Fury: The Mother of All Tank Movies
With the upcoming cinematic release of Fury this month, the war movie genre finally has a realistic, historically accurate, film focusing on tank crews and armored combat in World War II. It comes right after the 75th anniversary of the start of WWII, which began on Sept. 1, 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. The film was written and directed by David Ayer and stars Brad Pitt in the lead role as Staff Sergeant “Wardaddy,” a Sherman tank commander in the 2nd Armored Division.
Filmed in England, the movie takes us to the last days of World War II, when American, British and Russian forces had put nearly all of Germany’s tanks out of commission, and the Nazis had to call up their elderly men and teenage boys to defend the homeland. e wear of war is reflected in Pitt’s battle-hardened character, who’s been riding in a tank since North Africa, and contrasts sharply with his fresh-fromthe-cornfields driver, which is particularly revealed when their armored vehicle is blasted out of its tracks. Yeah, we all know how the war ends, but this film takes us along for a more realistic ride than most other recreations of the European theater.
Pitt’s character is a bit reminiscent of the role he played as a soldier in Inglourious Basterds, which also took place during WWII. He takes his five-man crew behind enemy lines, where they are outnumbered and outgunned. Yet he is determined to succeed in the deadly mission. “I started this war killing Germans in Africa. Now I’m killing Germans in Germany. I promised my crew a long time ago that I’d keep them alive,” he pledges.
Since Saving Private Ryan premiered in 1998, we’ve had several movie and cable television productions realistically portraying the violence, blood and gore of infantry and air combat that give the viewer a real sense of the mortal terror of battle. By doing better showing how it really was, they have honored the sacrifices of the real participants. at is not to say that some earlier films were not excellent and realistic. One that leaps to mind is the superb 1949 film Twelve O’Clock High starring Gregory Peck, which is frequently studied in our military training academies to this day. However, most of the older films simply couldn’t recreate how it really was because of the technical limitations of filmmaking and special effects, and viewer tastes.
I should qualify the term “historically accurate” lest someone call me out on it after Fury opens. I haven’t seen it yet, and since Hollywood usually sacrifices some historical accuracy for the sake of story, I’m expecting some artistic license in terms of plot. However, that didn’t make e Guns of Navarone, Saving Private Ryan or Inglourious Basterds any less great as entertainment. What I mean by “historical accuracy” is the realistic look and feel of the film thanks to accurate rendition of the historical detail of the time and place. To achieve that, a filmmaker has to do a lot of things very close to right. at includes uniforms, equipment, tactics, haircuts, casting, and dialogue, to name just a few. Regardless of plot, the scenes in a historically well-rendered period film should transport us back to that time and place. When I saw the trailers for Fury, I was impressed. In addition to the technical details, it had a sweaty, soiled, muddy quality to it. I could almost smell
the BO in that cramped tank.
Fury is the first war film to feature a German Tiger I tank; this one came out of a British museum collection. Tigers were the most feared German tanks in World War II. e 75mm and 76mm guns on American Sherman tanks could only penetrate the Tiger’s frontal armor at point-blank range.
Thanks to the greater range of the considerably more powerful 88mm gun that the Tiger was armed with, it was hard for American tanks to get that close. If you were an American tanker in World War II, the Tiger was terror on tracks. When our tank crews defeated them in battle, it was usually by attacking with superior numbers and outmaneuvering them to get a shot at the Tiger’s thinner armor on the sides and rear of the vehicle. In order for an American tank to get around the side or rear, other tanks had to keep the Tiger’s attention. Attention of an 88mm gun is not the kind you want. In short, somebody was very likely to get killed. Virtually all war movies suffer to some degree from a lack of enemy equipment. Nowhere is this more apparent when attempting to portray German armored forces of World War II. e fact is, American air power, and to a much lesser degree American armor, did excellent work in destroying German tanks on the battlefield. As a result, there weren’t many running enemy tanks around after the war.
Disappointingly, the blockbuster movies Battle of the Bulge and Patton had the Nazis fighting our boys in gray-painted American tanks emblazoned with German crosses. With their budgets they could have done better. ere were far more vintage World War II German tanks in existence then. In fact, many were still on the battlefields where they were knocked out as late as the early 1970s! Fury has outdone all its processors by bringing a real German tank to the cinematic battlefield.
I hope the Tiger I isn’t the only real German tank in the film. It was fortunate for the Allies that the Germans never had many Tigers, because American tank crews faced enough dangers fighting their more common adversaries. Because the Sherman sacrificed armor for speed, it was more vulnerable to penetrating hits. ere is one incredible scene in the Fury trailer where an older model Sherman is hit, resulting in the instant detonation of its ammunition supply. The huge explosion blows the turret, as well as the three crewman in it, right off the hull and into the air. Though the Sherman was respected by the Germans, it got nicknamed “Ronson” by its crews because of its tendency to burn when hit. This problem was largely corrected with the later models by stowing the ammunition in lockers surrounded by liquid. By 1945, most of the old Shermans had been replaced by improved models, of which Fury, Brad Pitt’s tank, is one.
Another great detail that I noticed in the Fury trailer was the use of green tracer ammunition by the Germans. Tracer lights up a battlefield as they do in this movie. Americans commonly loaded their machine-gun belts with every fifth round a tracer. Seasoned soldiers knew that tracer was the harbinger of far more bullets invisible to the eye. Live ammo is almost never used on the movie set. In older films, when you saw tracer, it had been spliced in from real war footage. It was all black-and-white film then, so the final presentation could look quite convincing. The first time I recall seeing tracer rendered as a special effect was in the Vietnam War battle scenes in the 1994 film Forrest Gump, and it was striking. In Fury, it looks like they nailed it.
Tracer was very important on the battlefield for several reasons. Tank crews are nearly blind when they are buttoned up in their tanks. They had to peer out through little periscopes that could get dirty very fast. Tracer allowed them to better see where their shots were hitting. In the case of the Sherman tank’s bow gunner (referred to as a BOG at the time), situated in the front hull next to the driver, tracer was the only means by which he could sight his machine gun. Tracer also reveals the approximate origin of the shooter and their direction of fire. If you wanted to hit an enemy you could’nt see, fire toward the origin of his tracer. These observations alone have me tremendously excited to see what is certainly going to be the very best tank movie of the war genre. Fortunately, we still have some World War II tank veterans among us. It will be interesting to hear their assessments.
Written by Frank Jardim