enemy column which massively outnumbers and outguns them – do they do their duty, or make a pragmatic withdrawal?
There aren't a great many surprises at this end of the film, but it's still thoroughly engrossing stuff, with a couple of absolutely exceptional battle scenes – the best of these is a close-quarters encounter between Pitt's Sherman and a German Tiger, the two tanks almost like roaring, wallowing steel beasts as they desperately struggle to bring their weapons to bear on each other. The combat sequences are gruelling, but also utterly convincing.
Once again, I am a little surprised that Fury has been released as early in the year as it has: this is not just a blood-and-thunder action movie – though it is supremely accomplished in this department – but one which takes pains to work as a serious drama and commentary on the effects of war: somewhere where even victors can also be victims. This is an excellent film.