I was slightly apprehensive going into Dunkirk. I was worried that I would feel bored as I had heard it was mostly action with barely any dialogue, that it would repeat the same war-movie clichés and exalt some kind of quasi-mythical patriotic British-ness that would totally alienate me.
I forgot these worries within the first few minutes of the film.
It’s a very stark, stripped down opening that reflects the film as a whole. We follow a group of soldiers exploring an eerily deserted street; they pick up falling leaflets, take a piss, reach in through an open window for a cigarette. It’s quiet, too quiet.
Suddenly, the silence is broken by a gunshot and all hell breaks loose. We follow a group of three soldiers who run even as the others are gunned down around them; then only one is left, jumping over fences, frantically reloading his gun, waiting for the right moment to move, in a desperate effort to survive.
This young soldier- who we follow throughout the film- is largely silent as he meets a blockade of French soldiers who grudgingly let him through, as he reaches the beach and sees men calmly lined up in front of the sea, as he without a word helps another young man bury a dead soldier in the sand.
There are not many words in this film; most of the sounds you hear are the sounds of bombs falling and planes screaming, of gunshots and the crashing of waves. The soundtrack, by the legendary Hans Zimmer, works to enhance this atmosphere of silent and terrible anticipation for whatever comes next, as it mimics these sounds of war in long and unsettling keening notes.
The film is divided into three parts: land, which takes place over one week and follows a group of young soldiers as they try to escape the beach; sea, which takes place over one day as a civilian boat answers the call to rescue the troops; and air, from the perspective of the pilots and which takes place over the course of one hour.
It’s a fascinating way to structure a film, as we gain different perspectives on the same events, and truly understand how all these disparate elements link together to make something more than the sum of their parts. It’s also deeply moving; as we follow multiple perspectives when they intertwine we cannot write anyone off as expendable, we empathise with everyone. The format allows for a much more sophisticated connection between these different parts than if they all took place at the same time and when two scenes concerning similar themes are- sometimes unexpectedly- cut together the impact is doubled, causing an almost visceral reaction.
The direction is calculated to place the audience in the midst of the action; the camera bobs up and down in the waves and dizzily tips from side to side as we follow the planes.
I didn’t feel sad during the film or afterwards; I felt more of a strange mixture of anxiety and hope. Dunkirk keeps you on edge from start to finish, with brief spikes and dips but always with this simmering tension in the background. Even when they reach England you cannot fully relax, knowing the war will go on.
There is no glamorisation of war in Dunkirk, it’s all confusing and mixed up and the only way to survive is through luck, ruthlessness and desperation. There is a moment when one character confronts another, telling them simply, we can’t do that, that’s wrong- a stand-out moment which encapsulates the central conflict at the heart of films like this; what lengths do you go to in order to survive, even at a terrible cost? From the perspective of the rescuers this dilemma is flipped, how much is worth personally risking in the service of this greater good?
Perhaps most importantly, patriotic fervour is not held up as an uncomplicated beacon of pride or unquestionable source of motivation for all those fighting. You admire those who come to the aid of the soldiers and sympathise with the soldiers because they are fellow human beings, not necessarily because of their show of ‘British spirit’. They act largely to help their fellow people or to survive, not for an abstract ideal. Churchill’s famous speech, “We shall fight on the beaches”, is read out loud at the end, but not in a way which emphasises the glory of what is to come.
Of course, we cannot forget what several other reviewers have commented on: the absence of non-white British faces in the film. Dunkirk has been criticised for overlooking the role of the British Empire in WW2, such as the absence of soldiers from India and Africa on the beaches, which seems a particularly glaring omission given how African soldiers were instrumental in delaying the German attack and the huge significance of the actions of the Indian Army during the war. It is a sadly missed opportunity to tell these stories which have so often been buried by history, and to correct false assumptions that history is all white.
The message of the film is overwhelmingly universal; that war demands great sacrifices and bravery from those who fight and participate, that it’s natural to be terrified and want to survive at any cost, and that it is ordinary people who are most impacted, not those absent figures who dictate the course of it.
All of the actors do a good job, and it’s a real ensemble cast with the focus never lingering on one person. You may not enjoy this film, but it is important that you see it.
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Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons