Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

An Army officer watches ‘Fury,’ comes away thinking about Sherman tank crew

By “Hunters“ Best Defense movie reviewer The mission of armor is to “to close with and destroy the enemy by fire, maneuver, and shock effect.” The new war movie Fury captured the box office last weekend. The grim World War II film tracks the eponymous M4 Sherman tank and crew, which have been together since ...

By "Hunters"

Best Defense movie reviewer

The mission of armor is to "to close with and destroy the enemy by fire, maneuver, and shock effect."

By “Hunters

Best Defense movie reviewer

The mission of armor is to to close with and destroy the enemy by fire, maneuver, and shock effect.

The new war movie Fury captured the box office last weekend. The grim World War II film tracks the eponymous M4 Sherman tank and crew, which have been together since North Africa, as they attack Germany. Major plot points can be found in standard reviews. Instead, I’ll speak to the merits, and demerits, of the movie from a military perspective. Mild spoilers ahead.

The story revolves around Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier, a tank commander and platoon sergeant, played by Brad Pitt. Pitt called Collier “a real study in leadership,” which Pitt claims made him “a better father. ” Given that Collier is a particularly brutal fighter and taskmaster — who, at one point, physically forces a junior soldier to commit a war crime — this declaration may be a little suspect, or at least worrisome. Even disregarding the war crime, I find Collier to be a merely serviceable leader. He was technically proficient, but tactically lacking. Collier also demonstrated more vices than virtues. Indeed, Pitt treads dangerously close to reprising his role as the over-the-top cartoon, Lieutenant Aldo Raine, from his previous WWII effort, Inglorious Basterds. Collier’s zeal for killing Nazis is also his undoing.

Pitt also declares that the film reveals the psychological trauma endured by soldiers. I also found this claim suspect. Only one brief scene shows Collier affected by the death and damage he sees and inflicts. Battle fatigue certainly doesn’t play a role as compared to Tom Hanks’s infantry captain, in Saving Private Ryan, who quaked throughout that film.

The remainder of the Fury crew is composed of disappointing war movie clichés.  The supporting crewmembers are straight from central casting, there’s the Bible-thumping gunner, the Latino driver, and the redneck loader. The other central character, the aforementioned junior soldier, is a greenhorn clerk redirected into tank service as the assistant gunner. He gets a swift, wide-eyed education in warfare while desperately trying to survive and integrate with his unwelcoming, veteran crewmates.

After some ruthless stage-setting scenes, the tank crew is attached to an infantry company and tasked to sequentially destroy anti-tank guns, capture a German town, and secure a key crossroad. Unfortunately, these episodes play out as meaty, but disjointed, action vignettes; they lack the connective tissue to make for an agreeable whole.

From a crew-level perspective the movie gets things mostly right. The crew fights their tank effectively through each harrowing encounter. During a pulse-quickening brawl, the film shows how overmatched Shermans were against a German Tiger tank. (Note: The Tiger tank in the film is the last operational one in the world. Seeing that vehicle in action is worth the price of admission alone).

Sadly, at the platoon-level, tactics are absent. Spacing between tanks is non-existent, and soldiers pay the price. They never learn from the repeated mistake. Several frontal assaults further demonstrate the movie-makers’ folly — though I concede it made for an exhilarating show.

I worry at Hollywood’s arms race to make increasingly gruesome films. It seems that Saving Private Ryan (’98) set off a chain reaction. It was followed by Black Hawk Down (2001), then We Were Soldiers (2002), and now Fury. Each movie reaches for more shocking violence and a more visceral audience reaction. Theatergoers were disturbed by Fury‘s decapitations, crushed bodies, and horror. Without question (as General Robert E. Lee said) war is terrible. Sometimes the audience should not be spared that fact. But I question if Fury‘s Tarantino-esque bloodshed serves the story or if it, merely, serves to titillate. The concluding battle in Fury is excessive and impractical as a result.

This final scene also demonstrates, by its absence, the importance of the tank-infantry team. There are plenty more nits to pick, but on the whole, the movie adequately displays the frightening power and dirty claustrophobia that comes from operating and belching fire from behind thick, steel, lumbering cover.

Until now the gold standard for tank films has been the sorely neglected Jason Patric feature The Beast  (also known as The Beast of War.) That hyper-real movie followed a Soviet crew fighting near Kandahar, Afghanistan in 1981. The commander in The Beast demonstrates an Ahab-like regard for his tank, equal to that demonstrated by Collier at the end of Fury. If you haven’t seen The Beast, do so — it’s also helpful to see the mujahedeen in a different light! Fury supplants The Beast as the movie that best illustrates what it is like to fight under armor.

In conclusion, Fury has plenty of fire and shock effect, but could use more maneuver — both literally and figuratively. Fury is by no means a great film, but it is good and entertaining. I recommend viewing the film at a theater because muddy tracks rumbling and main guns firing is best seen big and loud. On the way!

“Hunters,” a frequent commenter on Best Defense, is an Army Reserve Component colonel who has served in infantry, armor, and cavalry billets. His troopers once tried to give him the war name “Aragorn,” but he declined it, judging himself unworthy of that noble name. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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