War Boys

Nordfrankreich, Panzer VI (Tiger I)

War Boys

Robert Henderson has a tiger in his tank


Main cast:

Brad Pitt as US Army Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier

Shia LaBeouf as Technician Fifth Grade Boyd “Bible” Swan

Logan Lerman as Private Norman “Machine” Ellison

Michael Peña as Corporal Trini “Gordo” Garcia

Jon Bernthal as Private First Class Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis

Jason Isaacs as Capt. “Old Man” Waggoner

Director: David Ayer

“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell”, General William Tecumseh Sherman.

A director making a film about war should reflect Sherman’s simple truth that it is hell. Anything short of that is no more than cruel propaganda. Fury does fall short in the end, although it contains much that rings true.

It is Germany in April 1945. Staff Sergeant Don Wardaddy Collier (Brad Pitt) is captain of a Sherman tank nicknamed Fury. Collier and his crew of four of Swann, Garcia, Travis and Elllison (respectively played by LaBeouf, Peña, Berthnal and Lerman) are taking part in the snuffing out of the last desperate throw of Nazi Germany. All but Ellison have been with Collier fighting their way from North Africa to Germany.

Whatever pity there may have been in them has been leeched away by the brutality they have seen and the primal desire to stay alive, the latter fact made unusually pressing because Sherman tanks were no match for the German Tiger tanks and had a nasty reputation for going up in flames with little provocation. (The Allied troops satirically named them Ronsons after a popular lighter of the time which sold itself under the slogan “Lights up first time, every time”).

For an hour the film is just what a war film should be: full of the harsh dark humour of soldiers who live with fear as their constant companion, cruelly violent, horribly destructive of men and a sentimentality free zone.

Collier displays a Patton-like harshness to the new recruit Norman Ellison. He is a very young soldier who is replacing Fury’s newly killed assistant driver. He has zero experience of tanks, his previous role in the army being that of a clerk/typist. Why is he assigned to a tank? Because casualties make him Hobson’s choice.

Unsurprisingly Ellison’s is unfitted for the work not merely through inexperience but psychologically. His first task is to clean up the mess in the tank left by the dead man’s wounds. He vomits as he scrapes some flesh off his place in the tank. In his first taste of real warfare he fails to fire on Germans which results in another tank being destroyed. The commander of the tank falls out of the tank in a ball of flame and shoots himself in the head with his pistol to stop the agony.

Collier slaps Ellison around and tells him he has to learn to kill Germans or he is worse than useless. He forces Ellison to shoot a defenceless SS officer who has been captured, which Ellison does with the greatest reluctance and only with Collier holding Ellison’s finger over the trigger and forcing him to fire the gun. After a few more engagements Ellison gets the message: kill or be killed and even admits that he enjoys slaughtering Germans and becomes an accepted part of the tank crew, although he never quite seems to be at home in the tank as the other four crew members are unselfconsciously at home.

So far so good, but around the hour mark sentimentality crashes into the action. Collier and Ellison enter a German home and find a woman in her thirties and her niece. At first their meeting is all tension. Then Ellison sits down at a piano and starts playing music from some German sheet music. Unasked the niece comes across and sings the song which belongs to the music. Before you can say knife the niece and Ellison disappear into a bedroom from which they emerge later as instant sweethearts, having, it is implied, had sex. This implausible nonsense is thankfully cut short by further fighting in the town which results in the niece being killed. But the sentimental marker has been put down and stays with the film.

The final half hour or so is the plot of the Alamo adapted for World War 2. Fury hits a mine, sheds one of its tracks and is immobilised. Unable to move with the tank, the crew find themselves in the path of a group of SS soldiers several hundred in number. They are seen coming from a fair way off so tank crew have plenty of time to decide what to do. The sensible thing would be to retreat on foot. Collier orders his crew to get going whilst making it clear that he is staying to attack the column using the immobilised Sherman tank’s guns. In true Boy’s Own fashion the other four men agree to stay.

The tank then takes on the role of the fort in the Alamo. The SS soldiers arrive and the tank crew are able to spring a surprise attack. So far so realistic. We are then treated to some of the most preposterous battle scenes ever filmed. SS men keep popping up obligingly to be machined gunned, shot with small arms or obliterated by the tank’s cannon. For most of this action Collier is standing exposed on the top of the tank using its heavy machine gun. But this being Hollywood he does not get hit until all but the one of his tank crew (Ellison) have been killed. Then, incongruously, in view of his long exposure to the enemy without a sniper taking a pot shot at him, he is shot twice by guess who, a sniper.

With Collier wounded and now inside the tank, Ellison slips through an escape hatch in the bottom of the tank and hides underneath it. Collier is finally killed in the time honoured way infantry deal with tanks, namely, by climbing onto them, opening the command hatch, tossing a grenade in, closing the hatch and jumping off the tank before the grenade explodes. Ellison hides under the tank until the SS column has moved on, although not before a very young SS soldier sees him there but does not raise the alarm. Ellison is found in the morning by American troops and his survival is complete.

If the film ends disappointingly by relapsing into Hollywood vacuity, there is sufficient in it to make it watchable. The main actors all give strong performances. Pitt is convincing as a tough as teak tank commander; the LaBeouf character is one of those quietly competent people any group in a tight corner is glad to have with them, Peña is louder but just as reliable while Berthnal has something of the savage about him but nonetheless he is someone would be glad to have by your side when there is danger about. Lerman is the least likeable main character, not least because even when he has got over his reluctance to kill, he always appears to be on the edge of losing his nerve and in the context of the lives the tank crew are living his fear in some curious way seems to be a kind of disloyalty to the rest of the group.

The battle scenes are convincingly done apart from the final “Alamo” stand. The most intriguing sequence is of the Sherman Tank and a German Tiger tank performing a two dimensional dog fight, with the more manoeuvrable but inadequately armoured Sherman desperately trying to get behind the less agile but much superior in armour and gun-power Tiger to attack the Tiger’s one weak spot, the rear of the tank. Shades of the old fighter pilot’s tactic of getting above and behind an enemy before attacking.

You will not be bored by this film, but a much superior tank centred story is the Israeli film Lebanon (2009). This is set in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2002. The entire action is filmed from within the tank with any outside action being shot through the bombsight. The film gives you much more of the claustrophobic reality of being part of a tank crew. All the good things about Fury are there without the distraction of implausible battle scenes and unwonted sentimentality.

ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic

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1 Response to War Boys

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