As World War II teeters between history and myth, varnished by the notion of it being the “last good war,” there seems a fresh responsibility among storytellers to acknowledge that there really is no such thing as a good war. Not when war requires a kind of destruction that transcends the physical and leaves even the victorious deeply wounded. And while plenty of recent WWII movies have made sure to document war’s bleak moral cost, few have done it so well, or so viscerally, than Fury, a story that spares no detail in showing us what it really takes to claim victory in a world on fire.

It is April, 1945, and the Allies are pushing deep into Germany, where the Third Reich makes its desperate final stand.Those who have survived this far have become harrowed, hard, and far from their former selves. One such crew runs the Sherman tank Fury, a stout battlewagon that has blasted its way from the sands of Northern Africa through D-Day, and beyond. Commanded by Don “Wardaddy” Collier, Fury is at the vanguard of the 2nd Armored Division’s drive into Hitler’s heartland, but things get complicated when it must take on Pvt. Norman Ellison, as green a recruit as they come. As Ellison struggles to process the savagery of the war and his brutal treatment from unsympathetic tank mates, Fury is sent on a suicide mission to hold a vital crossroads even well behind enemy lines. When every hedgerow could hide panzerfaust ambush squads, when every meadow could become a killing field where Tiger tanks pounce, and when every town could be a deathtrap filled with innocent civilians, the war that Fury’s crew must win isn’t just against Germany’s remaining diehards. It’s against war’s own ability to scour a man’s soul down to nothing.

In its broadest strokes, Fury is the kind of simple war story that Hollywood used to churn out all the time decades ago: new recruit joins hardened combat unit, recruit undergoes harsh initiation, recruit proves himself to seasoned colleagues, recruit takes part in epic final battle. What makes this so different is how Fury shows us war at its least heroic. Passing tank treads squash dead bodies even further into the mud. Stunned civilians watch their world descend into oblivion. A burning tanker bails out of his flaming vehicle so he can promptly shoot himself in the head. Dead children hang as grim signposts to warn the enemy, and lie in fields with weapons still in hand. Death always comes suddenly, unannounced, and without mercy. Watching Fury, we get the sense that for these soldiers, war isn’t so much about fighting equally matched opponents, but about being both predator and prey—surviving situations where death comes unfairly just so they can be the one dispensing it later. Here, valor isn’t about battlefield heroics, glory is something you stopped believing in long ago, and victory is something for other people to appreciate.

We see this especially through the eyes of Private Ellison, whose late entry into the war leaves him utterly unprepared for it. Wardaddy swiftly decides that he can’t let Ellison’s softness jeopardize the rest of the crew, and so he brutalizes Ellison in an effort to fastback the instinct to survive and to kill into the boy. The process is not easy viewing, but the more we see Wardaddy run Ellison through his insane crash-course, the more we begin to understand why he does it. When you’re that far into Germany, having seen so much carnage and knowing how close you are to it all ending, maybe forcing a kid to shoot a prisoner in the back isn’t such a crazy idea if it’ll help not get the rest of the tank killed. It’s the kind of moral calculus that simply doesn’t compute in peacetime. But that’s war for you.

Along the way, Fury trades on exceptionally shot battle sequences, including some tense close-quarters combat with a seemingly invincible Tiger tank and an extended siege battle at the movie’s end. All of it is harsh and unrelenting, but so expertly done that we are compelled to keep watching, even when we know that the death that ensues won’t be a welcome sight. But things take an unexpected turn in the story’s middle act, in which the crew gets a brief respite from the war.

Having just taken a small town, the victorious American soldiers loot and drink and unwind, not quite brutalizing the locals, but surely making them wonder when these Americans are going to start getting out of hand. Wardaddy takes Ellison to a house where they meet a mother and her lovely young daughter. He arranges for a nice breakfast, and basically commands Ellison and the young girl to have sex. Ellison and the girl are naturally attracted to each other, their intimacy borne by the specter of sudden death as well as a need to relive an innocence that until recently had remained intact. For Wardaddy, the scene is the best kindness he has left to give to both young lovers, knowing that if the girl didn’t sleep with Ellison, she’d face invevitable abuse by some other soldier, perhaps even himself. This struggle between decency and brutality delivers the moment of truth, when the rest of Fury’s crew stumbles in and drunkenly terrorizes the two German women. Wardaddy’s efforts to stand them down lay bare just how frayed these men all are, and as we see Fury’s crew lay into their commander for giving Ellison special treatment, we see that they don’t hate the kid for not having suffered as they have suffered. They hate how he reminds them that they were innocent once too, and whether they survive or not is almost a moot point. The war has taken what it wants from them, and it will never give it back. When the Devil feeds, it chews with its mouth wide open.

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