Irony rides a pale horse. Where have all the Panzers gone? The architects of blitzkrieg have been reduced to legs and tails and hooves as Patton and Zhukov strangle the Thousand Year Reich. Oblivious to history the rider struts like a peacock on the moon picking his way between the silhouettes of Mark IVs, Panthers and Sherman tanks. They are dead machines littering the Luna surface, surreal and burning like Ronson Lighters, like images from Elem Klimov’s “Come and See,” the greatest war film ever made. Brad Pitt’s new film “Fury” gives Klimov a run for his money, though.
“Armour and movement are only two of the combat characteristics of the tank weapon; the third and the most important is fire-power,” Heinz Guderian wrote in “Panzer Leader.” Yet tanks aren’t robots destroying all before them, as they remain impervious to all the dangers of the battlefield. Behind the bulkheads, rivets and armour plates beat the fleshy hearts of men, gasoline soaked snails waiting to be wrenched from their protective shells by the high velocity 88mm gun or the shaped Panzerfaust, burned alive as their ammunition cooks off, screams lost inside a metal coffin.
The Russians favoured short, squat tankers, men who could operate in that dangerous space unhindered. The denizen that launches forth from an American tank is a Hollywood giant, an iron box scarred and as hard as the vehicle he commands. His eyes are like gun sights as he pushes his knife into the skull of the rider, then into his brain and out the other side. Wardaddy knows death and how to sell it to the enemy. He’s been killing in Africa, France, Belgium and now Germany. Wardaddy has seen too much, perpetrated too many war crimes to be a direct descendent of Sgt Guffy or Oddball.
When Wardaddy stares at those soulless German faces he sees himself, a civilian mind wiped blank by grinding fragile bodies deeper into the filth or splitting child soldiers into chunks with machine gun fire. To the rest of his crew he is Moses leading them to survival, parting the Red Sea of carnage so they can return home. His gunner Bible has a well of tears barely contained behind his scarlet eyes, the driver Gordo tries to keep up beat despite living in hell and Coon-Ass the mechanic is a red-neck stereotype that hardly deserves his place in such exalted, exhausted company.
Their tank is called “Fury” after the rage America felt at being dragged into another European war from the snug pleasures of isolationism. “Fury” after their assistant driver is pulverised into scraps of meat to be slopped into a bucket by his rookie replacement, typist Norman Ellison. “Every five rounds is a tracer,” Gordo tells him, and that’s what Norman is, our guiding light into their particular Hades. We see the maddening details of war through his virgin eyes just like we did through Upham’s in “Saving Private Ryan.” “I’m trained to type sixty words a minute not to machine gun dead bodies.” Before long Norman will know how to shoot 600 rounds per minute.
Above them hundreds of bombers carve their way through the sky to be met by a sprinkling of German fighters. Below this epic theatre anti-tank rounds incinerate heads in a split second and single monsters like the Tiger tank lay waste to a victorious army. Has their ever been a more gut churning depiction of tank on tank combat in the movies? “The Battle of the Bulge” was a fraud denounced by Eisenhower and “Kelly’s Heroes” is exciting without the dread that radiates from such a horrific weapon. Every shell that the Tiger fires at “Fury” could pop its turret twenty feet into the air; in contrast every shell fired from “Fury” hardly makes a dent in the Tiger’s armour. Every desperate tug at the steering levers, every barked order, every missed shot is like a hand to hand fight to the death and we’re right in there with Wardaddy and his greasy charges.
Ultimately “Fury’ is a last stand cliché but what did you expect from a director who wants to remake “The Wild Bunch?” But what a last stand David Ayer give us. A delirious opera of men who like “The Wild Bunch” could have survived but chose to die because they have no business living in a world without war. All that’s missing is a mournful serenade and a long walk to martyrdom. Their opponents are worthy, the most dazzling of movie bad guys, the Waffen SS; tiger stripped camouflage and blood group tattoos.
But did they know who exactly was in that tank? Brad Pitt chewing scenery as Wardaddy, Shia LaBeouf as Bible, stealing the movie like Telly Savalas always used to, Logan Lerman as the new guy Norman, Michael Pena reliable as Gordo and Jon Bernthal who should have watched “Tropic Thunder” before deciding on his approach to Coon-Ass. Every one of them calls “Fury,” “The best job I ever had,” but perhaps they should have listened closer to Patton’s speech to the Third Army. “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”