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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has received ecstatic acclaim as well as condemnation. The influential English director Peter Brook once stated that the ideal audience reaction was made up of those who liked a particular piece of work and those that did not, which subsequently set up the potential for discourse – rather than forgetting about the experience and merely moving onto the after-show drink. The reaction to Dunkirk, running the gamut of film criticism, hopefully will act as an extra spur to see this film in order for you to make up your own mind.

The World War 2 historical event of ‘Dunkirk’ is one that encourages and stimulates heated debate. Was it a victory or a defeat? Depending on your perspective and preference it could be either, and then again it could be both. From the German Army’s point of view it was a victory, defeating the Allied forces and driving the British out of Europe. To the British it is a matter of snatching a victory from the jaws of defeat, with over 300,000 soldiers rescued from the exposed beaches at Dunkirk, assisted by the French Army, and 700 privately owned British small crafts. This matter alone makes the Dunkirk story a potent piece of patriotism – as well as propaganda.

In the history of cinema one of the first appearances of the Dunkirk story is in William Wyler’s 1942 Academy Award Best Film Mrs Miniver, which played an important role in US and UK propaganda at the height of WW2. Other films that involve Dunkirk and ‘Operation Dynamo’ (the code name for the British evacuation) are Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk (1968) and Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007). There is also the 1964 French film, Henri Verneuil’s Week-end a Zuydcoote (Weekend at Dunkirk). This final film is important as it presents the story from a French point of view in that it deals with a young French solider trying to escape with the British flotilla and being constantly denied.

This issue, French troops being denied access, is based on fact and is an extremely controversial matter in regards to the Dunkirk story. Whilst Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has received some negative criticism in the French press, nonetheless, he has not ignored this issue and deals with it in a similar way to Weekend at Dunkirk, and in rather harrowing and tragic fashion. The storyline of a young French soldier trying to get on a ship complements the overall theme of the film – Survival; and as one of the young British soldiers cries at a heightened moment in this particular storyline (‘The Mole’) involving ‘scapegoats’ and ‘witch-hunting’ triggered by fear and xenophobia, ‘In survival there is no right or wrong’. 

A great deal has already been written about the three inter-related narratives in Dunkirk, involving the elements of air, sea and earth (‘The Mole’). The respective time-jumps that these narratives make in the course of the film contribute to the overall sense of chaos. Similar to the harrowing opening sequence of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in successfully capturing the chaotic nightmare of war so to does Nolan’s Dunkirk, albeit differently. Spielberg’s film does concentrate on character whereas Nolan’s film concentrates on the event. In a March 2017 interview with The Wrap Christopher Nolan is quoted as saying, ‘The empathy for the characters has nothing imagesto do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?’ – Survival in the immediacy of the moment is the focus, rather than ‘backstory’ and historical personages, such as Winston Churchill. It is a mistake, however, to think that one does not feel any empathy or personal involvement with the respective characters. You can and do – or at least I did. This is primarily due to the high calibre of acting by the respective actors, particularly (for me) Mark Rylance, and Cillian Murphy in what arguably is the most complex, dislikable and tragic surviving character in the film.

There are so many aspects of this film that makes it worth seeing; and it must be seen on the big screen for its full impact and epic mastery. This is film-making at its very best, with Nolan’s vision successfully captured by Cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytma, and Edited by Lee Smith, and a Soundtrack by Hans Zimmer – to name just a few who successfully collaborated on this epic film.

To focus in one just one feature – the sound design and soundtrack – exemplifies the artistry involved in this film. Using the so-called ‘auditory illusion’ of a ‘Shepard tone’, which is a tone whose pitch continually ascends or descends yet seems to get no higher or lower, the sound design is extraordinary and extremely effective. It is ever present, with the addition of a ticking clock, which apparently is the synthesised sound of Nolan’s own pocket-watch. There is very little actual music, but when music does play it is highly effective and carries an emotional punch. A version of Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from his Enigma Variations gently creeps in just when the flotilla of small crafts arrive, accompanied by the cheers of the soldiers. It is a highly emotional sequence, and a clever use of Elgar’s stirring and recognisable patriotic ‘British’ music.

One further issue that is of interest – at least to me – is the inter-relationship of Dunkirk with others films. In an interview in a May edition of the British Film Institute Christopher Nolan discussed the various film influences,  references and inspirations that he and his crew shared in making Dunkirk. These include films as diverse as – Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981), Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994), and Tony Scott’s Unstoppable (2010). I would have to experience Dunkirk again to see if I can spot specific references to these films. I may have to leave it for a bit as I was so shattered by the experience that I need a bit of distance. Furthermore, as Nolan and his colleagues are acutely aware and appreciative of other master film-makers I suspect that William A. Wellman’s Wings (1927), with its incredible air battles, was also of considerable influence; as was (hopefully) Verneuil’s Weekend at Dunkirk.

All these above mentioned films are terrific in their own unique way. They are all essentially films with an epic quality. As with literature, plays, opera, and other art forms, the successful production of an ‘epic’ piece of work is the ultimate goal and prize for numerous artists throughout the history of mankind. Christopher Nolan stated in an interview with the Directors Guild of America (June 2017) that he even though he had first been attracted to the story twenty years ago he had postponed doing Dunkirk until he had gained the necessary experience of doing large scale epic blockbusters. I have no idea if Dunkirk will be regarded as his ‘master-work’; it may win the Academy Award (and others) for Best Film, particularly knowing the Academy’s overall preference for ‘historical drama’ in regard to Best Film – but that is not the main reason to go an see this film. This may well not be a film for everyone, and just as many loathe ‘musicals’ or ‘horror’ or ‘science-fiction’ film, so to will many avoid ‘war movies’. However, as previously stated, as far as I was effected, Dunkirk to me is modern movie making at its very very very best.

Tony Knight

PS. May be a bit cheeky of me – but – notice the similarity between the poster for Dunkirk and After Shock? Intentional? Accidental? or another inter-film reference to a masterwork?