"The first casualty of war is innocence."
- Tagline, Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)
By Brian Lafferty
November 18, 2014 (San Diego) – In the 28 years since Platoon's release, its tagline quoted above has become more and more relevant in light of the world events that followed it. This includes, but is not limited to, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and Russia's invasion of the Ukraine. With the way things are going, it looks at this point like those are just for starters.
Yet a lot of modern day war movies emphasize the glory of war and maintain a rah-rah enthusiasm, particularly World War II movies. It's understandable, though. The Internet and social media have done nothing but amplify the horrors of world conflict. Why make them pay upwards of ten bucks a ticket for another dose of reality?
Because this particular movie, Fury (David Ayer, 2014) is as entertaining as it is dour, and is as thought provoking as any war movie I’ve seen.
Fury opens with titles spelling out the Germans' desperate attempts at victory by conscripting men, women, and children into fighting while employing advanced weaponry against the Allied forces. The film then introduces a team of soldiers commanded by Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt). His close-knit team includes Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LeBeouf), Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Peña), and Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal). Joining their group is clerk typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Having never seen battle, Ellison witnesses firsthand the horrors of the war while his team trudges along on a series of missions in their tank.
Along the way, heads are crushed and blown up, men burn in flames, and others die miserable deaths. Believe it or not, those images pale in comparison to the surprisingly nongraphic ones, which show no blood or mayhem, but are hard to unthink. Bodies of children dressed in German war attire are shot, their bodies sprawled on the ground, the camera lingering on them. The introductory titles mention that the Germans conscripted everybody to fight, and this included children. But I cannot imagine anyone being prepared for what will come later. Perhaps it's because of an unwritten rule about how children younger than a certain age are not supposed to die ( In one series of shots, the men pass by a village where they see the bodies of hanged German men, women, and children on full public display. It immediately conjures up a similar image of that in Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995). It is so unsettling that writing the last two sentences made me pause for almost a minute trying to get my thoughts together. Even now, I can feel my heart pounding and my head hurting a little bit. It's one of those things that give pause in the theater, but eerily creeps up before it hits like a shot to the chest.
Fury contains a startlingly unsettling character transformation, that of the green Ellison into a reluctant killer. After his reluctance in shooting German children soldiers results in casualties, Wardaddy takes drastic action. He physically holds down Ellison, puts a gun In his hand, and forces his finger to push the trigger and shoot a German in the back. This mentally scars him, but it turns out to be effective. However, when he does kill, he still doesn't have his heart in it. You can tell by the lack of conviction in his voice, which also reveals his subconscious disbelief of his own actions
Fury is Brad Pitt's second film that centers around his character leading a ragtag team in killing Nazis, the first being Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009). Unlike Lt. Aldo Raine, Wardaddy feels little joy or pleasure when killing Nazis. He describes at one point his war background, in which he saw from Africa to Germany. This certainly explains why he's so unapologetic and unafraid to shoot and kill anyone donning German war attire. It also furthers his credibility as an effective leader.
Also worth noting is Shia LaBeouf's performance. This is the first time I've been able to take Shia LaBeouf seriously. He no longer looks and acts like a teenage boy. He's at his best during the battle sequences. He displays strong self-discipline and doesn't overact even when his character and the others endure one deadly situation after another.
The tank battles are, of course, the highlight. Although slowly paced due to the fact that tanks do not move fast, they are still as intense as any fast-paced battle sequence seen in such movies as Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001), where combatants have more modern technology at their disposal. What brings these sequences in Fury to that level is the buildup of suspense and the feeling of being outmatched by an army that is suffering major losses. The Germans have a huge advantage with their more fortified tanks and advanced weaponry. That, combined with their defiant resilience, makes the Germans comparable to an annoying cockroach that won't die no matter how many times it's squished. Even when the American forces defeat them over and over, the price gets higher and higher, with heavy casualties. After a while, when the whole picture emerges, it becomes quite deflating.
The claustrophobic photography in the tank calls for many close ups. These close ups reveal a lot of emotion in the actors' faces, which in turn makes things up close and incredibly personal. During the battles, it gives a strong sense of what the characters face. Point of view shots of the outside via the periscope reveal how much precision is required by Bible when he fires artillery from the main gun.
It isn't any better outside the tank. The opening shot – that of a German soldier riding in through the fog before Wardaddy accosts him and slashes him to death – immediately establishes the air of depression and weariness brought on by the constantly present fog and gloom. There's not a single spot of bright sunlight, only blue and gray, a constant visual reminder of how depressing and morale-depleting this war has become despite the taste of victory being close.
In many ways, Fury resembles a Vietnam War movie more than it does a World War II one. It isn't anti-war; unlike the Vietnam War, the United States' involvement was and remains to this day a necessary one to ensure world stability, a fact that's made clear in this film from the get-go. What sets Fury apart from most World War II films, which often romanticize the war, is the reality check it imposes.
Fury is currently playing in wide release.
A Columbia Pictures release. Director: David Ayer. Screenplay: David Ayer. Original Music: Steven Price. Cinematography: Roman Vasyanov. Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia Labeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, and Scott Eastwood. Running Time: 134 minutes. Rated R.
Brian Lafferty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.