‘Dunkirk’ Helped Me Understand the Terror and Confusion of War
In this movie, story is less important than experience is
Christopher Nolan’s war film Dunkirk took lots of things I knew about World War II and made me feel them.
It’s the difference between writing down “the destroyer sank with loss of half the crew” — and being a person deep inside that ship’s bowels, having just escaped the beach to a warm blanket and a cup of tea in the mess when all of the sudden the world to shakes all around you, the lights go out and compartment is suddenly filling with icy water.
And God-damn, you want to get out of that compartment as fast as possible — but you can’t see anything in the dark, your world is rapidly tilting on its side as the ship capsizes and dozens of other guys are flailing and panicking trying to get out.
Dunkirk, in short, doesn’t treat a sinking destroyer as a mere plot point in an adventure or tragedy. The sinking ship is the point—an experience which Chris Nolan makes you relive from multiple perspectives, obsessively rewinding to just before the traumatic moment so you can see it from a new perspective.
A pilot flying overhead peers down at the bloom of dark smoke erupting from the ship’s deck — having just failed to prevent its destruction. Moments before the bombing, desperate shipwrecked soldiers swim toward the destroyer, seeing it as place of salvation rather than death-trap in the making.
Moments later, a tiny civilian boat attempts to pick up the survivors as oil-drenched sailors flail in the water.
I found this panoramic perspective on a moment and place and time to be riveting. But not a few others such as War Is Boring’s critic Matthew Gault, find it to be “booming, bloodless bore.”
To be clear, I think its praiseworthy that Gault resists the urge to follow the herd of positive reviews from mainstream outlets. Indeed, several friends of mine offered similar criticisms of the film, so I think he is hardly alone in this opinion.
Gault pans Dunkirk for lacking in exposition, scope, fleshed-out characters, and much of a plot. I think he’s correct in these premises — but I don’t think that makes Dunkirk a bad war movie.
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Most war film come heavily wrapped in a narrative. Whether you’re following a squad in Normandy or peering over Hitler’s shoulder in his bunker under Berlin, the progression of the action and development of the characters is a story with a moral.
It could be “Our guys were heroes!” or “Our enemies were so evil!” It could be “All wars are bad and unjustified!” or “The politicians didn’t let us win!” If the narrative is focused on a personal journey, it might be “He finally discovered his courage” or “War turned us into monsters.”
Narratives can be great! Sometimes they illuminate harsh truths or remind us of forgotten acts of courage. But they can at times feel contrived because the film maker is simultaneously attempting to portray real events, while bending them to accommodate the message, theme and structural demands of a typical story.
Complicated historical events are streamlined into a standardize plot arcs with ups and downs and character beats. An Inspirational Speech turns reluctant soldiers into diehard fighters. A lone infantry squad or tank or plane somehow always turns the tide. (Fury, I’m looking at you.) The conflict between and officer and sergeant become morality plays about the entire war. And so forth.
Nolan’s pic isn’t entirely devoid of these contrivances, nor is it a perfect representation of reality — I’ll get to nitpicking in a moment. But I think Dunkirk is more interested in observing a moment in time, a place in history. The film doesn’t sketch out deep characters with a home town, girlfriend and a stutter, because its sole concern is how they are experiencing that moment in time.
Here, I think Nolan plays to his strengths. The characters in Nolan’s films tend to feel less like believable human beings than mechanical creations intended to serve the needs of the plot. The dialogue tends to be awkwardly blunt and unnatural.
But in Dunkirk, the thinly-sketched protagonists serve as a blank canvas for us to project ourselves into their experience, making us think about how we would feel in their place. In fact, Dunkirk reminded me of the opening 30 minute beach assault in Saving Private Ryan — a remarkable sequence that does little to advance the plot or develop characters, but instead tries to convey the reality of being there.
But Steven Spielberg’s film concerned combat — most of its characters could shoot back at their tormenters with a gun. By contrast, Dunkirk — with the important exception of the aerial scenes — is about survival.
The soldiers stranded on the beach, the sailors on Royal Navy ships, the pilots of the civilian boats — all of them are at the mercy of powerful, distant enemies that might swoop down upon them at any moment. This is arguably a more common experience in war than blazing away at enemies from a sandbag barricade with a rifle. The majority of casualties in World War II were inflicted by aerial bombs and indirect fire weapons such as mortars and artillery.
None of the characters in Dunkirk by themselves are poised to swing the outcome of the evacuation. But they still must make choices. Head into certain danger or turn back for home? Follow orders and wait your turn at the back of the line or try to sneak to the front? Trust the sketchy guy who refuses to talk, or kick him out?
Dunkirk makes those choices have consequences — and not always the “right” ones. Sometimes a heroic effort saves lives and warms your heart. Other times, an act of courage fails utterly and people die, sometimes absurdly. Nor does everyone behave courageously. Unbearable stress makes people into assholes — surely not a surprise to anyone who has had wait hours in a line, but a situation infinitely worse when 400,000 people are queuing up for days to escape death or captivity.
