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Usually every Thursday I join a group of men I used to work with for lunch. Included in that group are a retired Army colonel, a couple of museum specialists, three PhDs, and a former high-level political figure—all of us retired. This past Thursday, after lunch, we went together to an early screening of the film, “Dunkirk.” We had done the same thing a year ago when we went to see “Hacksaw Ridge,” a fine film based on a real event that occurred in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
“Dunkirk” had received some substantial pre-screening hype and praise; but, given the paucity of quality “war” films coming out of Hollywood these days and the nearly uniform politically-correct plot line manipulation so prevalent, we were a bit wary. Yet, none of that holds true for “Dunkirk.” In fact, in many ways “Dunkirk” is the most non-PC film I’ve seen in years.
Director Christopher Nolan is famous for some of his previous films, including “Interstellar,” but nothing prepared me for this incredible cinematic experience.
“Dunkirk” is divided into three overlapping segments, or film perspectives, depicting the famous battle and the miraculous evacuation: on the land, on sea, and in the air. The land sequences center on a famous mole (that is still there) which allowed retreating soldiers to board seagoing ships that required a deeper draught. The sea sequences recount the attempts of hundreds of small boats, mostly piloted by individual citizens, to answer the call of the British government to assist in evacuating the troops surrounded on the Dunkirk beaches. And the air combat features extremely well-done dog fights that compare favorably to the scenes captured in one of my all-time favorite films about the war, “The Battle of Britain.”
The sequences intertwine, switching back and forth, thus giving the impression of concurrent action, and, indeed, that is exactly what happened: action on the Dunkirk beaches, desperate combat on the sea, and dog fights in the skies over the English Channel, all taking place at the same time in an almost dizzying manner.
What is immediately remarkable is that director Nolan eschews, as much as possible, the use of computer graphic imagery (CGI). Indeed, the air combat shots include real period Spitfires, several German Heinkel and Junkers bombers, and other period aircraft carefully disguised as Messerschmidt 109s. Not since “The Battle of Britain” or “Tora Tora Tora” have I seen such realism—very little CGI, you have the immediate impression that you are watching genuine air combat. The impact is overpowering and engulfs the viewer.
However, it is, above all, the plot of “Dunkirk” that singles it out as both unique and memorable. For the first fifteen or twenty minutes the lead character, a British soldier named Tommy (played by young English newcomer, Fionn Whitehead), says absolutely nothing. Rather, what we see on the screen is his desperate escape through the streets of Dunkirk, then to the beaches as bombs land close by, helping another soldier bury a dead comrade, followed by an attempt to get a badly wounded soldier aboard a waiting hospital ship. Finally, when he and another frantic soldier at last climb aboard an ill-fated vessel, he answers a question, but just briefly.
What director Nolan is doing, and doing very effectively, is make the battle, in its three fundamental elements, the real plot, the actual centerpiece of what we are watching. It is the bombs blasting, the mayhem and destruction, the desperation, and, yes, the final and unsuspected triumph of the spirit that underlie the film.
Indeed, except for known actor Kenneth Branagh, who plays the role of Commander Bolton, most of the actors are basically unknown to the general public. Whitehead is just twenty years old, with only a couple of other films to his credit, yet his acting—largely without extensive dialogue—is both understated and utterly compelling. For it is the battle itself that is the overpowering, major character, and as such it sweeps all else before it. The individual personal stories and often fatal images are unusually brief, yet they are each artfully incorporated into the overriding theme of an immense, superhuman struggle. Thus, each short scene, each act of heroism, each excruciating death, is woven into a whole. They are a part of the seamless experience, but do not exaggerate it and do not artificially distract us from the driving, irrepressible movement.
Another unorthodox aspect, certainly surprising to viewers accustomed to a romantic tangent or plotline, is that women play almost no part in “Dunkirk,” except for a nurse or two in the hospital ship. There is no romantic interest subplot, no skimpily-clad sweet young thing (who in most contemporary films depicting historical subjects would bare all in tempestuous R-rated love scenes—think “Titanic” or “Pearl Harbor”). None of that is allowed to stand in the way of the overpowering and inevitable trajectory.
Nor, for that matter, are there any minorities featured. Except for a sprinkling of French soldiers, all the actors are English, and, as any good historian would tell you, that is the way it should be, since it was English (and some French) soldiers who fought on those beaches and who were evacuated by those hundreds of small private boats that answered the call to assist. Of course, a few critics have noticed that. But the simple fact is that the miracle of Dunkirk was a miracle of the English, of Old England, not of Africans or Hispanics, and it reflected a spirit of duty and sacrifice and empire that characterized an England that is now quickly passing away.
That spirit, perhaps, is what is most striking and also most moving about “Dunkirk.” Here on screen we visualize and actually become connected to this incredible historical event. Few words are spoken, but the visual impression brings us in, surrounds us, and enables us to see with the eyes of those who actually experienced the event. No; just a few words are needed: all we require is the knowledge of what is happening—and what did happen. And we are part of it.
As the film enters its final half hour, the score’s composer Hans Zimmer, does something that brings all the action and drama home, underlining both its intensely patriotic subtext and its historical realism. He weaves the theme of one of British composer Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the “Nimrod” variation, into his score. Elgar, of course, was the archetypal late Victorian/ Edwardian composer, most famous to millions of high school and college graduates for his Pomp and Circumstance March Number 1. Yet it is his Enigma Variations, written in 1899, that truly symbolize the golden autumn of Imperial England. “Nimrod” is a majestic and moving piece, in a slowed tempo, and has been widely played since World War I at state funerals, memorial services, and other solemn occasions. It is always played at Whitehall in London on Remembrance Sunday. Like much of Elgar’s music, it offers in a sound picture a deeply felt but always dignified and properly restrained—and very English—emotional punch. Zimmer slows it down even further, to six beats per minute, to emphasize the jumble of emotions and dizzying thoughts of the soldiers taken off the beaches, and, through it all, their resilience.
The final scene is on a train taking Tommy and some of his buddies away from the British coast into the English heartland. They are exhausted, still not comprehending the events that have enveloped them in that historical maelstrom. But as they travel inland and pass several railway stations, they are met by cheering crowds, young boys, old men and women, offering them good English beer and pastries, and waving flags. It has not yet sunk in to them, but to their fellow countrymen they are not only survivors, they are heroes. And, then, Tommy catches a newspaper from a boy near his window, and he reads from it the famous peroration of Winston Churchill: “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.”
And for the first time, they begin to understand…and they can crack a slight smile.
“Dunkirk,” then, is that rare creation in 2017: a film with no R-rated imagery, no pornographic language, no torrid love scenes, no PC jargon, no ideological manipulation of the past. Rather, it thrusts us back to 1940, to a more heroic time when there were real heroes who defended their country not because they wanted glory, but because it was their duty. “Dunkirk” stands out like an anomaly amongst current cinema: it reminds us of who we once were as a people and the deeds we once achieved, and of an English (and Western) culture and way of life, a civilization, quickly disappearing. And, at times, it seems to ask us if we will ever again possess that courage and that faith.
The answer to that question is still out.