Flawed narrative structure fells Fury

An hour of shooting stuff and then suddenly 20 minutes in this apartment. Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures.

Sometimes a movie doesn’t need a particular hook to look really, really good. Fury is just another war movie, but it looked better than that. It isn’t quite.

Lt. Aldo Raine Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) has lead his tank crew across Africa and Europe into the heart of Germany during World War II, killin’ gnatsees killing Germans as they go. At the start of the film, the tank crew has lost its first member, a gunner. They’re soon assigned Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a typist who has never seen a tank, as his replacement. The core of the movie is Wardaddy turning Ellison into a killer.

Fury is designed expressly to make the audience uncomfortable. The film is a portrait of a group of men who are so constantly close to death it no longer has any effect on them. Wardaddy’s primary goal is to keep his crew alive and he goes to great extremes to do this. The film, in turn, goes to great extremes to explain how particularly tall his task is.

The opening crawl states, and this is pretty much completely true, that German tanks outran and out gunned American tanks by a wide margin and U.S. armored divisions suffered heavy losses during the invasion. Tanks were a novelty item in World War I, and going into World War II, no one really knew how best to deploy them. The German army was designed to attack all at once, with infantry, air support and armor all on the front line together. But American M4 Shermans were meant to clean up after the battle and were designed primarily as anti-infantry weapons that left the tank killing to specialized infantry units. When they got into tank-tank battles, which were largely inevitable, the Shermans had neither the armor nor the firepower to keep up with their German counterparts.

The movie opens with this information, and continues with a tank battle sequence later in the movie. Each American shell glances off the Panzer, while each German shell that finds its mark splits a Sherman’s cannon from its treads. Through these and other ambush scenes, Fury does an incredible job of showing the audience why the characters are on the edge that they are and of putting the audience on that edge as well.

And so enters Ellison, a character who is not on edge. Ellison’s character arc mirrors and reinforces that of the audience. He goes from a civilized person who knows that there are wars out there and they need to be fought and won but, personally, is just too naturally merciful to fight them himself, to a killing machine who spends most of his time frantically firing his gun, screaming “Fucking Nazis!”

It isn’t a good look, and for the most part, the movie doesn’t treat it like a good look. Ellison is physically forced by Wardaddy to pull the trigger on his first kill in a very rapey sequence. His character arc of being made to kill and enjoy it could easily be transferred onto a movie about a slave or sex slave being broken and made to serve and enjoy it.

It’s a harrowing experience. Fury is exactly what you’d go to this movie expecting to see, but still a little difficult to prepare for.

Unfortunately, it comes undone during the later reaches. There’s an extended scene in a German resident’s apartment – and by extended, I mean after an hour of the setting changing every five to 10 minutes you’re suddenly spending 20 minutes in this apartment and nobody’s shooting anything. There’s a lot that goes on in the scene, but it would have been more effective elsewhere in the film.

World War II tank gunner Don Evans, who worked as a technical adviser for the film, said told the New York Times the movie exceeded even the gore he remembered from the war and he wasn’t looking forward to seeing it.

The climactic sequence, in which Fury’s crew holds a crossroads against 200-300 SS troops, is tactically insane. Ellison and the other gunner run out of ammunition because the crew stored ammo boxes for internally housed machine guns on the outside of the tank for some reason, and they are later hampered by their own smoke grenades.

The whole idea of the climax is also poorly drawn out – the movie opens talking about tank-tank battles and builds that rivalry by showing four Shermans get their lunch money taken by one Panzer. The obvious climax is to have three Panzers roll through the crossroads against Wardaddy and crew. Instead, it’s just a bunch of cannon fodder marching up to the cannon.

Worst of all is the movie’s unclear moral standing. Ellison becomes the beast Wardaddy wants him to be, but is rewarded for not being that beast. It’s spoiling the movie to explain properly, but the ending doesn’t jive with the direction the rest of the movie was going.

Fury is like a magnificent jigsaw puzzle that was put together wrong. All it would take is switching some scenes around to their proper place, but as released, the narrative structure is flawed and bound to leave a sour taste in viewers’ mouths, even if they’re not sure why.

Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and news editor for the NT Daily. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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