This has been a day to die for*

by chuckofish

Son #2 is in town this weekend, so we decided to go see the much-anticipated “Dunkirk” on its opening day. The movie has been receiving rave reviews. The New York Times called it one of the best war movies ever made. All I can say is that the NYT reviewer can’t have seen many war movies. Dunkirk is stylish and not without merit, but I wouldn’t call it a war movie and it certainly doesn’t do justice to the events it purports to record.  But let’s start with what’s good about it.

Christopher Nolan clearly wanted to do something new with the genre and avoid comparison to hyper-violent movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Hacksaw Ridge.” Refreshingly free of gore, Dunkirk is rated PG-13 (although I would not recommend taking a child to see it). He used real Spitfires for the aerial combat scenes, which were beautifully shot and lyrical.

The cast did a fine job with what little dialogue there was. Mark Rylance, in particular, shined as the civilian taking his small yacht to evacuate troops, but he wasn’t in it enough.

Unfortunately, my objections far outweigh what I liked about the film. For clarity and brevity, I’ll list only what bothered me most (I could include other points).

  1. The audience gets no context. No one identifies the time (1940) or the enemy as the Germans — not once. We are just told that the British army needed a miracle. The film starts with soldiers arriving on the beach. We learn nothing whatsoever of how they got there.
  2. Characters were so underdeveloped as to be manikins (though admittedly, Mark Rylance could humanize a rock and Tom Hardy is expressive, even when masked).
  3. Nolan chose to concentrate on three young soldiers who were essentially cowards willing to do almost anything to save themselves. It’s true that two other groups — Mark Rylance and his son as well as the pilots — behave bravely, but the fact is that Nolan did not just downplay the heroism of Dunkirk, he subverted it. The officers (especially Kenneth Branagh) stand around looking decorative and doing nothing to help their men. You never get the sense that the army and navy have a plan or are trying to help themselves.
  4.  Aside from the aerial combat, there is no fighting in the movie. Sure, some soldiers shoot at planes from the beach, but you would never know that those 400,000 stranded men had lifted a finger against the enemy at any time prior to their evacuation. No naval ship mans anti-aircraft guns and the French (!) provide the only visible defense. In other words, Nolan depicts the British as almost entirely PASSIVE VICTIMS.
  5. We get no sense of the scale of the disaster. A few hundred men, a couple of planes, a handful of ships, and about 30 small craft stand in for 400,000 men and the hundreds of ships, sailboats, yachts and craft of all types that laboriously evacuate them while under continuous fire from the German army and Luftwaffe.
  6. The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is painfully intrusive and jarring. Presumably designed to create tension in the viewer, it seems like a form of torture. Perhaps that was intended.
  7. Just as son #2 predicted, the film ends with one of the characters reading the famous passage from Churchill’s speech: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” But Nolan couldn’t leave it at that. No. He had to go on and remind the audience that despite the heroism, the evacuation had been “an unmitigated disaster.” God forbid anyone should leave the theater feeling admiration for what the British had done or with a sense that the worst was yet to come. Certainly, at the time the British were painfully aware of that fact.

I cannot recommend Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” If you want a different understanding of those events, read a history book or Paul Gallico’s novella, The Snow Goose (1940), watch the (undoubtedly patriotic) 1958 movie, or listen to “Piper to the End” by Mark Knopfler, whose uncle, Freddie, according to Wikipedia, “was a piper  of the 1st Battalion, Tyneside Scottish, the Black Watch, Royal Highland Regiment. Freddie was killed with fellow fighters at Ficheux, near Arras in the north of France in May 1940. He was just twenty.”

It wasn’t all waiting around on beaches, and young men were not just helpless victims.

*Mark Knopfler, “Piper to the End”