Over a month ago, Fury was released. I watched it just after opening weekend and again last week with a French soldier I met in Afghanistan. There’s a reason I waited before writing this followup; a real review had to capture the depth of meaning I had just witnessed. Simply writing about the cinematography or acting wouldn’t do the film justice.
Fury wasn’t just a movie. It was a lesson, a window into the American soul, and a direct path to some of my most intense wartime memories. The movie didn’t just take me back to Iraq and Afghanistan; oddly enough, it also took me to a movie theater in Prishtina, Kosovo, in late 2000.
That fall, Albanian friends took me to see a Kosovo-made movie titled Autumn of Roses. This was just a year after the NATO-led fight against Serbians to protect Albanians, and the air was still thick with the pain of war and ethnic cleansing. Autumn of Roses was the Albanian view of themselves and their enemies. While the Albanians were all perfect victims or perfect heroes, Serbs were the very archetype of evil. As a foreigner, I easily recognized the moviemaker’s appeal to cherished Albanian cultural myths. The mostly-Albanian audience, however, didn’t see what I saw. Some left the audience in tears, and I strongly suspect the movie reinforced their beliefs about both their own rightness and their enemy’s wrongness.
When I saw Fury the second time, I asked my French soldier buddy what he thought. He enthusiastically blurted, “It was very good!” Then he added, “But, it was, how you say, eh…”
I asked, “American?”
“Yes,” he nodded. “It was very American.”
Fury accomplished the same goals for American moviegoers as Autumn of Roses did for Albanians. Like the audience in Prishtina, I doubt most of us recognize the blatant appeal to American mythology. Every single American in Fury was a good guy. Sure, they might murder the occasional prisoner or ‘pressure’ German women into sex, but not without provocation. C’mon, the German soldier was wearing an American jacket, obviously he killed an innocent GI and deserved to be executed, right? That young woman wasn’t forced to have sex, she even smiled afterward. Right?
The American heroism canceled the moral failures anyway. At the end of the movie, nobody worries about the prisoner with a bullet in his back or the young German girl who understood she better take an American soldier to her bedroom. All we remember are five brave soldiers who chose to risk and almost certainly lose their lives to protect helpless doctors and supply clerks from the depraved SS. Fury is meant to show that such unbelievable dedication to comrades and country outweighs any minor crimes. At least, it shows that’s what we believe.
Even so, crime isn’t the movie’s focus. That focus is on the very real bravery, and horrible sacrifices, of the American troops who fought through Europe. Brad Pitt admirably portrayed that bravery and sacrifice in the form of Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier. When a German soldier yells “We will skin you alive!” during the furious final assault, an already-wounded Staff Sergeant Collier’s angry “Shut up and send me more pigs to kill!” response doesn’t just make Brad look courageous (and cool). It also calls forth heroic American last stands throughout history.
Collier reminds us of the Alamo defenders’ cannon fire in response to the Mexican demand for surrender. He reminds us of General MacAuliffe saying “Nuts” to Bastogne’s German attackers. He personifies the Marine who tapped the message “Send more Japs” shortly before Wake Island’s fall (a story more legend than fact). Wardaddy Collier is the valiant, never quit, scornful of death, slightly imperfect yet righteous American warrior we all wish we could be.
Collier is a myth. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe he exists. I accept the American soldier, warts and all. We’re far from perfect, but we’re far better than most. Staff Sergeant Collier could be a thousand real Marines and Soldiers I’ve known. They’re myths who walk among us.
But that mythical presentation of American manhood practically demands Hollywood exaggerations and failures. Fury, fortunately, contains fewer than most, and some are understandable. The Shermans in Fury usually move in unrealistic administrative mode: close together, with all guns forward instead of maintaining 360 security. However, from one brief experience I had as an extra for a TV show, I know that directors sometimes have to cram everyone together to make camera shots work. I also know that some of the Shermans in the movie were fake, since they sure as hell weren’t going to blow up real ones, and the turrets probably couldn’t traverse (in fact, I can’t recall a single turret moving other than Pitt’s). Hence, the tanks had to travel close together and turrets had to stay forward.
