There have been a number of World War II movies made in the last several years, in no small part because the veterans are rapidly dying and it gets increasingly difficult to find eyewitness attestation. But few WWII movies are as impactful as “Fury,” because it brings it down the level of one tank crew on the battlefield.
We watch their blood, sweat and tears, their fear, their fury and their foibles, and even their random Scripture-quoting, and we realize once again that in “the greatest generation,” their stories are legion. It’s just that we’re hearing this particular one for the first time.
Of course, the other way to do World War II movies is to focus on the grand scale and have the viewer watch generals debate strategy. Not so here. We don’t even see any generals. In fact, we hardly see any officers at all. The tank crew is commanded by a sergeant called Wardaddy (Brad Pitt). He’s been with most of this crew since Africa; now they’re in Europe. They did lose one crewmember, and now they have a new recruit, whom they don’t accept easily. They all realize how much they rely on each other to stay alive. And the grizzled veterans are not yet sure they can count on this rookie when the bullets start flying. And he hasn’t helped matters by claiming that he’s a misplaced clerk/typist. Then again, they all started out as scared untested civilians, and they all realize that their survival has in part been due to their grit and determination and utter ruthlessness in combat. And the other part has been pure, sheer, dumb luck, which is bound to desert them sooner or later.
It’s April 1945. The Allies are pushing into Germany, the Russians from the east and the Brits and Americans from the west. The Nazis have long since lost the battle for air superiority and can only watch helplessly while whole flotillas of Allied bombers pulverize their now-defenseless cities. It’s gotten to the point where not only are all the roads clogged with refugees, their pitifully few possessions on their backs, but the new military recruits are now old men, women and children. Anybody who can lift a rifle, point it and shoot.
Of course, that also means that our pragmatic Americans can do nothing other than fire back, no matter who they’re facing, because if they don’t shoot first and ask questions later, they won’t be around to be the ones asking the questions. This crew has been in such close quarters for so long that they occasionally get a little slaphappy. Sometimes maudlin. Eerily prescient. Unashamedly affectionate. Ribald. Ornery. Alternately barking at each other and quietly brooding. And yes, angry toward the Germans who keep taking them out, enough to want to take them all out. Even the ones with their hands up.
But occasionally the war-weary soldiers also want to demonstrate to each other that they haven’t become complete animals. After taking over a town, the sergeant notices an attractive girl peeking out a window and takes the new recruit upstairs to meet someone who’s not a hooker and not being treated like a spoil of war. They put their guns down and eat together on a lace tablecloth. They tell quiet stories. They listen to classical music. They are now treating a couple of anonymous members of the opposite gender with deference and respect. For just a few glorious moments there, they feel almost civilized. But then the shells begin to fall among them again, and the war which won’t let them go continues to shape not only who they are, but who they cannot allow themselves to be.
This one makes you feel like you can smell the stale sweat and fresh fear inside the tank with them. Sherman was right. War is Hell. Especially inside the tank named after him.
Ronald P. Salfen is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.