by Bill Stamets

“Dunkirk”: valorizing mechanics of suspenseful survival

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 31, 2017


directed by Christopher Nolan
written by Christopher Nolan
produced by Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan
acted by Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan
scored by Hans Zimmer
presented by Warner Bros. Pictures
running time: 107 minutes
rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language
screening in 70mm at Music Box Theater, Chicago


“Dunkirk” is a war movie about an historic retreat that equivocates about English valor. Writer-director Christopher Nolan renders an epic maneuver by interpolating tales of soldiers, sailors, pilots and civilians. Set between May 26 and June 5, 1940, the panorama encompasses France and England, the sea between and the sky above.

England evacuated 338,226 troops from a French beach under German attack. Most of the British Expeditionary Force crossed the English Channel in 222 Royal Navy and 861 English civilian vessels. Joshua Levine, the film’s historical consultant, quotes 113 eye-witnesses in his 2010 book “Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk, in Association with Imperial War Museum.”

This masterful 107-minute narrative unfolds linearly, like every other piece of cinema ever projected on a celluloid strip or from a Digital Cinema Package. The distinctively edited “Dunkirk,” though, installs three distinct timelines, each with its own duration: one week, one day, one hour. Nested episodes overlap for novel continuity. Shuttling between the three strands is disconcerting only on cuts when the times of day do not match.

Nolan’s originality lies in narrative form. Machinery for concocting anomalies in chronology appears in the mise-en-scène of his films “Memento” (2000), “Inception” (2010) and “Interstellar” (2014). Their respective plots foreground technology: a Polaroid camera, a dream-sharing Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous device, and a gravitational lens intervening in spacetime via an Einstein-Rosen bridge.

In the tie-in book “Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture” Nolan tells Levine he shot “from the point of view of the pure mechanics of survival… We don’t deal with the politics of the situation.” Screen time for the German operation Case Red (Fall Rot) is limited to strafing and shelling by the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht. There’s no to-do about the design of “Dunkirk” other than onscreen titles introducing three time frames– “one week,” “one day,” “one hour”– during Operation Dynamo.

“To me, narrative is controlled release of information, and I don’t feel any obligation to make that release chronological,” Nolan told the Village Voice when he debuted his first feature in 1999. “Following” embedded “an ingenious structure that involves flashforwards and doubling back,” stated its press notes.

“Nolan’s now trademark twists and turns and disjointed approach to time’s linearity” is noted by one contributor to the 2015 book “The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible.” Seven other writers there use the misnomer “non-linear” to describe Nolan’s style. That term comes from algebra. In the 1970s it was adopted to market film editing on video using meta-data and random-access. It’s trending among reviewers as if linearity is the default narrativity for the last millennium or longer.

The arc of “Dunkirk” is grounded in the historical record. But the viewing experience is anything but distant. Cameras attached to Spitfires catch tilted vistas during dogfights. Close-ups of his fuel level dial increase tension about the fate of Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy, “Inception”). Hans Zimmer’s score ever ratchets upward through a jagged sawing of strings.

“We looked at a lot of suspense films,” Nolan told entertainment reporters. “I really wanted the film to be driven primarily through the mechanism of suspense, which I think is one of the most cinematic of film forms, the most pure cinema.” He mentioned “Wages of Fear” directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1953. He disguised his screenplay by titling drafts “Bodega Bay” after the California locale of “The Birds,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 thriller that climaxed with a fictive evacuation.

“I don’t see it as a war film,” Nolan tells Levine. “It’s a suspense film, but we try and push the visceral suspense as far as we can. So you get into the language of horror films, definitely… I didn’t look at too many war films. We looked at Spielberg’s `Saving Private Ryan,’ which was also instructive because it has a horror movie aesthetic.”

As for the Germans– and not just those helming U-boats– “It’s like the shark in `Jaws,’ maybe you see the fin but you don’t see the shark.” When cameras started rolling Warner Bros. Pictures slotted “Dunkirk” as an “Epic Action Thriller” in a May 26, 2016 press release.

Does Nolan’s 2017 big screen genre correspond to the 1940 wartime event? England grappled with Dunkirk, an exodus christened the “Miracle of Dunkirk” not long after a Day of National Prayer on May 26 in Westminster Abbey attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, King George VI and prime minister Winston Churchill. “Wars are not won by evacuating,” Churchill told the House of Commons on June 4. “Dunkirk” survivors read his speech in newspapers the following day on the train from Dorset to London.

