Fury: David Ayer’s War Movie Starring Brad Pitt

“I was a David Ayer fan from his previous work, especially End of Watch,” says Brad Pitt, who takes the lead role of Don “Wardaddy” Collier in David Ayer’s new WWII film, Fury.

“Knowing the depths he goes to for realism and authenticity, and his unique structure, I find him to be one of the standouts.  He’s also a vet, and from that firsthand experience, he has a wealth of knowledge on the subject that drew us all in.”

Fury is not your grandfather’s war movie,” says producer Bill Block, who packaged the film for QED before Columbia picked up the distribution rights.  “I don’t think we’ve seen the physical horror that the armored division went through.  Outmanned and outgunned, they only won through true, raw fighting.”

Male Bravery and Friendship

“No one writes about men at their most vulnerable the way David does,” says producer John Lesher, who previously teamed with Ayer on his acclaimed film End of Watch.  “In all of his films, I see some common themes: they are about brotherly love, friendship, fathers and sons, and some of these themes resonated quite heavily in this script.”

Fury takes place in late-war Germany, 1945.  “The war’s almost over and this dying elephant – the Nazi empire – is on its last legs,” Ayer explains.  “It’s a different world from your usual war movie, where we celebrate victorious campaigns like the invasion of the European continent, or D-Day, or the Battle of the Bulge, these famous battles that American troops have taken part in.  One of the forgotten time periods is this last gasp of the Nazi empire, with an American army that has been fighting for years and is on its last reserves of manpower.  The men are exhausted.  In World War II, you fought until you either won or died, or were grievously injured and got sent home.  The fanatical regime is collapsing, it’s a confusing environment where anyone can be the enemy – it’s incredibly taxing on the fighting man’s soul.”

It is into this environment that Ayer created the character of Don “Wardaddy” Collier, played by Brad Pitt.  “Wardaddy is the tank commander – his responsibility is keeping his men alive,” Pitt says.  “He’s responsible for their operations, their morale, and especially making sure that they are operating as a machine.  His calls are going to determine who walks away and who doesn’t.  But at the start of the film, they’ve lost one of their five members, and a new kid is thrown into our family.  It’s not just that he’s new, it’s not just that he has no tank experience – he’s actually a threat to our survival; if he can’t perform the whole crew is in danger and people will die.  He comes in with great innocence, and the question is, how do you raise a child in a day?  Wardaddy has to get him calloused and get him performing, to ensure the safety of others.”

Into Wardaddy’s platoon comes Norman Ellison, a young man woefully unprepared for war.  “He’s been trained to be a typist, but sent to the front lines in the 2nd Armored Division, to serve as an assistant driver.  He’s stunned and bewildered – he’s sure that there has got to be some mistake,” Lerman explains.  “Norman is there to fill the seat of a dead man, Red, who had served with the other four members of the crew, essentially since the beginning of the war.  He’s this young, innocent kid – the kind of kid that anybody would like to have as a son or little brother – but war is no place for a kid like that.  He’s going to have to change if he’s going to survive, and Wardaddy is going to show him how.”

Over the course of these 24 fateful hours, that training will be tested as the five men of the Fury – Wardaddy, the commander; Boyd Swan, the gunner; Grady Travis, the loader; Trini Garcia, the driver; and Norman, the assistant driver – take on 300 enemy German troops in a desperate battle for survival.

Intensity

The intensity of the screenplay that Ayer wrote for Fury has become his hallmark, but the movie, like his screenplays for Training Day, The Fast and the Furious, and other films, also demonstrates a deep connection between the characters.  “David’s movies are visceral and real, but they’re also deeply about brotherly love and friendship in the most extreme circumstances,” says Block.

In this film, Ayer has drawn a similarly complex relationship, as the bond that forms between the young Norman and the veteran Wardaddy forms the heart of the film.  “Norman is young and fresh and innocent, and that makes him endearing, but it’s also the problem he must overcome,” says Ayer.  “Wardaddy must break him of his innocence.”

“In a lot of ways, Norman is the son that Wardaddy never had,” Ayer continues.  “He mentors Norman, parents him, guides him to become an effective soldier.”

Ayer tells that complex story through a deceptively simple structure.  “The whole movie takes place in 24 hours, from dawn one morning to dawn the next day,” notes producer Ethan Smith.  “It’s very straightforward in its construction, but very eloquent and complicated in its storytelling.”

With his 2012 film End of Watch, Ayer garnered acclaim for a unique and provocative directorial style.  With Fury, he takes a new step in his career, says producer Bill Block.  “This is an evolution of David Ayer’s style, a more formal and beautifully filmed picture,” he says.  “Where in End of Watch, he created a docu-video style, this film is a period piece that maintains his signature – intense reality.”

“This is a distinctly David Ayer movie in the sense that it is a very authentic-looking war movie in its look and feel,” says producer Ethan Smith.  “David steeps himself in research and works closely with tactical and military advisors to get all the details right.  His directing process includes surrounding himself with the best people from various disciplines to ensure accuracy.”

