Just as this year’s London Film Festival opened with a film set during World War Two, so it closed with another. Directed by David Ayer, screenwriter for Training Day and director of End of Watch – and therefore no stranger to shaping the stories surrounding conflicted authorities – we are met with a band of brothers in the closing, final-push months of the Second World War. This little family of sorts includes leader of the pack Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt), scripture-quoting Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan (Shia LeBeouf), Latino recruit Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia (Michael Pena), and crude miscreant Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal). When the fifth member of their makeshift tank family is killed, they find him replaced by a young clerk, Norman Ellison (a fresh-faced Logan Lerman), woefully inexperienced in the ways of war.
Norman was drafted into the war primarily for administrative reasons, to offer his skills in typing sixty words per minute as and where needed. Desperate times, however, breed very desperate measures and with men dropping like flies all around them in the crucial deciding hours of total war, they need all the manpower they can get. Norman initially struggles to comprehend the things men do to each other in war and finds himself not only unable but unwilling to pull the trigger on their German foes. He scrambles to hold on to his innocence and humanity, but he finds little sympathy amongst these men who had theirs taken from them long ago and are now focused on trying to help each other survive. Slowly but surely, and a little bit forcibly, he becomes mentally aligned with his comrades, earning his own war nickname, ‘Machine’ in the process.
Historical touches and references, such as women and children being drafted as German soldiers or the callous hanging for cowardice of those who refused, inject sincere human trauma into the film. Moreover, a pivotal scene where Wardaddy and Norman enter the flat of two young women after successfully taking over a small town where Nazis had been hiding allow us a glimpse of the potential of these soldiers to exist as ordinary men. Their attempt to sit down for a meal together is not so much disrupted as completely destroyed by the rude interruption of the rest of the crew who cannot help bringing lewd behaviour, recollections of the horrors they have experienced and reminders of the suffering they are yet bear to this bizarre momentary attempt at domestic bliss.
It is a film of mud, blood, death, constant threat and the cramped confines of the Sherman tank they call home with the word ‘Fury’ indignantly scrawled across the gun, elevated by a charged and dramatic score by Academy Award winning composer Steven Price (last seen lending his musical efforts to Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity). The only shred of comfort they really find is in each other. There seems a pointlessness to their final mission, doomed by the inevitability of failure but, if the earlier scenes proved anything, it is that normal and content domestic life has by then alluded them – Ayer literally blows a hole in it. Since war has become them, it was perhaps also always meant to consume them.Bold, graphic and aggressive, Fury has all the makings of a great war film and these elements make their presence felt. However, whilst it is brilliant in many aspects, as a package it is not entirely spectacular and much of this well-recognised historical topic feels a bit too familiar. It does not set events up in a way that allows you to be emotionally invested enough in the characters to be significantly moved by their fates. Certain deaths are sad, but from a distant, unconnected perspective; you don’t necessarily feel despairing when people die, you’re just aware it’s supposed to be. Furthermore, the ending is somewhat emotionally unsatisfying. If it is meant to convince you of the pointlessness of war and the prevailing fight for the man standing next to you over everything else, then in this it does achieve this but at the expense of a conclusion that could be anchored by a bit more purpose.
All this is, however, is considerably made up for by engaging dialogue between our comrades and engrossing battle scenes. It may at times be weighed down by the familiarity of its theme, or maybe just our expectations of it to be able to avoid being caught out by this, but the final result could be said to transcend this flaw. Coupled with Ayer’s authentic touches and the carving of a narrative path that is particular in the way it exclusively explores the tail end of the war and focuses on habitation and survival in the innards of a Sherman tank amidst the mortification of death around them, it secures the standing of a war movie that is both colossal and gripping.
Fury was screened at the 58th BFI London Film Festival. It is on general release now.