Bright Lights Film Journal

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk: Too Cute!

A particular issue is the degree to which the film departs from “fact.” Significant departures from the historical record, if they become frequent enough, are sufficient to sabotage any “historical film,” but what is particularly objectionable with Nolan’s treatment is that all the departures have the same purpose – to sentimentalize the events of Dunkirk and show that the British saved themselves entirely on their own.

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Is Dunkirk an extraordinary visual spectacle? Well, duh. Yeah. I saw it at the Lockheed IMAX in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, one of the biggest screens in the area, and it was terrific.1 In fact, for the first hour or so, the film seems to be all spectacle, though entirely solemn – the opposite of the standard “spectacle” film – striving to dispense with any narrative whatsoever, one enormous scene after another, dealt out to us like great playing cards, without explanation or, seemingly, direction, except that we are told, explicitly, that the film will deal with three “elements”: Land, Sea, and Air.

For the first hour or so, Nolan presents the events in each element with “artless art.” We can presume that “stories” will emerge, that they will fit together somehow, but nothing that we see seems to be prompting us to expect a particular conclusion. The cross-cuts between the elements don’t comment on one another, and the intensely dramatic events that we see – planes being shot down, ships being torpedoed – are presented in a “things just happen” manner. A Spitfire disappears when no one was looking, and our two “Land heroes” survive their numerous disasters through blind luck rather than quick-wittedness or bravery.

However, there is always a lot of “on the nose” dialogue – both because we need a fair amount of information to understand what’s going on and because Nolan has trimmed out all “nonessential” dialogue – and the further the film progresses, the more conventional, and on the nose, this dialogue becomes. Finally, as the three narratives finally are drawn together, despite all of the ingenuity that Nolan has expended in creating a non-spectacular spectacular – the opposite of the sort of “Land of Hope and Glory” patriotic chest-thumping that is, of course, entirely out of favor these days, and has been so for decades – we get a veritable orgy of understated, indeed camouflaged, British stiff upper lip, which is hardly less objectionable than the old, adulterated as it is with the base alloy of hypocrisy.

A particular issue is the degree to which the film departs from “fact.” Significant departures from the historical record, if they become frequent enough, are sufficient to sabotage any “historical film,” but what is particularly objectionable with Nolan’s treatment is that all the departures have the same purpose – to sentimentalize the events of Dunkirk and show that the British saved themselves entirely on their own.

The film begins on an almost predictably “surreal” note – British soldiers patrolling a “charming,” seemingly deserted, European town when suddenly a whispering snowstorm of leaflets – leaflets urging surrender – descend from the skies above. Of course, the “real” Dunkirk had been subject to both artillery fire and aerial bombing, so that the quaint street scene we see wouldn’t have been so charming, and, since airplanes back in the day flew much lower than they do today, the leaflets’ descent wouldn’t have been quite so mysterious, but directors do like to catch us by surprise.

The Tommies are soon caught by surprise as well, death coming, as it so often does in war, from a hidden enemy. Only one man, “Tommy” (Fionn Whitehead), survives, and he is clearly to be our Everyman. We follow him to the beach, where massive lines of passive, helpless British soldiers stretch across the sands, as though they were on the shore, not of the Channel but the River Styx, with Charon as their only escort. Tommy encounters another solitary, “Gibson” (Aneurin Barnard), and they pair, as orphans in the storm.

The film cuts away from these two to give us a refresher course in the harshness of war. Desperate French soldiers struggle to get in line for embarkation, but they’re rudely pushed back. “Shove off, mon frère! These boats are for Brits only!” And what’s the point of filling these boats up with wounded on stretchers? All they do is take up room! What do you want, an army of invalids or an army of soldiers?

Then Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) have a little officers-only chat about how bad the situation really is.2 Yes, we’ve got over 300,000 here on the beach, but high command doesn’t expect to rescue more than about 30,000. The Battle of France is over, more or less. Britain has to get ready for its own Battle, and there’s no point wasting good ships and planes on a lost cause. Bad show and all that, but we’re pretty much on our own.3

Winnant and Bolton

On the other side of the Channel, “Mr. Dawson” (Mark Rylance), skipper of a small craft, decides he’s going to be one of the fellows who helps out, regardless of what the big shots think. He knows how to handle a boat, and he’ll do his bit for Britain. And he takes along his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), who looks awfully pretty, and “George” (Barry Keoghan), a shy little kid looking to grow up. (Guess what happens to him?)

After all this downbeat helplessness of land and sea, we get away to the air, where at least something can be done. A trio of Spitfires head out in search of German bombers, which turn out to be suspiciously easy to shoot down, largely because, one suspects, there is nothing cooler than watching a bad guy get shot down – though, to be fair, two of the Spitfires bite the dust as well.

It’s when the three stories begin to intersect that Dunkirk starts to lose its godlike “indifference.” When the Spitfires pass overhead, Mr. Dawson cries “Spitfires! Greatest plane ever made!” Well, maybe, but do we have to know that it has a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine? And so what if it does?

