Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk: What the World War II film has to do with Britain's past — and present
Christopher Nolan is, after Ridley Scott, perhaps the most successful British film-maker on the international scene today. He has made his presence felt with three Batman movies and films like Memento (2000) Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014) in which he experiments with narrative, usually incorporating fantastic notions without rigorously working out the consequences of his central premises.
In Interstellar, for instance, he tries for scientific plausibility and introduces concepts like black holes and time warps but also relies on ‘simultaneity’ for emotional effect through crosscutting — across distances measurable in hundreds of light-years; students of the physical sciences know that the ‘simultaneity’ is not a valid concept across distances of such magnitude. One might plead that Nolan only wishes to entertain and he cannot become too exact about scientific principles, but that would also detract from his claims to being a serious film-maker. Dunkirk is a change for Nolan since he is dealing with a key historical event from World War II, one of particular importance to the British who were defeated in battle but evacuated 300,000 soldiers from France so that they could continue Britain’s fight.
Dunkirk is a war film dealing with Britain’s WWII experiences and there have been few such films from Britain in the recent past. War films, like other historical films, are attempts at recreating the past based on the exigencies of the present and they usually tell us more about the present than about the past. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), which is about a group of soldiers sent on a mission risking their lives to save an American private fighting on the battlefield — because his mother has already lost her other sons in the same war, deals with a particularly contemporary concern. It may be based on a ‘true story’ of sorts but it reflects on the value placed by America on American lives today, and on what is termed the ‘zero-casualty war’ in which so many die on the other side. The Imitation Game (2016), also set during WWII, reminded us of the British father of computer science just when America was celebrating loudly Steve Jobs’ less important contribution to the field. The British have fallen behind while the US has surged ahead and this may have initiated the reminder. War films celebrating fortitude and courage appear largely in upbeat periods of national history when heroism is recollected and Britain as a country has generally been in decline in the past few decades; that could explain some aspects of Dunkirk.
Christopher Nolan has evidently studied wartime photographs assiduously but he has a penchant for impeccable pictorial compositions and that may explain the incongruous sense of order that permeates Dunkirk. The film begins with British soldiers walking through a deserted town which has been in a battle but the buildings are intact and there is no suggestion that it might have just seen violence. Crossing the barricades, the soldier in focus reaches the seaside, once again exemplary in its order, the prospective evacuees standing in line waiting for the boats to take them to England. There are other characters in the film apart from this soldier and among them are the Spitfire pilots engaging with the German Stuka dive bombers and we get part of the action through their eyes — both dogfights and views of the beaches below with the soldiers waiting. Some of this is breath-taking, visually, but one wonders if an operation as massive as the one in Dunkirk would not have generated more confusion and chaos. Tasteful compositions are what Nolan is largely offering us in Dunkirk and these seem of small avail.
Like most other war films dealing with major battles there are large number of characters in the film, several of them played by major stars (Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy). This is a strategy often used in works like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) and, for one thing, the billing of big stars in small roles announces the scale of the film. But their casting in major films like Malick’s is not gratuitous and they are required to impart intensity to individual scenes, which smaller actors may not be able to do. War involves intense human interactions of various sorts (between comrades, between soldiers and civilians, between soldiers of different ranks, between politicians etc.) and stars bring more than their physical presence to roles in war films. As illuminating instances one could cite Elias Koteas, Sean Penn and Jim Caviezel who make moments of The Thin Red Line memorable. Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh who appear in Dunkirk are Shakespearean actors but neither is given a part of much consequence. All Branagh is allowed to do is look out grimly over the Channel for English boats. Tom Hardy, as a pilot, even wears an aviator’s mask and hardly reveals himself; the actor was masked in earlier films (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dark Knight Rises) and this may be an ‘in joke’ but what is a joke doing here?
Also difficult to make sense of is the absence of key components of war films — emotional scenes involving the personal lives of soldiers and civilians as well as political happenings. Something as massive as this would involve decisions of importance and the participation of statespersons. Similarly missing is a sense of how the action played out historically in 1940. Judging from reviews, the emphasis is on the ‘human’ scale of Dunkirk but human detail in the shape of stories is non-existent. Even the short interludes when something is happening to someone are rudely interrupted and one rarely sinks one’s teeth into any stretch of continuous action. The film is not overly long (106 min) and its general vacuity may be sensed from much of the action (like the dogfights) being repeated so often and essentially in the same way.
Whenever a film has as little of emotional/observational value to offer as Dunkirk the critic is tempted to examine (by default) what it divulges involuntarily and this may be the best course open here. A motif which recurs in the film is the unwelcome presence of the French on British ships. The first time this happens a French soldier is told that there is passage to England only for British soldiers. On another occasion a soldier who does not speak English is discovered on a boat and taken to be a German spy — until his French nationality is learnt. The immediate response of the others is to call him a ‘frog’— a familiar term of derision directed at the French. This lack of empathy for a military ally is not often encountered in war films and one is tempted to associate it with Britain and France having a rather cold relationship today, especially after Brexit; in fact there has been much greater solidarity between France and Germany, who were wartime enemies, in the recent past.
The absence of Churchill, once the British hero of WWII, in the film also deserves attention. There is a suggestion that so many soldiers were rescued despite — rather than because of — governmental action. Civilian boats transport the soldiers jubilantly to Britain rather than warships, mostly sunk. This is tantamount to making a direct association between the British people and happy outcome of the War, while simultaneously discounting the idea that the government also played a praiseworthy role. The Imitation Game, one recollects, painted the government as an obstacle to individual initiative and this antipathy is perhaps not so much a commentary on British WWII statesmen like Churchill as much as on British politicians of today — people like Boris Johnson, widely despised by the liberal class. Since the political class is despised it would be anachronistic to praise politicians of the past, seems the logic.
The United States and the United Kingdom were allies in WWII and describe many of the same experiences in their respective war films. But what is striking is how upbeat American war films generally are about patriotic values and how downbeat Dunkirk is — although it strives to present itself as an ‘affirmation’. The argument here is that how a country looks at a past military engagement today depends more on the present strength of that country’s nationhood than its actual fortunes in that engagement.
MK Raghavendra is a Swarna Kamal winning film scholar and author of The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016).