Christopher Nolan’s latest epic, ‘Dunkirk’, re-lives the infamous rescue of thousands of British troops stranded on the beaches at the French city of Dunkerque during the Second World War. Surrounded by advancing German troops and bombarded by the Luftwaffe from the air, they were saved by an armada of commercial and civilian boats, who made their way across the channel to bring soldiers home.
With beach landing scenes prevalent in war films of the past and generally functioning around the shock and awe of bomb blasts, machine gun fire and general human devastation — see ‘Saving Private Ryan’ in particular — it was anticipated ‘Dunkirk’ would fall into a similar lane. However, Nolan, with the help of composer Hans Zimmer, whom he also enlisted to work on the score for ‘Interstellar’, hones in on three separate stories to tell the tale of Dunkirk from different perspectives; a first for a film of this nature.
Dunkirk follows the story of two young soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles) desperately trying to make their way off the beaches, a heroic RAF pilot (Tom Hardy) scrambled to provide air cover for retreating British ships and a civilian father and son duo (Mark Rylance, Jack Lowden), aided by young accomplice George (Barry Keoghan), who set sail for the beaches in response to Churchill’s rallying cry for help. Their stories interlinked, each character paints a different picture of the complex human emotions experienced during the Dunkirk rescue. From the terror and hopelessness of those stranded on the beaches — both Whitehead and Styles’ characters survive sinking rescue ships, gunfire, bombing and blazing oil slicks before finally getting home — to the pride and defiance of pilots like Hardy’s character, and the warmth of those who set sail to save as many as they could.
All of this is communicated with minimal dialogue too, with Nolan instead choosing to take us right to the heart of the action via his intense grasp of colour, texture and sound instead — only Harry Styles, acting in his first blockbuster role, is given significant lines. Blood and gore is cut to a bare minimum too, again reemphasising the fact that Dunkirk captures the desperation of the situation through human experience more viscerally than bombs ever could. It’s intense in the most extreme, propped up by Zimmer’s incredible score — see this great piece by Create Digital Music on his work creating suspense in sound design (here) — and unlike most Nolan epics, doesn’t drag on too long. That said, we doubt there’d be much left of anybody watching if the tension was maintained for much longer.
Ultimately, the story of Dunkirk was one of colossal military failure but also one of triumph over unprecedented adversity and ultimately, survival. That’s not to say Nolan doesn’t forget those thousands still left behind — as evidenced by the fate of Hardy’s character, captured after his Spitfire runs of out fuel — but through his characters, Nolan does at least find some solace in the horrors of war.
by Tomas Fraser – @YesTomas