Later, things get considerably more conventional when one of the Spits has to ditch. As the plane fills with water, the pilot “Collins” (Jack Lowden) faces drowning because his canopy is stuck.4 At the very last second, crack!, an oar smashes open the canopy and Collins is saved! Old man Dawson somehow maneuvered his boat right next to the sinking Spitfire and cracked it open. And so a film that had deliberately avoided the heroic cliché of the standard war film embraces the cliché when the going gets tough.

Tommy and Gibson

Throughout the film, at Dunkirk itself, Tommy and Gibson have been functioning as a pair of Typhoid Marys. Every boat they board is torpedoed, mined, or bombed. Over and over again, sanctuaries become death traps, very much in the tradition of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Jurassic Park. Finally, the two screw up so badly, trapped by a sea of burning oil, that only Mr. Dawson can save them, which he does.

Once Nolan starts getting maudlin, he just can’t stop. We get a shot of the sea off Dunkirk, dotted with dozens and dozens of doughty small vessels – hundreds, even – as far as the eye can see, all to bring their Tommies home, even though, in fact, the non-naval vessels involved were largely ferries and other commercial craft, and almost all the auxiliary boats, of every type, were operated by naval personnel, because how can you rely on people you can’t court-martial?

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Well, things are looking great when, all of a sudden, yet another menace! A German bomber comes swooping down for the kill on the hapless boats when, out of nowhere, yes!, the last Spitfire, out of fuel yet magically ghosting forward in majestic silence like an angel of mercy, comes to shoot down the German, though how an unpowered plane could maneuver effectively enough to engage a powered one strains the old suspension of disbelief just a little.

But in the film, Nolan pulls out all the stops. An enormous cheer swells up across the entire beach, although from our “god’s eye” perspective, it would scarcely be audible. And the soundtrack, which has been stringently and resolutely “ambient” up until this point, bursts forth with shamelessly manipulative “Hollywood” tones of triumph and release.

In the aftermath, the boys come home to rapturous crowds, live (most of them) to read about their heroism in the newspapers, and, in the voice-over, Tommy reads us Churchill’s words to the House of Commons, words that subsequent events were to make glorious rather than hollow, because in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, did step forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Cilllian Murphy as “Shivering Soldier”

Yes, the British saved the day, though Nolan might have mentioned that it was the French who prevented the Germans from taking Dunkirk while the evacuation took place over a space of twelve days. According to Wikipedia, about 3,500 British soldiers died in the battle of Dunkirk, compared to 18,000 French. Instead, he wants to show us that the British Army was saved by the RAF and its civilian sailors, the “little boats,” the same story British kids were told back in the fifties.5

It’s also notable, I think, that, despite the horrors Nolan depicts – helpless soldiers strafed by fighters, men drowning in seas covered with burning oil – he keeps the worst from us. There’s remarkably little blood in this film. We see men die, but the camera never lingers. We don’t see limbs being blown off, or men burned alive, as we did in the famous opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan.6 The honored dead are never degraded by death.

Afterwords

For my generation, growing up in the aftermath of World War II, Dunkirk was a living legend, and I certainly did not need to be told that the Spitfire carried a Rolls-Royce Merlin. The audience I saw the film with were almost entirely young people. It’s “interesting” to think that their major acquaintance with horrors of the twentieth century (European edition) comes largely through works of British fantasy – Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, based heavily on Tolkien’s personal experience in World War I, and Rowling’s Harry Potter series, based on the stories she heard growing up about World War II.

Bonus Afterwords: What did the Dunkirk “miracle” accomplish?

At the very least, it saved several hundred thousand British soldiers from a brutal five years (if they lasted that long) as German POWs. Arguably, it discouraged defeatist talk within Britain, although the real proof of the pudding was the RAF’s victory over the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. But, ultimately, Hitler defeated himself first by declaring war on the Soviet Union and then by piggybacking on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and declaring war on the United States.

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Note: This review is reprinted from longtime BLFJ contributor Alan Vanneman’s indispensable blog Literature R Us. Go there now. (Images are screenshots from the trailer, unless otherwise indicated.)

  1. The Smithsonian has three IMAX screens. They don’t show many general release films, but when they do it’s a great venue. No previews, no pre-previews, no coy reminders or come-ons, just the damn movie. Plus, you get to check out contemporary tourists. []
  2. For some reason, Nolan pretends that Bolton and Winnant were the only two officers at Dunkirk. In addition, there are virtually no NCOs (army sergeants and naval “petty officers”). Film directors very often effectively dispense with the military chain of command both because they don’t understand it and because they think civilian audiences would think it oppressive and undemocratic – all that yelling and saluting. []
  3. Bolton and Winnant engage in what is to me a particularly “cute” exchange: Bolton: “You can almost see it from here.” Winnant: “What?” Bolton: [brief, pregnant pause] “Home.” Hey, Colonel, you’re a pair of Brits in France looking across the, you know, English Channel. What would you fucking expect to see? []
  4. In war, things very often don’t work the way they are supposed to. []
  5. After World War I, there was a similar story, claiming that the French had stopped the initial German advance in the Battle of the Marne thanks to reserves rushed to the front in Parisian taxicabs. []
  6. Ultimately, Saving Private Ryan becomes far more Hollywood than Dunkirk. []