Nolan’s film doesn’t attempt to impose a lesson on why some survived and others didn’t. Because of that uncertainty, the film is much tenser and better for it.
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I do, however, agree with Gault that the scenes of the Dunkirk beachhead — with long orderly lines and neatly stacked boxes of ammunition — is unconvincingly orderly and austere, not nearly as chaotic and full of human activity as it would have appeared. In his critique, Gault compares this aspect with the extraordinary five-minute take in Atonement — which incidentally, by itself was another excellent example of cinema used to channel a time and place, rather than for plot-oriented purposes.
Gault also takes Dunkirk to task for shying away from the blood and guts. Certainly, vivid red blood comes with an inherent shock value — but that shock can just as easily become a form of sensationalized war porn instead of an indictment of it, so its incorporation alone is not automatically a virtue. Atonement, to its credit, has a devastating sequence set in a hospital which uses carnage to good effect.
But Dunkirk doesn’t shy away from portraying agonizing, lingering death in the cold depths of the ocean, men burning alive in an oil-slick water. I struggle to see how the terrible consequences of war have been unduly sanitized, how unbearable violence is made more bearable.
Other critics point out that Nolan’s film misses key aspects of the battle. Strategic blunders and political rivalry within Nazi leadership allowed the Dunkirk beachhead to survive as long as it did, a factor only obliquely referenced in the film.
Nor does he portray the fraught politics of the Allied leaders, nor the battles fought by French troops to hold the perimeter, staving off the final German assault — a perimeter that extended for miles out from the beach, not a short walk as implied in the opening scene of the movie. Indeed, desperate and chaotic last stands at the ports of Calais and Boulogne preceded the evacuation Dunkirk. The presence of Indian troops at the beach is ignored.
And so forth. But Dunkirk doesn’t attempt to capture every aspect of what was a momentous historical event. It wisely focuses on a narrow slice of it for heightened impact.
I would like to close by calling attention to a few remarkable aspects of that slice.
The film’s aerial scenes feature real flying Spitfires. And those fighters even dogfight a real, flying Messerschmitt 109 — or more precisely, a Ha-1112, a Spanish license-built copy of the Me-109G, which is pretty damn close!
The Stuka and Heinkel bombers in the movie are remote-control replicas — some of them full-scale, not CGI inventions. Throughout the film you see actual drone aircraft slamming into the water, not animatronic fireballs. As for the vessels, the films again features real destroyers — albeit not World War II-vintage — and amongst the “little boats” are 12 that actually served at Dunkirk.
This kind authenticity does not guarantee a good film, but it shows a concern for the real physics of men and machines.
The dogfight scenes capture just how difficult it was to line up a bobbing and weaving enemy fighter for a deflection shot in a reflector sight, how terrifying it was to close on a bomber spitting a hail of lead straight at you with its dorsal gun, how limited in fuel supply most early-war fighters truly were.
The long, tense air battles may seem dull to some when compared to the snappy action of most contemporary films, but I struggle to think of many recent ones that seem so realistic.
Nor is the wheels-down landing of the Spitfire at the end of the film a fanciful flourish of the filmmaker’s imagination. A Spitfire Mark I really did make a forced landing near Calais in May 1940 after it was struck by the tail gunner of a German Dornier bomber.
The pilot, Peter Cazanove, was captured by the Germans shortly after. His plane — serial number P9374 — was excavated from the sand in 1981 and recently restored to flyable condition.
Many war films focus on tactics; the cleverness of feints, the daring of surprise raids. But Dunkirk grasps the unsexy truism “Amateurs talk tactics. Professionals talk logistics.” The primary conflict throughout the film concerns the protagonist’s inability to move people, ships and airplanes between point A and point B fast enough.
Instead of making those logistical considerations an abstract math equation for a military genius to solve off-screen, Nolan’s film forces us to observe and feel the consequences of the land-sea bottleneck at Dunkirk, where only a lone wooden mole could accommodate the large destroyers necessary to efficiently evacuate the trapped British and French troops.
Again, this is not an invention of the film — roughly two-thirds of the men evacuated at the beach were extracted via the mile-long East Mole of the harbor.
The film’s lone moment of triumph stems not from destroying enemies, but from the arrival of the ‘Little Boats’ that begin shuttling men from shallow water, increasing the efficiency of the evacuation effort. In fact, many of the little boats were abandoned at Dunkirk as men scrambled onto the larger destroyers, and did not make it back across the Channel.
Ultimately, Dunkirk is a great war film because it doesn’t ring with the jingoism of military triumph, nor the pure despair of an anti-war film. It’s about surviving a catastrophic defeat, about making sacrifices not to win but to save just a few more of your countrymen.
Perhaps in that there is a lesson in Dunkirk after all. Sometimes immediate victory is impossible. Sometimes it’s about how we recover from defeat so that we can beat the Nazis another day.