Without reservation, Fury is among the best World War 2 movies made in recent memory. It’s beautifully shot, smartly written, emotionally resonant, and filled with nuance. It’s also a part of the war we don’t often see, following the crew of the tank Fury in the waning days of the the German Reich.
But there’s a major flaw with the movie, and that’s that thematically it’s story falls apart in the third act. Specifically, the final battle where the crew of Fury, after having had their tank immobilized by a landmine decide that instead of retreating to safety to instead go down heroically holding off a battalion of SS troops from slaughtering an undefended camp. It’s one of the best actions scenes I’ve seen in a long time, both beautiful and terrible, the SS soldiers throwing themselves against the crippled tank like ants swarming a rock, and emotionally powerful in a way most action scenes simply aren’t.
But it’s also the scene where the story falls apart, an easy way out of an otherwise complicated story, and one that ignores and leaves a lot of the more interesting ideas the movie had brought up to that point by the wayside, unresolved and without a proper resolution.
To understand why the final battle doesn’t work from a thematic point of view, we have to go back to earlier in the film. The underlying theme of Fury is how even fighting on the right side of a war forces soldiers to strip themselves of their humanity. It’s a movie that repeatedly hammers home the unglamorous and unheroic nature of war.
Fury’s setting reflects this: as mentioned earlier, it’s set during the final months of the western theatre, after any hope of victory for the Germans is gone and it’s clear they’re doomed, but they won’t stop fighting. This isn’t the storming of the beach on Normandy or the liberation of France. German defeat is a foregone conclusion, but before that comes the killing of children and old men as the Third Reich throws everything they have at the Allies to delay the inevitable.
The main characters of Fury are also intentionally unheroic. The primary viewpoint character is Norman, a fresh recruit assigned to the tank, and through him the other bitter and battle fatigued, but close knit, crewmembers are introduced: Shia LaBeouf as Bible, the gunner; Michael Pena as Gordo, the driver; and Jon Bernthal as Grady, the loader. They’re ruled by Brad Pitt’s Wardaddy, the tank commander.
While Norman is the main character of the film, Wardaddy is really its central character and Fury is in many ways an extended character portrait. He’s a nuanced character, by turns ruthless and caring towards his crew, bully and parent, invulnerable and vulnerable. Early in the film he bullies Grady: later, once once out of sight, has a panic attack: and laters still forces Norman to murder a prisoner of war, then directly afterwards makes sure he’s getting enough food. That last scene is particularly interesting and gets to the main theme of the movie, of how you have to strip yourself of humanity to become a good soldier: while what Wardaddy does is horrific, it’s also almost parental.
It’s a fascinating portrait of Wardaddy as a character, and Brad Pitt is fantastic in the role. Through him and the rest of the tank crew, Fury gives an unflinching look at not just how ugly war is, but how ugly it turns even the nominal “good guys”.
A Moment of Normalcy
All of this is captured in a protracted sequence halfway through the film. In it, Wardaddy takes Norman with him to occupy the home of a pair of German. It’s a tense sequence: up to this point it’s been established how brutal a character Wardaddy can be, and the threat of rape clearly hangs in the air for both the characters and audience.
But instead of pursuing that, the scene goes in an unexpected, and more interesting direction, as it quickly becomes clear that what Wardaddy wants is to have a moment of normalcy amongst the brutality and butchery that his life has become. He has the women cook eggs he’s saved for a moment like this, shaves and washes his face, reads the newspaper. Norman plays the piano. It’s pleasant, homey, peaceful.
And then the war rudely pops the bubble of normalcy in the form of the rest of the tank crew. There’s a clear and jarring contrast between them and the pseudo household unit of Wardaddy, Norman, and the two German women. It also quickly becomes clear why Wardaddy took Norman with him instead of any of them. Of all the crew, Norman is the least tarnished, the most innocent, the one most like how he used to be. For all the camaraderie the tank crew share, there is a part of Wardaddy that wants to escape them, that resent himself and them for the humanity they’ve stripped from themselves.
Bible, Gordo, and Grady immediately grasp all of that, and resent it. They make themselves purposely in the way, pigs desecrating a house, Grady intimidating the German women and bucking up against Wardaddy’s authority, Gordo dragging Wardaddy back into the war by forcing him to acknowledge and remember the things he’s done and horrors he’s seen, what makes him one of them. It’s a tense and fascinating scene that doesn’t back away from the real ugliness of the characters, the situation, and the power dynamic involved.
Taken as a whole, it’s a scene that ends the second act of the film by bringing the hints and implications of the story up till that point to the fore. Specifically, that as much as Wardaddy needs Norman to become a soldier, to strip away his humanity in the same way he has stripped it from himself, he regrets having to do it. And that his harshness in commanding the tank is perhaps a necessary evil to keep the others in line.
Third Act Disappointment
How does the third act resolve these themes? These plotlines? Your guess is as good as anyone’s because after a brief battle with a panzer, the movie ends with a doomed last stand that’s positioned as unequivocally heroic. Fury is immobilized by a landmine, and the crew want to leave it behind and escape from a rapidly approaching German force, but Wardaddy says that he’s staying. And despite that they have no hope of coming out the other end alive, the crew decide to stay with him.
For a movie that’s been all about denying the characters the ability to be heroes fighting the good fight against an evil enemy, been a movie that’s all about complicating that premise, this last battle is a complete 180. There’s a noble cause: they’re all that stands between the Germans and a rear element of the army that will be otherwise slaughtered. And there’s a real enemy: a crack SS brigade to replace the young boys and old men they’ve been facing so far.
Fury’s a well made enough movie that this doesn’t feel jarring, and the battle itself is fantastic both visually and emotionally. But thematically it’s incomplete, has no real barring on the toll becoming an effective soldier has cost Wardaddy and what he’s stripped away from himself. If you’re feeling charitable, you could argue that the story does address it by positioning by positioning the final battle as redemptive: that here Wardaddy and the crew can wash away their sins and faults through the final heroic price of their lives. There’s even a line that Wardaddy says when he insists on staying that Fury is his home, and it’s possible to read from that that he knows he’ll never truly be able to go home, so he might as well make his death mean something.
The Easy Way Out
But even that’s an easy way out. At its core Fury isn’t a movie about the fear of death, but about the cost of killing. And so while it’s heart wrenching to see the tank crew give their lives one by one, it’s thematically incomplete: the questions of how much of your humanity you have to strip away in war left unanswered.
I don’t really know what a more thematically cohesive third act for Fury would look like. And on a certain level this is really the best that could be expected: Fury is after all a mainstream big budget movie, and so ending with a heroic, redemptive final battle is the only real place it could have gone. But it’s a shame. For all that I love that battle, it’s a sequence that hurts the story as a whole, an easy way out of a complicated situation. Complicated for the characters, for the writers, and for the viewers.