Note: This content contains spoilers.
A few weeks ago, YR and RB invited me along to the Arclight for a showing of Dunkirk. It is reputed to be among the best war movies ever made. I did not think so when I left the theater. But over the last few weeks, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.
The Arclight’s management did the film no favors by prefacing it with a long sequence of coming attractions. Nearly all of them are adaptations of superhero comic books. These too are war movies, or rather caricatures of war movies. They are driven by Pattonesque speeches, sensuously muscular women and men, and frenzied explosions building rapidly build to fully orchestrated crescendos loud enough to shake the upholstery stapled to our luxe recliners. Every one of these trailers ended with a winking close-up of the male lead, who, in a conversational tone delivers a jokey remark embodying his ironically self-aware insouciance. Meta really is insufferable.
After a half hour of this assault, it took time to register Dunkirk’s opening sequence. The film begins almost silently. A British soldier, apparently lost, picks his way, almost strolling, through the quiet of the deserted French town, German propaganda leaflets falling upon him in a breeze.
Suddenly, unseen snipers start their shooting, and the soldier is at a full panicked run, grabbing a gun, tossing it aside, hopping a wall, hopping a fence, and toppling himself over the sandbags at the Allied perimeter.
Then, just as suddenly, he finds himself on a beach so quiet that the waves can be heard in the distance. Thousands of men stand patiently in queues awaiting their turn to board the rescue vessels that have so far failed to show.
For a time, the film is hushed, as if it’s out of breath.
Then, among the bodies on the beach, he and another soldier find a third who’s still – barely – alive. Loading the wounded man onto a stretcher, they make a mile run for the single ship evacuating the wounded. Despite the bombs and the strafing, they reach the vessel just in time to place the stretcher on deck. Then there’s another hush. And the Stukas attack, sinking the ship and drowning anyone caught belowdecks or too seriously injured to swim.
Every successive coastal scene is built just like that: the security of rescue becoming, in a single sudden shudder, a hideous cataract of seawater breaching a broken hull, men shouting and struggling to surface, their torsos and hands writhing, then going slack in death.
After a while, you expect that this will be the last of such sequences, that this rescue is the one that gets the men home. But it continues, a forced march of silence and slaughter. As men go from one ship to another and each is sunk in turn, the film drives home the horror.
Eventually, the rhythm becomes ceremonial – mannered, even. We never actually see a German face. The enemy manifests himself almost entirely as weaponry: torpedoes, bullets, and dive bombers.
Dunkirk‘s real on-screen antagonist is time, a fact brought home by following three separate though ultimately intersecting stories, each with its own allotted duration. On the beach, men await evacuation over the course of one week. On the Channel, an English fishing boat chugs toward Dunkirk through the hours of one day. In the air, a Spitfire pilot flies toward battle in a single hour. In the film’s world, the three timeframes – the week, the day, the hour – become simultaneous.
As in a dream, there little in the way of a dramatic arc. The script itself is subdued: there is remarkably little said in this film. There is no backstory supplied for any of the characters, and hardly anything revealed about their lives prior to the ordeals we witness.
This makes Dunkirk into a film of gesture. Character does out, but is communicated with just a nod and a glance. We are permitted to read in the subtle contortions of silent faces a feverish calculation of the odds of survival, and of the opportunities available for improving those odds. Stoic resolution, moral courage and humility are quiet virtues. They are also imperfectly realized virtues: there are heroes here, but no superheroes. We can – almost – imagine ourselves capable of achieving what grace there is to be had out of this disaster.
Even the war’s violence itself is understated. Christopher Nolan does not show guts spilling out onto a brightly lit beach. But this restraint does not make the film easier to watch. In one scene, a pilot ditches his Spitfire in the channel but can’t release the canopy to free himself. Gradually, the cockpit fills with water to his shins, his chest, his chin. In another, a troopship has sunk, releasing diesel oil into the sea. Men struggle to get away and then, suddenly, the water ignites. The camera lingers on a man who dives beneath the flames. Now he’s got a choice: stay under and drown, or surface and burn. He burns. But he burns off-camera, hidden behind the flames while screaming.
In the end, with half a million soldiers rescued, you’d like the music to well up and announce the operatic catharsis. You’d like to hear Churchill call the British people to unbending resistance.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, when the survivors return exhausted, hungry, in shock. Unexpectedly, they’re also ashamed, convinced they’ll be greeted as shirkers, despised by the whole country. Churchill gets his lines, but they’re read haltingly from a newspaper in a weary voice which nearly flattens Churchill’s soaring rhetoric.
The hero’s welcome, when it comes, offers no real redemption. The soldier, the one who’s just read Churchill’s lines aloud, has a troubled look. He knows what’s coming, and he knows (as the audience now also knows) that, from the vantage point of June 1940, the Germans will almost surely invade, and that defeat is more likely than salvation.
Dunkirk does not feel like any war film I’ve ever seen. It is not about the pointlessness of war, a latter-day All Quiet on the Western Front or King of Hearts. Nor does it burlesque the illogic and stupidity of war like M*A*S*H, or Catch-22. Even less does it turn this story into a horror show nightmare like Johnny Got His Gun or Apocalypse Now. It is not a combat film. Except for the lyrically choreographed dogfights, British forces are largely without the means to shoot back. Dunkirk is something that happens to these soldiers.
In the weeks since I’ve seen Dunkirk, the film it’s recalled most vividly is The Warriors (1979), which follows a New York City street gang as it fights its way back through a hostile city to its home turf. As in Dunkirk, enemies are everywhere, but the greatest adversary is time. Director Walter Hill and co-writer David Shaber fashioned The Warriors after Xenophon’s Anabasis, the fourth century b.c. account of ten thousand Greek mercenaries, their cause lost deep in the Persian Empire, compelled to retreat across a thousand miles through sheer force and force of will. Their arrival in the Greek city Trebizond is no victory: only six of the ten thousand survive.
Certainly, Dunkirk is true to its historical sources. By all accounts, Christopher Nolan took great pains to ensure that the film gets the details right. Fuel gauges, shirt buttons, and the percussive sound of metal against metal are, I trust, authentic. Yet there something allegorical in its hush and in the ticking of its three clocks. That allegorical quality extends especially to the film’s calculated ignorance about its own characters’ lives, as if they had been born as young men without families or homes.
As I’ve run through Dunkirk in recent weeks, I am surprised just how much of the film’s details I can vividly recall. What seemed flat and repetitive when I saw the film seems expressive and poignant now. That’s not because it’s true to the evacuation itself. Rather it’s because the film resonates with fundamental truths about struggle, sacrifice and loss that the most perfectly realized superhero rarely understands.