(Edited and reposted from October 14, 2015)
Father’s day is coming up. This will be the first one I experience with my child in my arms. My son, six months old, brings great joy as well as a mild terror. I love being a dad, but even good dads mess up. Are there sins my son will pick up from me? Are there tendencies that will hinder his spiritual growth that I will instill in him? This terror, thankfully, is not debilitating. It has lead me regularly to prayer. Asking God, my Heavenly Father, to instruct me and train me, to teach me humility and grant me the presence of mind to notice my errors and establish a posture of repentance in my home. I also pray that my son will have many godly examples of masculinity. That coaches and teachers, family members and friends might be ordained to be in his life so that he learns the many faces of godly masculinity. So while I know I will be a primary influencer, I pray for God to send providential help as the years go by.
In eras past, much of the men would that instructed and trained others in masculinity were found in the military: fellow soldiers, commanding officers, platoon leaders. This is one of the themes of David Ayer’s 2014 film Fury, which stars Brad Pitt as a tank commander in the allied forces at the end of World War II.
The main character of the film is not Brad Pitt, though his role is quite obviously primary. Pitt plays the intense father figure Don “Wardaddy” Collier, a U.S. Army staff sergeant in charge of an M4 Sherman with a five man crew (himself included). His role as surrogate father is clear in his call sign and his feeling that he is tasked with teaching, training, and leading his men through the brutality of World War II—and to get them through it alive.
Spoilers beyond this point
Directed by Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch, and the forthcoming Suicide Squad) Fury promises to be an intense flesh and blood, fear and fallen kind of movie. In my opinion it both lives up such a promise and exceeds its Rotten Tomatoes rating. As with Training Day, Fury is the story about a novice—Norman Ellison played by Logan Lerman, who began his film career as one of Mel Gibson’s children in The Patriot and most recently played Ham in Noah with Russell Crowe—coming of age and being freed from his naïveté. In this process the hardened veterans (played by Shia Leboeuf, Michael Peña, and Jon Bernthal) at as the older brothers under Collier. The education Ellison receives oscillates between military training and moral corruption.
In comparison to Training Day—in which Denzel Washington’s Detective Alonzo Harris is a dirty narcotics officer in the LAPD who attempts to train, evaluate, and dirty Ethan Hawk’s Officer Jake Hoyt—Fury increases the intensity by flipping the script. In Training Day Harris is likable mentor until the tension is revealed and battle lines are drawn. Harris is dirty, but charismatic and personable. You want to like him, you may even tell yourself that law enforcement requires some dirty cops to get the job done; or that Harris is justified in some of his dealings as they are about surviving in the tough world of LAPD where police are underpaid and under appreciated. When it is all said and done, however, Harris and Hoyt are on opposite sides and Hoyt is in the right. Harris is likable, but he has blurred the lines between cop and criminal too far. Pitt’s Collier, on the other hand, is a forceful football coach taking on the duty to make sure Norman is ready for battle. In a hard to watch scene he forces Norman the Novice to shoot an unarmed Nazi prisoner against his will. Collier forces the Nazi to his knees and—when Norman offers his own life in place of the Nazi—he forces Norman to his knees, takes his hand molds it to the gun, and, then, with his hand over Norman’s Collier pulls the trigger. We are tempted to view Collier as abusive.
In that scene innocence is broken and the question that follows is “was that suppose to make a man out of me?” No one is happy about the execution—it is simply a perceived necessity, battle is a kill or be killed scenario and Norman needs to learn to kill or else put the rest of the crew in danger—Collier goes off to be alone (the second time we see him steal a moment away from his men to deal with his emotions), while the rest of the crew tell Norman of Collier’s two-sides (he’s bats*** crazy, but he is solid, he has kept his crew alive longer than any other tank crew has been together). Collier’s next move is telling, he comes up to the crew tells them to be ready in fifteen minutes and after a pause adds, “Norman get something to eat, I ain’t seen you eat all day.” He is brutal, but concerned. He is harsh, but only because it is perceived to be necessary to survive the forge of battle. To our surprise we find that Collier soften up as Norman becomes a hardened solider. In the climatic scene, when the tank has been immobilized by a mine and an SS battalion is closing in, it is Norman who is first to say that he will fight with Collier to hold a critical crossroad. Collier is significantly less likable than Harris, but in the end he is the better father figure. This is not the first time, Pitt has played a rough father figure. In Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life, Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien offers a less redeemed portrait.
The scene mentioned above plays out in a textbook fashion. Norman is on look out duty while the rest work on getting the tank up and running again. While out, Norman spots a 200-300 man SS battalion marching down the road. Collier’s orders are to hold the crossroads, so he decides that he must fight them off as long as possible. It is a fairly typical scene. One-by-one the soldiers come to terms with the reality of the situation and agree that dying bravely together is honorable. So they all bear the odds. In a sense, the scene shows that Norman has accepted the adoption into this rag-tag family and has made his peace with Collier’s original harshness. He will stay and fight too. Of course the others—Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), and Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña)—are emboldened by the courage of the new guy and they join. In that moment, Norman finds himself christened into the brotherhood as “Machine” the sign that he has passed initiation and become a man. But the question remains, what is the role of innocence and reality in fatherhood?
