I went recently to see Fury, the new film starring Brad Pitt, set in the penultimate month of WW2 in Europe and following the crew of a Sherman tank, the eponymous ‘Fury’, as they advance through Germany.
I was really looking forward to this film. I like war movies; Brad Pitt has made some really good films when he’s been given the right kind of role (Se7en, Fight Club); Shia LaBeouf was rumoured to be not terrible on this occasion; the director is the same guy who made the excellent Training Day; and the technical guys had done their research properly and had secured the use of the only working Tiger tank in the world. Oh, and hello to Jason Isaacs.
And by and large, I wasn’t disappointed. The bits of Fury that worked worked extremely well. The story follows Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman, most recently seen starring in the Percy Jackson series of childrens’ fantasy films), a clerk who has been in the army for all of eight weeks, as he replaces Fury’s co-driver and bow gunner, who has been splattered across the interior of the tank. Ellison’s first task, in fact, is to scrub down the seat in which he is to spend the remainder of the war.
Pitt, the sergeant commanding the tank and nicknamed ‘Wardaddy’, leads his group of four Shermans as they go to relieve American forces pinned down in a town they have just liberated. On the way, war happens, including an infantry-supported assault on anti-tank guns and an encounter with a vastly more powerful Tiger.
The technical bits of the film, like I say, work extremely well. A couple of comparisons are worth noting. To me (other opinions are available), the film at its best is reminiscent in tone to Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant Cross of Iron. It also has the most accurate tank battle I ever recall seeing. There are a lot of Shermans in A Bridge Too Far, for instance, but none of them ever looked as though they were doing anything more than providing movie-magic pyrotechnics. These tanks look as though they’re actually hammering lumps out of each other. They also – and this seems to be an obscure point to highlight, but bear with me – look as though they’re firing real tracer rounds, which criss-cross the screen like lasers from Star Wars. In fact the comparison with Star Wars rewards further scrutiny, because the last tank battle I remember seeing on a big screen is the finale to The Phantom Menace. That, too, is a film featuring armoured warfare but it’s clearly a children’s movie. Those tanks float over pristine green turf: these ones grind through the mud and over corpses and clatter and howl and batter through a landscape that must submit to them.
But for all that, the points at which this film falls down are precisely those points at which it does not acknowledge its own childishness. Although its nods towards real life and the real experiences of tank crews are very well done (one of the most gruesome – but accurate – scenes in the movie involves a Sherman, a tank notorious for carrying a lot of petrol in a relatively thinly-armoured hull, fully living up to its German nickname of ‘Tommy cooker’) it misses the most fundamental and oft-repeated recollection of the tankers whose memoirs I have read, which was that the job was mostly about ‘just getting on with it’. It might be grotesque or terrifying but you had no option but to get on with it. Fury on the other hand attempts to freight every moment with significance. At its worst it adopts a kind of ‘Boys Own’ stance that it tries to simultaneously endorse and deny. Inserting something like a love story (not a love story, exactly, but certainly something that owes more to This Means War than, say, Bad Lieutenant) into the middle of it seems like a bad idea (although the tension of the subsequent ‘dinner party’ offers the most suspense of any scene in the film); while the very end falls horribly into schmaltz of the worst kind.
Fury is half really good movie and half Hollywood nonsense. It’s great to see a war movie that looks this good: if only it had had the courage of its initial convictions and overcome its poe-faced desire to be A Movie About Something Important it might have been a good war movie. B+