On the other hand, the director could have easily fixed the scene with the captured German soldier; Hollywood might figure out someday that when we capture a prisoner, we don’t stand in a circle pointing guns at him and each other. When three Shermans attack the Tiger tank, director David Ayer could have had them at least try to spread out and advance from different angles, like they would in real life. Then again, if only one of those was a real Sherman and the others couldn’t traverse their turrets, perhaps a straight assault was Ayer’s only option? Still, it would have been easy to throw in deep mud or tree stumps that restricted movement and forced the Shermans to make a suicidal, closely-grouped head-on charge.
And as for Brad Pitt diving off his tank to kill a German officer hand-to-hand…okay. I guess it doesn’t violate any laws of physics, but let’s face facts. We tankers aren’t known for our knife-fighting skills.
So Fury catered to American audiences, and had Hollywoodisms it may not have needed. Ordinarily that crap drives me insane; in my opinion unnecessary Hollywood nonsense killed Lone Survivor. So why did I hate Lone Survivor, yet love Fury?
I loved Fury because it’s a movie with two distinct levels. The Hollywood failures and compromises are only the upper, superficial level. The movie really happens on the lower, “crew” level. While the rest of the audience oohed and aahed over spectacular explosions and special effects, I was riveted by tiny details that seemed directly lifted from my own wartime experience
During the fight between Pitt’s Sherman and the German Tiger, the crew’s screamed interactions didn’t just remind me of intense peacetime tank training (I was never in a tank in combat). It reminded me of the real screams between me and my humvee’s gunner as I frantically tried to back out of the open in front of an Afghan village, while an APC with a dead driver burned nearby and rockets flashed past my door. When “Bible” tears down the coax machine gun and calmly announces “We have a ruptured case” in the middle of the chaotic, cataclysmic final battle, I was taken to a moment on a hilltop, lying flat and ignoring rounds zipping overhead while I put out a report on the radio; “I don’t care what’s going on around me. Right now I’m doing this.” Seeing Brad Pitt charge the .50 to clear a stoppage, just a quick yank on the charging handle that I’m sure few viewers noticed, put me back in my Humvee outside Najaf as a suspected car bomb sped toward us; one quick burst of fire, then I heard the horrible sound of my gunner clearing our M2 after it jammed. Bible’s laughter as he watched a chunk of German torso fly through the air brought back my and my comrades’ smiles as Apaches blasted trapped Taliban fighters. Wardaddy Collier’s quiet appeal to his men to face unwinnable odds rather than run to safety was like standing once again before a young captain, during a fight that didn’t turn out well for us. He had a difficult, dangerous task to fulfill, and wanted me to help. I asked if he wanted to wait for air support. He didn’t order me, didn’t scream, didn’t do anything except quietly say, “No, let’s do it now.” I was in the same situation as Fury’s crew; saying no to that captain, choosing personal safety over the mission, would have been unthinkable.
There were other moments. The crew’s endless sniping at each other, the infantry’s cockiness, the bored expressions on NCOs’ faces as a new lieutenant tried and failed to give orders. Along with probably a million other veterans, I saw my service reflected in each tiny slice of Fury’s life.
Fury disappointed some tactical purists. They don’t understand that the unfortunate mechanics of moviemaking sometimes demand compromise. Fury thrilled some lifelong civilians with its pretty colors, loud noises and shiny lights. Those civilians only got the upper, superficial level of the movie.
But at the lower, crew level, Fury touched guys like me who felt we were watching ourselves, in a different war. I think this movie was really for us. I hope we share my opinion about it.
Fury is one of the best American war movies of all time.
You can read Chris’s previous article about Fury – and why he loves being a tanker – right here.
Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris (seen here on patrol in Afghanistan) may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LIGHT writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley and Proof of Our Resolve. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog, Iron Mike Magazine, Kit Up! and Under the Radar. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.