‘Fury’ courageously resists glorifying war and violence

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In many cultures, the idea of a war hero as someone who is courageous, self-sacrificing and honorable has become glorified and commodified in the form of action figures, cartoons, books and movies. But in reality, the people who are hailed as heroes can be as cruel or as cowardly as their adversaries, just as the adversaries, in turn, can be as compassionate and courageous as their venerated counterparts. Director David Ayer sets “Fury” apart from other movies of the same genre through his depiction of a five-man tank squadron liberating Germany during the final dregs of World War II as humans rather than heroes.

The film opens with U.S. Army staff sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) climbing back into his tank, Fury, after killing a German officer. His tank unit has just suffered its first casualty in three years, and the effect on the crew is apparent in their tense interactions with one another: “This is your fault,” says Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) to Collier. Fury makes its way back to the American refugee camp, its tenants brandishing faces of despair and defeat instead of looks of triumph. War has not made these men better; it has worsened them.

At the camp, Collier learns his assistant driver’s replacement is Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), an eight-week recruit who had originally signed up for the army as a typist. As he cleans the blood, guts and grime within the tank, he mutters to himself, “This has to be a mistake.” After seeing Ellison retch upon discovering the facial remnants of his predecessor, there are no qualms about the truth to this statement; he is a child who has suddenly been thrust into an environment that seems better suited for monsters rather than men.

Collier, in an effort to make Ellison a competent soldier, forces the quivering recruit to shoot a captured Nazi in the back, and at this moment, the meaning behind his nickname “Wardaddy” becomes clear. He is a father figure to younger soldiers — not just because of his experience and wisdom, but also because of his ability to mold them into his own morally compromising and desensitized image.

Ayer’s visceral cinematography simultaneously engages and disgusts the viewer: Buckets of blood are being thrown into trenches, people are ripped apart by tank missiles, bodies are being driven by the dozen to mass graves. But the most fascinating thing about this is the brevity with which these events are shown; to a soldier, this is life. They have become accustomed and numb to death to the point where these scenes are commonplace and warrant little more than a glance.

The film’s battle scenes are fantastically shot, and although there are many throughout the film, they do not become redundant or mindless. Ayer adeptly depicts the human drama within the tank: the hesitation to kill a child soldier, the joy of mowing down line after line of enemy Krauts, the pain of seeing a comrade-in-arms alive one moment and dead the next.

But “Fury” is not without its flaws. Pitt’s initial portrayal of Collier as someone level-headed who also takes pride in being able to keep his crew alive for so long seems to contradict the Collier at the end of the movie who instead decides to lead his unit into what seems like a suicide mission. Despite Ayer’s attempts to differentiate “Fury” from other war films, he doesn’t seem to be reluctant in allowing “Fury” to fall into the same uninspired tropes of brotherhood and never surrendering.

Ayer uses “Fury” to show audiences that war is not something to be glorified or admired; it is a time when people must throw away the values that they have learned in order to survive. War is the violent culmination of fear, hatred and anger that indiscriminately destroys the lives of its participants — and not necessarily by killing them.

“Fury” is playing at California Theater.

Contact Josh Gu at [email protected].