I’ve interviewed dozens of veterans of battle over the years, and when you ask them what it was like, when they can re-imagine the entire spectacle played out before them, most say, “It was like a movie.” And why not? Film is the primary shared visual and communicative experience of the last century. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on the planet who can’t reference a movie.
Movies about battles are more difficult than movies about wars. It’s a matter of perspective and storytelling — whether the narrative thrust via the the storyteller is a gold-braided general or a grunt private. Your choices boil down to (A) What happened and why? and (B) What was it like to be there? These are two fundamentally different approaches to storytelling and trying to do both in a battle film can be self-defeating. A battle film generally goes with the (A) approach and the war film with (B). Sort of like menu choices — something to decide on before preparing the meal.
The gold standard for big-time battle films has always been “The Longest Day,” based on (and closely following) Cornelius Ryan’s history book that told the story of the battle through private vignettes. It’s a huge film, both in scope and length, and frankly, it was made by people who were at the actual battle and had an interest in telling things correctly and were willing to spend production money and amped-up running time to do so.
All the little vignettes together, almost like a collection of short stories, added up to a battle movie that told the story of the fight in strategic, big-picture terms. “Longest Day” has an eagle’s-eye reserve on the storytelling process. Compare it to Sam Fuller’s “Big Red One,” however. Fuller served with the First Infantry Division, and that movie’s vision of the Omaha landings seems to occupy about 30 square feet. That was Fuller’s view of Omaha when he landed there. Battle movies need to decide whether they’re about war or about soldiers.
Which almost brings us to “Dunkirk.” But first, some notes that are so obvious that they form a battle movie catechism:
* Movies aren’t about facts. They’re about emotions.
* Movies don’t show reality. They show artistically filtered impressions of reality.
* However finely made, movies are a commercial product. (This imposes limits on everything from pre-production to running time.)
* Movies are made by creative, dedicated artistes who — nonetheless — generally know nothing about the subject.
* Filmmakers are more interested in a story arc that provides an internal emotional “truth,” a payoff bang, than in lecturing and hectoring. They want your heart, not your brain.
It is pretty much impossible to separate writer-director Christopher Nolan from his new film “Dunkirk.” It is Nolanistic in its on-the-beat — albeit intersecting — time signatures and replete with wittily visual Nolanisms throughout. The basic story has been told before, primarily in a large-budget 1958 British production with the same title and made with the stiffest of upper lips.
The tale is heartfelt throughout England and barely known in the United States — we tend to think of it as a charming British fable about plucky lads in cockleshell boats pulling the Tommies out of snapping German jaws. But it is, of course, much more than that. As the British Expeditionary Force tried to reinforce the Belgians on the left flank and the French armies collapsed on the right flank, they were funneled into a narrow sector of shallow beaches. Goering assured Hitler that his Luftwaffe bombers could handle the situation, and so the Wehrmacht tank brigades (running low on fuel anyway) hung back, out of harm’s way.
The situation escalated into something like 400,000 Allied soldiers, mostly British, trapped in the open, under regular aerial attack, in a place where large ships could not pick them up. It was almost the entire British army. Unless there was a way to get them across 26 miles of freezing, choppy English Channel, Britain’s defenses were hollowed out. Luckily, the small geographic scope of the battle allowed for British boats of shallow draft to cross the Channel and pick up soldiers a few at a time. The armada of tiny boats managed to rescue enough of the British Army to fight another day against the Nazis. The annihilation of the entire British army was such a near-run thing that Winston Churchill felt compelled to “fight them on the beaches, fight them on the landing grounds … we will never surrender.”
Nolan’s retelling of this episode is heavy on the desperation and danger, and that is the proper place to be. It’s told as a soldiers’ story, not a general’s story. There are no markers moved around on map boards. There are instead bullets arriving without warning, from any direction, and no way to fight back except to flee in good order.
But because this is a Christopher Nolan movie, told in Nolan Time, it’s a bit more than a horror-movie shootemup. Nolan demands that an audience pay attention, and provides clues through editing and pacing so that the story arc falls into place. (If there’s a fault with Nolan’s storytelling, it’s that it is a bit too detached and clinical. He’s a mathematician for which all things must add up.) His work with “Dunkirk” is so brilliantly realized that it is not only one of the great battle movies of all time, he is showing us a way forward to shoot similar things in the future.
Any critical analysis of “Dunkirk,” (or any battle film) falls into two parts, separate but not necessarily equal. On one hand, how well is it structured to tell the tale it wants to tell? Because this film is created in Nolan Time, it is fragmented in a clinical way. He has decided to tell it in three arenas, divided into Land, Water and Air (the film actually titles these on the screen). Each is given roughly equal weight; the plight of the soldiers on the beach, the efforts of the civilian boatsmen trying to reach them, the work done by Royal Air Force fighter pilots trying to protect both Land and Water.
The great pleasure in the storytelling arc is how these elements move swiftly together. Nolan’s biggest trick is that the film starts out being epic and moves effortlessly to the intimate, while at the same time dialing up the dramatic pressure. What seems to be random events becomes a small microcosm of the entire situation — and he then provides enough of a denouement to catch your breath — forcing the audience to reflect. This is either sure-footed and classy filmmaking, or too clever by half, and probably both, but Nolan manages to succeed mightily. Much will depend on whether you’re fascinated or confused by Nolan’s playful and elastic experiments in the relative passage of time. Nolanistas will swoon. Still, this is his most approachable film.
As for the battle itself, it is largely over when the film opens. For the Germans, it’s a mopping-up operation. For the British, it’s a looming disaster. Still, lives are in the balance. You never really see the enemy — death comes from any angle (land, sea, sky?) and unexpectedly. This situation never lets go, and actually revvs up as “Dunkirk” progresses.
Most of the characters don’t even have names — the first British soldier we meet is actually named “Tommy”! — and the relative anonymity of the cast lends itself to the overall feeling of inclusiveness. The big trick that “The Longest Day” used, and it became the primary casting solution for battle movies ever since, was to cast big-name and familiar actors into small parts that fit their public persona. The notion became a scripting shorthand. The real Maj. Julian Cook in “A Bridge Too Far” was a kind of Robert Redfordish character, so cast Robert Redford in the brief part, and let sheer star-power steam over the five-minute-and-done performance.
There are only a few familiar faces in “Dunkirk” (and Tom Hardy’s is masked) and so the film is cozily communal. And also allows the soldiers to be played by actors who are properly young enough.
And that other hand — is it accurate? Does it get the details right? Largely. I can’t speak for the Royal Navy destroyers, but as an aviation historian, I was delighted with the Mk.1 Spitfires, the screaming sirens on the Stukas, the pilots’ concentration on fuel economy, the measured machine-gun bursts, even the way the Messerschmitts and Heinkels were photographed to minimizes their Buchon engine adaptations. It doesn’t cost any more to get things right in a film, and treats the audience with respect.
“Dunkirk” is filmed largely with practical effects, and very little (if any) blood and gore. It avoids the gun-and-guts porn of other recent war movies, which are made by filmmakers with more experience with “Call Of Duty” than an actual call to duty. This does not lessen the lessons. “Dunkirk” is a big movie about a big subject, and a sobering look at the actual costs of war. Urge your political representative to see it.