That same day Deutsche Diplomatisch-Polititische Korrespondenz informed the Berlin bureau chief of the New York Times that the prime minister’s speech, broadcast by BBC radio, was “a sober, unvarnished, manly confession of defeat.” An Associated Press dispatch from Paris called Dunkirk “a great retreat.” The Chicago Tribune called it “a defensive holocaust to meet the Nazi drive.”

“England’s rout at Dunkirk,” as Colliers magazine war correspondent Quentin Reynolds put it in his 1963 autobiography. “Only incredible courage, amazing luck, and unexpected German stupidity had saved the English army from complete annihilation,” he recollected in The Ottawa Journal on October 18, 1941.

Just days prior to the evacuation, on May 22, 1940, an Associated Press forecast: “The British expeditionary force, in peril of being pinned against the English channel, means to die where it stands rather than let the Germans occupy the coast where they could face an attack on the British Isles.”

“WE NEVER SURRENDER,” later thundered the all-caps headline in London’s Daily Mirror on June 5. Ninety-nine soldiers in the Royal Norfolk Regiment did surrender near Dunkirk on May 27. Waffen-SS troops then machine-gunned them at a farm house in Le Paradis. Two survived. Some 200 French West African soldiers in the vicinity were not even allowed to surrender. They were massacred at once. A German High Command communiqué claimed German forces captured 40,000 Allied troops left behind at Dunkirk.

“The emerging story of Dunkirk was being shaped to fit the sense of national self,” writes Levine in his 2017 book. Author J.B. Priestley mused on his weekly BBC radio broadcast of June 5, 1940: “The news of it came as a series of surprises and shocks, followed by equally astonishing new waves of hope. What strikes me about it is how typically English it is. Nothing, I feel, could be more English both in its beginning and its end, its folly and its grandeur… What began as a miserable blunder, a catalogue of misfortunes ended as an epic of gallantry. We have a queer habit– and you can see it running through our history– of conjuring up such transformations.”

“Dunkirk” too is transforming history. Nolan calls his serious entertainment “an intimate epic” about “communal heroism.” Yet valor is individualized, equivocally.

In the opening scene Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes his way through the deserted streets of Dunkirk. German propaganda flyers flutter down. They show a map and spell out: “You Are Surrounded!” Tommy filches a cigarette butt from an ashtray inside a window sill. Unseen Germans shoot down his five mates. He runs to an English emplacement then heads to the beach and beholds endless lines of soldiers waiting to board ships home.

Tommy helps a French soldier (Damien Bonnard) bury an English one in the sand. They exchange no words, as the latter puts on the uniform and boots of the dead man, identified by his dog tags as Gibson. Together they pick up a stretcher bearing a wounded English soldier and push their way ahead of able-bodied men to reach a hospital ship.

Nolan charts their mission with a revelatory chain of tracking shots. Left ambiguous are the young men’s motives: selfless aid to an abandoned comrade, selfish opportunism, or an impulsive tangle of both. Stretcher-bearers are turned away in one scene, though. “One stretcher takes the place of seven men,” bluntly states an officer counting evacuees.

Levine’s 2010 book quotes a few Dunkirk survivors who call themselves “cowards.” Others do not come home. A sergeant in the Royal Engineers recalls: “I saw chaps run into the water screaming because mentally it had all got too much for them. During the two days we were on the beach, at least a couple of dozen men committed suicide by running into the sea.” Nolan shows Tommy, the nameless French soldier, and Alex (Harry Styles) on the shore witnessing one such incident, wordlessly.

Another casualty is the fault of a shell-shocked Englishman rescued at sea by the Moonstone, a “little ship” owned by retired Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance). Listed in the credits as Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), he panics and shoves George (Barry Keoghan), a young civilian onboard who dies of his resulting head injury. George’s dying wish is fulfilled. His local newspaper, Weymouth Herald, memorializes him as a “hero” instead of the unlucky victim he in fact was. Nolan renders this episode with duplicitous sincerity. There’s no angst over the `noble lie’ of civic fictions found in his “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012).

“All we did was survive,” a soldier admits. This shame was overshadowed by a rallying cry dubbed the “Dunkirk spirit.” For the sake of home front morale, Churchill blocked the news on June 17 about Germany sinking the RMS Lancastria off the French coast. Operation Ariel, an ill-fated replay of Operation Dynamo, overloaded this requisitioned Cunard liner with civilians bound for England. Some 4,000 to 6,000 died from drowning, burning oil on the surface, and strafing.

