Unleashing the fury of WWII
IN THE first minutes of writer-director David Ayer's Fury, about American soldiers slogging through Europe in the final days of World War II, Brad Pitt, as the tanker Don Collier, slides his knife behind the eye of a German lieutenant.
"Piercing his brainpan with a CRACK," is how Ayer's screenplay describes the move. (In Dolby Digital sound, it will be a very loud crack). Pitt, our hero, then calmly wipes his blade clean on the German's uniform.
The Good War this is not.
In what promises to be one of the most daring studio movies in an awards season that will bring several World War II films, Ayer, Pitt and a band of producers backed by Sony Pictures Entertainment are poised to deliver what the popular culture has rarely seen.
That is, a relentlessly authentic portrayal - one stuntman was run through with a bayonet on the set - of the extremes endured, and inflicted, by Allied troops who entered Germany in the spring of 1945.
Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which also starred Pitt, was brutal but surreal. Few believed that a real-life counterpart to his blood-crazed Lieutenant Aldo Raine had collected Nazi scalps by the hundred.
The first 20 minutes of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan came much closer to what Ayer calls the war's "ground truth". But little in its portrayal of slaughter at Normandy hinted at what some American soldiers would do less than a year later in their final push to victory - yes, they executed prisoners and killed armed children.
Ayer, a studio writer (Training Day) and indie film director (End Of Watch), had been meditating for years on the Fury screenplay, but he wrote it in a burst about 18 months ago.
"It sort of exploded out," he said. "I wrote it for me."
The time also seemed right for an honest look at those who were fighting and dying in ferocious encounters even as the German surrender was imminent, he said.
"There is a lot of contemporary parallel here," Ayer said, referring to soldiers who confront death in Afghanistan, for instance, even as American engagement there is supposed to be ending.
Their problem is that of Pitt's character, known as Wardaddy, and the four tankers - portrayed by Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal - whom he has pledged to keep alive, Ayer said.
"Nobody wants to be the last man to die in the war."
In Ayer's story, the crew of a tank called Fury, one of about 10 real Shermans used in the film, have fought their way from Africa to Normandy, across the Rhine and into Germany.
Ragged, worried, and, in the case of Pena's Trini Garcia, almost always drunk, they can see the war's end. But they cannot quite reach it.
As the movie opens, they are preparing to scrape the remains of a headless buddy from the bow gunner's seat.
"I sure didn't keep him alive," Pitt mutters.
Much of what his Wardaddy does may shock viewers who have watched American soldiers behave brutally in Vietnam War films at least since Apocalypse Now, but have rarely seen ugliness in the heroes of World War II.
In his harsh initiation of a new gunner, Pitt's character crosses lines, both legal and moral.
Tthe film, which cost about US$80 million (S$100 million), was shot mainly in Britain. Access to tanks was a prime consideration. Vintage Shermans were more readily available there. Plus, the production was permitted to use a rare, working Tiger tank, lent by the Tank Museum in Bovington.
The fetish for authenticity extended to uniforms. Most were tailor made, and battered, to avoid falling back on rentals that might be familiar to those who had seen them in films stretching back to Battle Of The Bulge (1965), but which had little connection to the real tankers' weathered gear, or to the surprisingly sophisticated camouflage worn by the Germans.
According to Kevin Vance, a former member of the Navy Seals who consulted on the film and appears in it, the bayonet accident occurred when a combat scene got too real. An actor stabbed a stuntman, he explained, mistaken for a dummy lying on the ground.
"When you think about the upper chest and what that bayonet missed, it's pretty incredible," Mr Vance said. (The stuntman survived.)
The principal actors were considerably roughed up before filming began. Pushed by the military consultants, they spent a week on a bivouac in England - no shaves, no showers, no plumbing - learning to handle the grimy side of soldiering.
"Part of my job was to get them miserable, wet and tired," said Mr Vance, who supervised the boot camp.
The cast, Bernthal added, was pushed by Ayer to behave as if "this was the last movie you were ever going to make".