Battle-scarred Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), top left, leads a team of soldiers operating a Sherman tank near the end of World War II in “Fury.” (Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures Entertainment)

The bloody World War II action film “Fury” takes its name from the sobriquet of a Sherman tank, its barrel emblazoned with — and its mission defined by — that angry word. But it’s inside the battered vehicle, among the members of its tight-knit crew, where the movie’s real action takes place.

Set in 1945, during the Allies’ final push into Germany — an endgame marked by desperation and moral compromise on both sides — “Fury” is a tale whose message can be summed up as follows: “Ideals are peaceful; history is violent.” But the better and more hard-hitting story centers on the man who delivers that nihilistic assessment, the battle-scarred tank commander known as Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), and his relationship with his four-man crew. As his nickname implies, Pitt’s character is a kind of damaged father figure, tough and tender in equal measure.

As rendered by filmmaker David Ayer (whose track record includes both the gritty cop drama “End of Watch” and the horrible Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “Sabotage”), the combat narrative in “Fury” makes for the more familiar of two competing story lines. Although filmed with a visceral — and often shockingly grisly — beauty, as well as pulse-quickening drama, the movie is only passably interesting as a war movie, especially when measured against classics such as “Paths of Glory.” Still, it’s engaging and watchable, even as it marches toward a seemingly suicidal climax.

Yet the complex dynamic between Wardaddy and his men is far more fascinating. As the soldiers’ paterfamilias, pledged to keep his “sons” alive, but also to teach them something about living and dying, Pitt is riveting as the film’s antihero. Wardaddy’s successes and failures as a parent and leader are the most engrossing and novel things about “Fury.”

His success is evident in the fact that the crew has survived three years of fighting with only one casualty, in a war notable for its heavy American tank losses. Having rolled from Africa to France to Germany, the weathered crew consists of Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf); Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). As the film opens, an untested clerk-typist named Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) has just joined them, replacing a dead gunner.

There are a few other things The Reliable Source learned about Brad Pitt from his co-stars and himself at the world premiere of "Fury" on Wednesday night. (JulieAnn McKellogg and Alice Li/The Washington Post)

His first assignment? Swabbing out his predecessor’s blood and guts from inside the tank. As with all his films, Ayer doesn’t shy from graphic imagery.

Unlike the other crew members, who are known almost exclusively by their “war names,” Norman hasn’t yet taken on a nickname, though he will by the end of the movie.

He also will take on more than that. One lesson: Wardaddy is just a man, and in some ways a very poor role model. A key interlude in the middle of the story, set in the home of two German women (Ana­marina Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg) whose apartment has been commandeered for a meal, is particularly telling.

In it, Wardaddy allows his men to misbehave, at times grotesquely — the implication being that he turns a blind eye to actions approaching the criminal out of expedience. In another scene, Wardaddy forces a reluctant Norman to execute a captured S.S. officer. The uncomfortable dynamic is an obscene parody of a father back home, teaching his son how to hunt.

With the general exception of the Nazi fighters — only one of whom is shown to have any compassion — few characters in “Fury” are depicted as wholly good or wholly evil. It’s easy to see the movie as a story of how war makes monsters out of men. But it’s a good deal more complicated than that.

The film suggests that it isn’t war that does that, but people like Wardaddy. This is a man who knows the price of keeping his men alive to fight, or to die another day, and is willing to pay it.

★ ★ ½

R. At area theaters. Contains intense violence, grisly images and pervasive obscenity.
132 minutes.