The French film director François Truffaut believed there was no such thing as an anti-war film because “to show something is to ennoble it.” In the 50 years since Truffaut made that remark, Hollywood has churned out hundreds of war movies that have proven his point. David Ayer’s Fury, the latest in the war genre, is no exception, though it makes a valiant effort to show the soul-crushing ugliness of warfare.
Fury is set in last days of World War II, as the Allies invade Germany and attempt to snuff out what remains of the Nazis’ will to resist the inevitable. “It will end, soon,” Don “Wardaddy” Collier says, “But before it does, a lot more people have to die.”
Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) and the crewmembers of his tank, named Fury, have seen their share of death. As they film opens, they're the only tank in their battalion to have survived the most recent battle, in which they lost their assistant tank driver. His replacement is a recently enlisted Army typist named Norman Ellison. Norman has not only never seen combat, he’s never even seen the inside of a tank.
Norman is the proxy for the movie’s audience—and a symbolic proxy for America. In the beginning of the film Norman (like America) is a reluctant warrior, straining to keep a clear conscience. But as he experiences the evil and destruction of the enemy, he soon becomes (like America) a Nazi-killing machine.
While the “hero’s journey” symbolism is overly obvious, the film is nevertheless effective in portraying the realities of war. The dirt and grime and blood have caked over everything and seeped into each character, leaving a layer of crust over their humanity.
This perspective comes through most powerfully in the most tense and affecting scene, which, oddly enough, takes place in a dining room rather than on the battlefield. Wardaddy and Norman attempt to take a short reprieve into normalcy, but the other crewmembers won’t allow it. Like demons dragging a soul back into the pits of hell, three drunken crewman refuse to let their comrades even briefly forget the horrors they’ve endured.
Such casual cruelty reveals these men aren’t true friends. In the civilized world they would have nothing to do with one another. Yet they are bound together so strongly by their shared trauma that they would give their lives for one another. Fury displays more depth in that 10-minute scene than most war movies achieve in their entire running time.
When Fury is focused on such scenes of characterization, the film almost achieves a level of greatness. A prime example is the scenes that focus on Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf). Boyd is a committed, Bible-believing Christian. (He would have been, at that time, considered a fundamentalist, though today he’d pass for an evangelical.) Grilling Norman about his faith, Boyd asks if the new crewmembers is a “mainliner.” When Norman says he’s been baptized, another crew members responds, “That ain't what he asked you.”
It’s rare to find any film, much less a war movie, a supporting of such strong and enviable faith. It’s even more rare to see a range of characters display a type of biblical literacy that would, admittedly, have been more common in that era. Consider the following exchange prior to the heat of battle:
Boyd: Here's a Bible verse I think about sometimes. Many times. It goes: “And I heard the voice of Lord saying: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? And I said: Here am I, send me!”
Norman: [Mumbling] Send me.
Wardaddy: Book of Isaiah, chapter six.
Unfortunately, the last third of the film shifts gears and turns into a “last stand movie.” If you’ve seen any of these types—from Rio Bravo to 300—you can predict every move. The early parts of the film present an honest portrayal of combat, including the “good guys” committing a range of war crimes. But the last sections resorts to the fist-pumping, Nazi-killing heroics modern audiences have come to expect in films about the “Good War.”
If the film had ended on an earlier scene (possibly after a bombing when a particularly hardened crew member tells Norman, “That’s war”) it would have achieved greatness. Instead, it slides into an anticlimactic ending, making it merely a worthy addition to the war movie canon.
Still, Fury is worth seeing merely for its characters and the way it displays individual scenes of humanity. While it isn’t the great anti-war movie we’ve needed since World War II, the film’s portrayal of conscience and decency and heroism proves Truffaut was right: to show something is to ennoble it.