[Spoiler Alert: This article discusses the film “Fury,” including its conclusion.]
On March 25, 2003, my tank platoon had been in combat almost continuously for four days. Our entire squadron had driven through a linear ambush the night before that had lasted hours. No one had slept for more than a couple hours a day since we had crossed the border on the 19th. But we were not going to get rest that day – or the next few after it. As the worst sandstorm to hit Iraq in 80 years began to coat the sky and earth in a fine orange dust, we began isolating the city of An Najaf from the south and east. Our squadron moved east across the Euphrates River. My troop was tasked to secure a bridge and dam over 10 miles from the nearest friendly troops. Before darkness came, we received word that the Iraqi Medina Division had displaced from their defensive position on the south side of Baghdad to attack us and that they were going to do so with roughly 1000 vehicles. Their most likely objective was the bridge we were assigned to hold with nine tanks, sixteen Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and a section of M109s. Visibility was down to around 50 meters through the tank’s sights – it was somewhere around 10 meters without – and we were beginning to run low on fuel and small arms ammunition. The troops to our south were already in tough fights, so we would not have reinforcements.
Not even a week at war, some of it hard fighting with more close calls than I would have preferred, I found myself leading a platoon into a fight that we could not possibly win. I had faced death, but I never considered it might actually happen to me. But that evening, everyone around that bridge thought about it. I gave a situation report to my platoon over the radio, sat down in my seat, and sighed more heavily than I had ever sighed. Or ever would again. After five minutes of complete silence in our tank, I registered a pre-planned target with our fire support officer by reading off the coordinates to my own tank, so I could can in artillery and destroy my own position if we were overrun. There was nothing left to do but wait.
David Ayer’s ambling film “Fury” centers on a tank crew in Germany during the waning days of World War II. It is a visceral depiction of that war—somewhere along the lines “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers”—but without the tight plotline or lofty objectives. These two modern classics are framed by the important battles they portray, the moral righteousness of their mission, and the excellence of the men involved. The crew in Fury, the eponymous tank that provides the setting of most of the movie, has a more practical objective: their own survival. The towns that Fury’s crew fight in have no names. The only characters of importance outside of the tank are other soldiers who are either helping them survive (the other tank commanders in the platoon) or threatening their survival (such as Captain Waggoner, played by Jason Isaacs) by ordering them into difficult situations.
Cinematically and aesthetically, “Fury” is a very good movie. The battle scenes are quite realistic. Fury requires maintenance and her guns require ammunition. One enjoys the inside joke that the crew are members of the 2nd Armored Division (according to the sleeve patches), known as “Hell on Wheels “– a particularly aptly-named unit for this movie, the nickname not once mentioned during the movie. The pervading sense of claustrophobia would be recognized by any real-life tanker. Your tank protects you from so much, yet in an instant can become the cause of your death. As a former tank commander, I empathized with the movie’s tank commanders riding into battle with their heads poking out of the hatch. For those who have never been in combat, “Fury” comes as close as any movie in portraying the exchange of fire, the anticipation of action, and the boredom in between. And while blessedly short on one-liners, the crew’s motto of “Best job I’ve ever had” will likely become a de facto motto of the modern U.S. Army tank corps; it is a beautiful phrase that is ironically both true and not.
This movie is not without its flaws. The tanks are never spaced far enough apart, in order to better frame the shots. But four Sherman tanks would never assault a Tiger tank with 10 meters of space between when they had all the maneuver (and dispersion) space that the scene provided. “Fury” had scenes that were not value-added, such as the scene in the village with the two German women, the killing of a German prisoner in an American overcoat, and any scene with the ridiculous lieutenant, played by Xavier Samuel. Instead of being about the moral complexity of the war, viewers find themselves rooting against those evil Germans and blithely accepting – or even cheering – immoral acts committed by the Americans. The only truly unforgivable flaw, however, was the flatness of all the characters except Brad Pitt’s Don “Wardaddy” Collier. The other four members of the crew are caricatures of caricatures who never develop in any real depth, in spite of the excellent portrayals provided by the actors. They were written as if they were extras from some of the 1950s’ worst war movies.
Don Collier stands in stark contrast to these cartoons and this movie is about him. Sure, we must endure Brad Pitt topless, the awful “speak ‘Merican” scene, and the aforementioned shooting of the prisoner. In spite of these, Collier is among the most professional soldiers ever portrayed in any movie, the only other contender being Dick Winters in Band of Brothers. While his crew shouts, curses, and emotes, Collier remains calm through every engagement. He was serenity itself in the fight with the Tiger, maneuvering his tank and the platoon, instructing his gunner, and calming his men, all while facing imminent death. Despite the name of the tank and the film, this story is about anything but fury; Collier leads his tank and his platoon with calm, level-headed professionalism. He kills because he must, because that is his duty, not out of emotion. Intentional or not, this is a significant contribution to the war-movie genre: the only effective commanders I ever worked with became calmer the worse the situation got. All things equal, level heads win battles because they can see the problem and they can reason their men to victory. Emotion will get your men killed.
Beyond coolness under fire, “Fury” is about Collier’s developed sense of duty. Through to their final mission, he saw his duty as bringing himself and his men home. Nothing else mattered. But this changes in their final battle when he finally understands that there are more important issues at stake. When he learned of their predicament, he took a moment, but realized what he had to do. He did not force his men to join him, but accepted their help without any attempt to dissuade them. There was no melodramatic speech on the greatness of the cause. You can see that he understands that if he can hold off this SS battalion, his division’s trains will probably not be overrun. One does what one must. And so he leads his men to their own deaths toward this greater duty than themselves, without a sermon but with action. That is what “Fury” is about: recognizing what must be done and then doing it, consequences be damned.
You can see the moment when Collier realizes what he must do. Pitt, as Collier, turns his head to the side ever so slightly, takes a moment, and sighs. With that sigh, I was thrown back to An Najaf over eleven years ago because I had made exactly the same sound then. Fortunately for me and my men, we prepared ourselves for a battle that never occurred: the Air Force had a break in the weather and wreaked havoc on our enemy before he could reach us. Never before or since had I thought my own death imminent, but at that time, I knew it important to hold my ground because others were depending upon me. “Fury,” unlike any other war movie before, portrays duty as it should for a soldier. That one should do absolutely everything one can to preserve the lives of your men and women up until the point where your duty requires you to preserve other lives, other needs. It is the first cinematic portrayal of mission first, men always, and if for no other reason should be seen for this.
Jason Fritz is a senior editor at War on the Rocks. An Army veteran of the war in Iraq, he is a doctoral student in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University. Jason has consulted on and researched various elements of conflict policing over the past 5 years.