The Death Drive Through the Lens of David Ayer in Fury
David Ayer’s war film Fury essentially explores the limits and resilience of the human psyche through a group of American tankers fighting in World War II. Media such as films (Fury, Inglourious Basterds, Saving Private Ryan), books (Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Burgin’s Islands of the Damned, Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage), and TV series (Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Generation Kill) which focus on war have expanded in varying degrees on ‘the psychic toll that soldiers experienced during the war, the impossibility of acting virtuously in the face of carnage, the realization that war is inherently violent, brutal, and without clearly demarcated boundaries of good and evil behaviour’ (Richardson, 2012). While Ayer’s main focus is the whole of the crew, his portrayal of Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier provides poignant insights into the human psyche, the trauma of war, and its consequences.
War has the capacity to pry open the darkest crevasses of men’s souls and expose them to unimaginable horrors. Sigmund Freud himself mentions shell-shock, a series of symptoms that soldiers experienced such as fatigue, tremors, confusion, nightmares, and flashbacks which are also known today as post-traumatic stress disorder, and speaks of trauma as early as 1920. Linked to Don’s aggression is Freud’s theory of death and life drives. Freud postulated that ‘both fundamental drives, Eros (essentially the life drive) and Thanatos (the death drive), are inherently in us from the moment of our entrance into this world’ (Timofei, 2019). The figure of Don presents to the spectators the duality of these drives.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud spoke of the life and death drives by stating that ‘any given process originates in an unpleasant state of tension and thereupon determines for itself such a path that its ultimate issue coincides with a relaxation of this tension’ (Freud, 1920). According to him, every psychic movement that is charged with pleasure must as well be charged with pain in order for an equilibrium to exist. When Freud spoke about the death drive, he postulated that it is ultimately ‘a tendency toward self-destruction, or the elimination of tension, which can also be turned outwards, whereby it becomes aggression’ (Oxford Reference, 2020).
This aggression is doubly present in the figure of Don, or Wardaddy. Firstly because the name his crew gives him is ‘Wardaddy’, which not only implies that he is comfortable enough with war so as to be familiar with it, but rather that he is the father of war, essentially the figure from which aggression emerges. Secondly, aggression is present when Don engages in warfare, picks personal fights with Nazi prisoners of war, and yells and treats his crew roughly.
As the film progresses, Don’s behaviour becomes reckless, suggesting that his death drive is increasing along with the tension of the film. Additionally, his recklessness presents itself as a cycle of repetition. For Freud, repetition was important when coping with a traumatic event. As critic Alenka Zupančič states, ‘in spite of its unpleasant character, anxiety is still a defence (against an even bigger displeasure); and the repetition providing this drastic defence is ultimately still in the service of the pleasure principle qua lowering of tension, it is a paradoxical extension of the pleasure principle itself. And so is the death drive’ (Zupančič, 2017).
As Don tries to cope with the war, the cycle of repetition becomes a way to contain the trauma he is experiencing. However, this is not the only mechanism Don uses to cope. In an uncharacteristic display of tenderness, Don encounters two women in a captured village and attempts to create a domestic scene. This scene appears to be the opposite of the death drive ,since death as an inorganic state is the opposite of the satisfaction that can be achieved through life. Through this attempt to recreate domesticity, Don seems to be negating his own death drive, however fleeting that negation might be.
Another postulation of the death drive comes from Lacan, who explained the death drive is present in every human drive and seeks the elimination of tension and ‘a natural desire to "re-establish a state of things that was disturbed by the emergence of life"’ (Felluga, 2011). The elimination of tension for Don could signify not only the end of the war but death, the absolute return to an undisturbed state.
Don's death drive is so strong after the horrors he has experienced that it negates the life drive he had been attempting to preserve earlier in the film in the short, pseudo domestic scene. Ayer chooses a crossroad, a place of transience, as the symbolic meeting place of Eros and Thanatos. The two drives converge within the figure of Don and he inevitably returns to an undisturbed state through death, appearing to convey the message that Thanatos will ultimately prevail when it clashes with Eros. Slowly, however, the cacophony of war dies down and silence brings with it a final message from Ayer, a small kernel of hope that lives on even after the film has ended. Norman, one of the members of the crew, crawls out from under the tank, dishevelled but alive. Thanatos has claimed Don, but there is hope for Eros, after all.
Felluga, D. (2011). Modules on Freud: Transference and Trauma. Introduction to Psychoanalysis. https://cla.purdue.edu/academic/english/theory/psychoanalysis/
Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The International Psycho-analitical Library No.4. https://www.libraryofsocialscience.com/assets/pdf/freud_beyond_the_pleasure_principle.pdf
Oxford Reference. (n.d.) Death-drive. In Oxford Reference. Retrieved May 16th 2022, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095704767
Richardson, M. (2012). “Vengeful violence: Inglourious Basterds, allohistory, and the inversion of victims and perpetrators.” In R. von Dassanowsky (Ed.), Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds: A Manipulation of Metacinema (pp. 93-112). Continuum.
Timofei, G. (2019). Eros and Thanatos: Freud’s two fundamental drives. Epoche Magazine. https://epochemagazine.org/eros-and-thanatos-freuds-two-fundamental-drives-50a82a11a389
Zupančič, A. (2017). The Death Drive. In B. Nedoh & A. Zevnik (Eds.), Lacan and Deleuze: A Disjunctive Synthesis (pp. 163-179). Edinburgh University Press.
Fury featuring 'Wardaddy' and Master Sergeant Parker. [Photograph]. (2014). Badger Herald. Retrieved from: https://badgerherald.com/artsetc/2014/10/28/average-wii-epic-fury-saved-by-its-gorgeous-cinematography/
Fury [Photograph]. (2014). Prague Reporter. Retrieved from: https://www.praguereporter.com/home/2014/11/12/fury-movie-review-brad-pitt-shia-lebeouf-in-david-ayers-wwii-tank-tale
Fury featuring Norman and 'Wardaddy'. [Photograph]. (2014). Screen Crush. Retrieved from: https://screencrush.com/david-ayer-fury/
Fury featuring 'Wardaddy' and Boyd. [Photograph]. (2014). Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/philly/entertainment/20141017_Brad_Pitt_leads_a_WWII_tank_crew_in__Fury_.html