Bright Lights Film Journal

Machines and Forms of War in Christopher Nolan’s <em>Dunkirk</em>

Though some have criticized Nolan’s rigidity and near mathematical precision in tackling a historical event (no doubt provoked by the director’s admittedly frustrating tendency to wax philosophic on his own creative process and preference for particular mediums and tools), his rigorous approach to specificity here has yielded a work that, like Apocalypse Now, both encapsulates and transcends its historical subject.

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Perhaps the most notable element of Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic Dunkirk is that Nazism is never mentioned, and the German military that conquered most of Europe is only glimpsed at the periphery of the screen and narrative. This shift from the normal conventions of the war film has profound implications for how Nolan figures the famous British evacuation, recontextualizing the struggle as one not so much against Nazism as against the Nazi war machine, and more broadly the machines of war themselves. Through both astonishing attention to historical detail and an embracing of the visual and aural potential of cinematic storytelling, Nolan has crafted a war epic that not only interacts favorably with the history of the genre itself, but has given us a film that resonates on a universal level precisely because of its intense specificity.

Nolan, working from his own screenplay, relates the harrowing story of the British evacuation from the beaches of France after defeat by the German military in the opening battles of World War II. The campaign preceding the opening of the film was a disaster, the Nazi war machine pushing forward with mechanized blitzkrieg tactics, and the armies shown at the beginning of Dunkirk (French and British) are thoroughly humiliated, defeated, and broken. These are soldiers amassed in lines, stretching across a beach awaiting transport over the English Channel. By organizing his images so precisely, Nolan conjures an apocalypse uniquely shaped to the modern world: tight organization in the form of the queue, individual bodies making up an anonymous mass of soldiers that stands in the space between civilization (the seaside town) and oblivion (the ocean). One of the film’s most harrowing moments is when German dive-bombers emerge from the clouds, hurtling downward in all their screaming terror. The men drop, the sand erupts, the planes pass, and most of the men stand again as the same lines re-form; the dead can only be left where they died, and the waves of war roll on.

This intense emphasis on the elements and sensory experience, both natural and man-made, over more traditional narrative framings of World War II underlines the primacy of the mechanistic terror and horror of modern warfare. The placement of the German army (referred to only as “the enemy” in the introductory title card) at the edges of perception necessitates their figuring as primarily mechanical. In the opening minutes they are known only by the crack of their rifles and the breaking of bodies and objects. Torpedoes and dive-bombers materialize from nothingness as fighter planes spring ex nihilo from the sun. The Nazi war machine is not the only threat, as a motif of mechanistic betrayal colors the depiction of the British military as well. Transports and destroyers become tombs for the men they were intended to carry, and even the beloved Spitfires, so lauded by individuals in the film, turn on their operators through mechanical failure. A moment that most war films would use as a triumphant respite, as an RAF pilot (Tom Hardy) shoots down a German plane strafing a sinking vessel, is turned into even greater horror as it plunges into leaking oil, burning survivors of the wreck who apparently were just saved. Notably, the only machines that do not in some way turn on their human masters are the civilian boats sent across the channel.

In this respect, an oft-maligned aspect of Nolan’s artistic tendencies, his methodical and highly structured approach to plot construction and the technical aspects of narrative, flowers into a sort of universal specificity. The narrative is split into three distinct but intersecting through-lines: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. Nolan plays with these narratives (which take place in differing spans of time from a week, to a day, to an hour) and their temporal relationships, utilizing his trademark crosscutting less to play sleight-of-hand with the audience as in, say, The Prestige, than to gradually unveil how a multitude of individual struggles coalesce and converge to create a historical event. The individuals that make up these vignette-like segments feel more like solitary examples of the human species rather than “characters” in the modern cinematic sense, and Dunkirk is all the better for it. With the exception of three specific roles in The Mole (Mark Rylance’s chief among them), almost nothing is revealed about individual’s histories or even, more often than not, their names. Nolan treats his characters in the same manner that war itself treats them, as anonymous members of a far greater national mass, and as these individuals must fight against the very literal and physical dehumanization that war entails, their collective humanity resonates precisely because we recognize this and revolt against it.

This hardly scratches the surface of Nolan’s immense mastery of craft displayed here, perhaps the culmination of both his earliest experimental work and his later big-budget blockbusters. Nolan’s aesthetic has often been criticized for being overly burdened by a dark sense of realism, but his general approach is less realistic and more laser-specific, Dunkirk manifesting this with its attention to minimalist constructions. Nolan reins himself in from Interstellar, assembling an epic that runs a taut 107 minutes long. His preference for practical effects limits the number of planes and boats onscreen at any given moment, and types of machines, weapons, and soldiers recur and repeat throughout. The overpowering musical score, a high point of the continued collaboration between Nolan and Hans Zimmer, strips down the composer’s rhythmic tendencies to new mechanistic extremes, as orchestral, organic, and electronic elements drive forward with an ever-escalating propulsion replicating the ticking of clocks, the wailing of sirens, and the churning of engines. Benjamin Wallfisch provides the score with its sole cathartic release, a synthesized Vangelis-like rearrangement of Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” adagio, used sparsely but to great effect. The score melds itself to the formal elements of Nolan’s vision of war, as Dunkirk not only strips away the literal blood from British soldiers (the lack of onscreen hyper-violence, so prevalent in war films since Saving Private Ryan, proves unsettling rather than sanitizing) but threatens to strip away the humanity of soldiers, reducing them to the basest animal instincts of survival, rather than elevating them to traditional acts of courage or heroism.

Fionn Whitehead

Even moments that, on the surface, embrace more conventional fashionings of heroism within World War II are built in a manner to cast those easy sentiments into question. Though the score swells as Winston Churchill’s famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech is read by the film’s primary anonymous soldier (Fionn Whitehead), the moment has been contextualized less as an instance of British nationalism and more as an assertion that traditional notions of cowardice (fleeing the enemy in wartime) are not necessarily cowardly. Dunkirk consistently complicates easy readings: the film’s most enduring image will undoubtedly be that of a Spitfire, out of fuel, drifting silently over the beaches. The final frames of the film emphasize not crowds heeding Churchill’s words, but a pilot captured by the German army, burning his plane as he faces years of imprisonment. In this way Dunkirk echoes less the visceral intensity of Saving Private Ryan and more the questioning of narrative engagement with war in The Thin Red Line and A Bridge Too Far, films that confound audience expectations (the former revealing the inherent tragedy of war as violence against nature in an American victory, the latter laying bare the insufficiency of the traditional war epic in making sense of an Allied defeat).

Though some have criticized Nolan’s rigidity and near mathematical precision in tackling a historical event (no doubt provoked by the director’s admittedly frustrating tendency to wax philosophic on his own creative process and preference for particular mediums and tools), his rigorous approach to specificity here has yielded a work that, like Apocalypse Now, both encapsulates and transcends its historical subject. Because Nolan has paid such close attention to replicating certain effects of war on human beings, moments such as one in which paranoid British soldiers assert that a French soldier masquerading as one of them does not deserve to be helped (because he is a “coward,” is not of their national tribe, and may, because of a lack of mastery of English, be a spy) resonate not merely as historical account but as warnings that will remain timely now, fifty, and even a hundred years into the future. If Dunkirk has any particular thematic thrust, it is that our fellow human beings are not the enemy, for we are all the helpless lined up on the beach together. It is war, the machines of war, and all those things that necessitate violence, hate, fear, and oppression, that are, and will remain, the true enemy.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the film’s trailer.