Producer John Lesher says that the research pays off with characters and experiences that come to life on screen because they seem true to life.  “I was so fascinated,” says Lesher.  “And he said, ‘You should come to my office.’  I saw the extensive number of books and research and thought that he had put into this story.  I was duly impressed.”

At the same time, Lesher says, Ayer wrote a screenplay that was relatable and true to any generation.  “What I thought was so interesting and so compelling about this is that it felt very modern,” Lesher says.  “Yes, it’s about World War II, and all the specificity and all the authenticity and all the research that David did really comes to life in the script.  But it’s really about men at war.”

Kevin Vance, one of the military technical advisors on the film, says that the commitment to realism meant a commitment to a furious, visceral film unlike any WWII film that has come before.  “In most World War II movies, we have this association with ‘the good war’ – and it is,” he says.  “But over 60 million people died in World War II.  That’s a dichotomy that hasn’t been fully explored, and that’s what David demanded of this film.”

One way that the filmmakers were able to “get it right” was to enlist the aid of a number of veterans of the 2nd Armored Division who served during World War II.  “David is ferocious about authenticity,” says Pitt.  In order to make that authenticity happen for the crew, he relates, “he set us up with some beautiful experiences.  We got to meet several vets who were all in their 90s; they had survived D-Day landings, and the Battle of the Bulge… it was a very humbling experience to sit in their presence and listen to their stories.  They had very visceral descriptions of what it was like to be in the tank: the heat, the exhaust, it was oily, the smell of death was always in the air.  Most of them were undertrained, they were underequipped, they were dealing with incredible hardships and weather, lack of food, lack of sleep.  And they had to push on under the most harrowing of conditions.”

Meeting War Vets

Block, QED, and Pitt hosted a meeting for the main cast with WWII veterans, including those who could provide first-hand accounts of what it was like to operate a tank in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Four men in particular spoke to the actors, sharing their memories and experiences.

Donald Evans, who served in a reconnaissance company of the 66th Armor Regiment in the 2nd Armored Division, says he “didn’t know too much about the 2nd Armor” when he was assigned there.  “I don’t even know if I knew they were in Africa.”

Paul Andert lied about his age in 1940 to get into the army at age 17, and was a staff sergeant with the 41st Infantry in the 2nd Armored Division during the war.  “Patton became our division commander – he was strong in educating us,” he says.  He recalls Patton’s memorable words on the importance of each of us doing what we can to show leadership: “Patton says, ‘You don’t push spaghetti; you pull it’” – that is, as a leader, if you make a move, your men will follow.  Andert would remember these words again and again, in battle after battle.  “He put the fight in us – he put in the idea to get out there and move.  Don’t stay still.”

George Smilanich was a driver during the war, and he says that though each man had his assignment, “everyone on the crew could do anything the other guys could do.  We could rotate if we had to – if we lost somebody during a battle, one of the other crew members could step in and take over, whatever job it was.  We could drive a jeep, we could drive a halftrack, we could drive a tank.  It was like a big, happy family – if I wanted the assistant driver to take over, I’d trade places with him; if the gunner wanted to step out, the assistant driver would step behind the gun.  The commander gave the orders and told us what we should and shouldn’t do, but that’s how it was.  And when we lost somebody and somebody else came in, he joined right in.”

Ray Stewart was just 21 years old in the spring of 1945 – not unlike the character of young Norman Ellison in the film.  Assigned to a tank as a bow gunner, he says, “I had four guys in there who were trained by Patton, and I was the new guy.  I was going to try to do the best I could.  My tank commander at the time was trying me out.  The gunner eventually moved into his place; he became the platoon leader.  Of course, we had other guys that moved into his place.”

What’s it like being in a tank when the enemy is firing at you?  Despite inches of steel protecting you, it’s still just as harrowing as one would imagine.  “When they’re shooting those machine guns and it’s bouncing all around you, you’re feeling it in your armored car or your tank – just hearing it shakes you up,” says Evans.  “There’s nowhere to hide.”

After a tank gets knocked out, the crew is assigned a new vehicle.  What kind of guts does it take to get into the next tank?  Stewart shrugs.  “You just go and get in it,” he says.

The tankers’ memories come alive in Fury – for example, that every fifth bullet from the machine gun is a tracer; that there are so many tracers that the heat can melt the barrel; that the difference between outgoing and incoming artillery is the incoming’s telltale whistle; that the outgunned Sherman tanks could find ways to use their exceptional mobility against the Germans’ mighty Tiger tanks.  It’s these details that make the film feel true-to-life.

“Veteran accounts are hugely important, because they bring it to life,” says David Rae, one of the military technical advisors on the film.  “They give you the actual ground truth of how a crew fought through different theaters – through Normandy, North Africa, through the low countries, and finally to Germany, that final push.  They give you interesting stories that you can grab hold of and emotionally attach yourself to.”