Here is my thought, a father’s job is to protect the innocence of his child. He guards them, but he also must be sure that when the time comes to release them into the world to be their own person, they have to be ready, in touch with reality. That is to say, not overly cold and pessimistic, nor should they be unbridled in their optimism and gullibility. As such we might understand that fatherhood is a balance of instruction about the world (what it is and how it ought to be, indicatives and imperatives for life) and protection from it.
Collier’s fatherhood of instruction means teaching to kill, facilitating a sexual liaison with a pretty German girl, and passing around what one assumes is a well aged bottle of whiskey. His fatherhood of protection is seen most clearly in the execution scene discussed above. Immediately proceeding that, Norman has failed to follow to orders because of his naïveté. The first order was to watch a forest line and make sure there were no Germans in there who could get a shot off at there vulnerable side. Norman spots one, but he is a young boy (13 or 14) so he hesitates as the boy fires an anti-tank rocket into the tank in front of them, killing the entire crew. Collier pulls Norman from the tank, drags him to a burning body, saying “you did that.” The next failure was less fatal, but Norman is instructed to shoot up the body of German soldiers lying on the ground, he refuses to shoot dead bodies, even when it is pointed out that they don’t know that they are indeed dead. What is to keep one from pretending, and then opening fire on the soldiers outside the tank. Collier orders the rest of the crew out, and then turns to Norman and tells him that he is getting in the way of his ability to keep his promise about getting his crew trough the war. This precipitates the execution Collier needs Norman to learn how to kill so that he can continue to protect the crew—Norman included.
At the films conclusion, the three crew members are dead, all that is left is Collier and Norman. The German’s are closing in. Collier has been shot and is bleeding out. But he can still protect Norman. He instructs Norman not to surrender, but to escape the tank through a hatch in the floor. Norman goes after two grenades have been dropped in next to the immobilized Collier. In Norman’s survival, Collier might have some vindication of his task. In the morning the allied forces make it to the road and find Norman alive albeit rattled.
It is hard to fault Collier for the harsh nature of his initial interactions with Norman. Obviously, it would be out of place in any other situation or for Norman’s actual father, but the reality of war might require some nuance. That said, the film poses interesting questions about faith and morality, especially as it relates to sex. For this purpose Shia LeBeouf’s character Boyd “Bible” Swan is an interesting foil. Consider Boyd and Norman’s first interaction in which Body peppers Norman with some ecclesial questions:
- Are you a praying man?
- What denomination are you? (Boyd correctly guesses mainline, read liberal, Episcopalian with a clear air of superiority that lets us know he must be a conservative of some stripe, probably baptist)
- Are you saved? (To which Norman responds that he has been baptized and Boyd corrects him—that’s not what I asked.)
A poor distinction, but we might say that Boyd has been compromised in his external character but not his internal virtue. Boyd has become as hard and mean as the rest of the crew, but he challenges their sexual comments about the German women, maintaining his doctrine that Jesus could save even Hitler. As two of the crew members seem to be rather promiscuous with German girls, Boyd sits reading his Bible, and Collier and Norman sneak off to, in essence, play house with a German women and her beautiful niece. Norman, in juxtaposition to Boyd, his resistant to killing and the harsh nature of war, not really giving in until they engage the Germans toward the end of the film. On the other hand, this “mainliner” jumps at a chance to hook up with a young German woman.
It is a scene that is touching and troubling simultaneously, we find another allusion to Collier’s role as the surrogate father. After the young woman puts the beauty of her voice on display while Norman plays the piano, Collier tells him to take her back to the bedroom. When the time finally comes to depart and continue the invasion, Norman is distraught trying to figure out how he might get in touch with her when his duty is done. I suppose this is to tell us that though he is willing to have sex (unlike Boyd), he is not willing to do so without feeling or emotion. His act flows from affection for the young woman.
The scenes that involve sexual references were interesting because of the way they establish the worldview divide. For Boyd, Collier can only be a fellow solider and a fatherly protector. Though there is deep affection for each other, there are limits to their relationship because Collier and Boyd disagree on worldview. Boyd’s fundamentalism will always keep the rest of the crew at distance. Norman will struggle to connect in spite of his liberalism allowing for metaphysical latitude because his theology requires a closer adherence to morality—his conscience must remain clean. That said, he can relate to Collier who reveals some knowledge of the Christian faith and who displays a code of ethics as well. He can, thus, be both a father and a peer to Norman. What Boyd needs, what he lacks, is a brother-in-Christ. Collier can act as his “Wardaddy” but he cannot be a true brother.
It is interesting to note, it has been reported that Brad Pitt and David Ayer (director) shared aspects of the Christian faith with Shia Leboeuf during the filming, which in tandem with Leboeuf’s method acting led him to become a Christian. Some in the secular media and Christian media have criticized Leboeuf, but he has defended his new found faith.
Fury gives us a glimpse at fatherhood and faith, brotherhood and battle. It is a good film, though not for the weak of stomach (blood and body parts abound). Sexual references are common though no sexuality is shown. Language may be an issue for some, but it is realistic to the period, by my historical research.
Thanks for reading,