At times, David Ayer's gripping tank drama brings us as close to an understanding of war as cinema can, says Robbie Collin
10 October 2014
A man on horseback emerges from a bank of blue-grey fog. The animal picks its way unhurriedly across the ground, which has been churned to muck by boots, tyres and bombs, while the man calmly surveys the scene.
It’s April 1945, in the heart of Nazi Germany, and only when the figure is almost upon us do we realise he’s wearing the stiff field tunic and peaked cap, emblazoned with an eagle badge, of a German SS officer. Then, suddenly, from behind the wreckage of a vehicle, something pounces – another man, quick and wiry, who knocks the officer from his mount, pins him to the ground, and sinks a knife into his eye socket. We see the attacker’s face. It’s Brad Pitt. This is our introduction to the good guy.
Fury is the new film from David Ayer, and the latest entry in the director’s ongoing study into the habits and habitats of the killer male. Previous instalments, such as End of Watch, Street Kings and Training Day (which he wrote for Antoine Fuqua), have mostly centred on the director’s birthplace of South Central Los Angeles, but even in the shift to Second World War-era Europe, Ayer’s theme – the scorched friendships that grow up around terror and death – remains the same.
Pitt plays Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, the commander of an M4 Sherman tank who, along with his four-man crew, is part of the final Allied push towards Berlin. The tank’s nickname, daubed in white along the barrel of its 76mm gun, is Fury, and the word hangs in the background of almost every scene like a never-changing stage direction.
As in Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977) and Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980), any Hollywood gloss has been scoured away: the plot is raw, episodic and wholly unsentimental; a gruelling onward rumble from one brush with death to the next.
“We don’t murder, we kill,” says Lee Marvin’s hard-bitten sergeant in Fuller’s film; and it’s a distinction Pitt’s character all but reiterates here.
“I started this war killing Germans in Africa, then I killed Germans in France, and now I’m killing Germans in Germany,” he tells Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), Fury’s driver and the team’s newest, youngest recruit. Ayer is interested in the way these men cope with killing, and plunges them into the kind of war that doesn’t get talked about during peacetime. There is no Private Ryan-like search-and-rescue mandate. It’s not clear that anyone here is worth saving.
Pitt’s performance has more in common with his stern, authoritarian father-figure in The Tree of Life than Inglourious Basterds’ gregarious Lt Aldo Raine: as well as Ellison, he has three more filthy mouthed young men (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal) to keep in line, and the group dynamic is more familial than friendlike.
After an astonishing set-piece battle, gripping in its sheer orderliness – three Shermans against Panzers and machine guns hunkered down in a thicket, with Pitt calmly barking orders into the radio – Wardaddy forces Ellison to shoot a captured SS officer in the back, pressing the pistol into his hands, wrenching the trigger back under his fingers, twisting his head so he sees the man’s body drop to the dirt.
“Do your job,” Wardaddy roars at him. And that’s how the men justify their actions to each other: “best job I ever had,” they tell each other, half-laughing, half-commiserating, after every skirmish and ambush.
In the down-time between battles, Ayer lets the quieter moments run. In an unbearably tense sequence, Wardaddy and Ellison break into a house in a bombed-out village after spotting a young woman at the window, and there is an unspoken understanding between the four that meat, drink and beds will be shared in the search for mutual comfort.
There’s no glory in this moment, but it feels strange enough to be truthful – another encounter those back home could never hope to understand. Ayer’s film, with its fearsome, steam-hammer power, brings us as close to that understanding as cinema can.
Fury is released on October 22 and closes the BFI London Film Festival on October 19. To watch our exclusive live coverage of the red carpet premiere, please click here