Two years later Joseph Goebbels invoked what Churchill had once labeled a “colossal military disaster” to argue that “an attempted landing anywhere in Europe would quickly provide England with a second, and far worse, Dunkirk. [Churchill] cannot risk such a defeat without causing a fatal crisis for the Empire.” The article– titled “The Air War and the War of Nerves”– ran in the June 14, 1942 issue of the Ministry of Propaganda weekly Das Reich. The Allied invasion at Normandy would start on June 6, 1944.

Dunkirk interested Hollywood long before “Dunkirk.” Variety reported in 1940: “Within 20 days there were four claims on the subject” with the disclaimer: “nothing more than a title and an idea exist for most of these pictures.” Universal eyed “Dunkerque.” Warners lined up properties titled “Dunkirk” and “Evacuation.” A November 27 Variety headline that year read: “Dave Selznick… Yens `Dunkirk’ Yarn.” His tentative title was “Beaches of Dunkirk.” The source was supposedly “a semi-official story by a survivor.” The August issue of The Atlantic Monthly ran a short story by a Royal Navy captain using the pen name Bartemius. “The Beaches of Dunkirk” relates a plucky gal disguising her gender and motoring across the Channel to Dunkirk. Is her sweetheart among the survivors?

Another fictive skipper appears in “Channel Incident,” released September 23, 1940 by the Ministry of Information. Anthony Asquith directed this eight-minute short “told in story form” starring Peggy Ashcraft. The Sydney Morning Herald deemed it “a film which is almost unbearably true in its simplicity.” A brief review in the Motion Picture Herald, published in Chicago, related: “A yachting, sporting lass hears the call for boats. She rallies the yachting club bartender, a feeble minded but faithful retainer and an errant soldier, aboard her boat; and does her heroic evacuation work. She also finds her soldier friend among the defeated. The short contains actual Dunkirk scenes. But these are few. The rest are acted, and in the manner of amateur theatricals.”

Documentary News Letter, founded by John Grierson and based in London, panned “Channel Incident” for “its insistence on the outlook of the Edwardian novelette.” The anonymous critic continued: “It is a flaming insult to the men of Dunkirk and to the men and women of the little boats, a flaming insult indeed to the British people, to reduce this great story to the terms of a middle-class female chuntering back and forth across the Channel and rescuing soldiers only incidentally while she searches for her husband… If ever a film symbolised the mental outlook by which Britain could lose this war, `Channel Incident’ did it; and it was splendid to note the disgust, either frigid or vocal, with which it was received by many in the public cinemas.”

The Guardian agreed that “Channel Incident” was useless for bolstering or burnishing the new Dunkirk spirit: “a slight story, but no moral whatsoever.”

Variety noted that English novelist Louis Golding– sailing to New York City in November 1949– pitched a feature-length drama inspired by Dunkirk that would push no moral or message. “These Are the Lads” nonetheless “presents the point of view the British are anxious to get across.” Variety stated “he wanted to make the picture on a straight commercial basis, as he feels it is not propaganda but a story.” Four months later, syndicated Hollywood columnist John Truesdell wrote: “Golding, has the movie factories bidding high for his story of the Dunkirk devastation, titled `Leave It to the Lads.’” Golding claimed he could not shoot on the English coast because the civilian vessels would become military “targets.”

“Hollywood has an acute naval situation, a shortage of small sea-going craft,” announced Variety on May 28, 1941. British Air Ministry helped on Spitfire scenes in Hollywood’s “A Yank in the R.A.F.” Twentieth Century-Fox shot the Dunkirk evacuation scene on a back lot in June. The National Board of Review called it “a thrilling reconstruction of the debacle at Dunkirk.” Betty Grable and Tyrone Power starred. It premiered on September 25, 1941.

Two other films came later: “Dunkirk” (1958) and “The Sands of Dunkirk” (1961). The 2016 release “Their Finest,” directed by Lone Scherfig, is a workplace romance set in the Ministry of Information. Two screenwriters adapt an irresistibly uplifting, if factually iffy, tale of twin sisters borrowing their father’s fishing boat to help bring soldiers home from Dunkirk.

Nolan valorizes the mechanics of evacuation in his “Dunkirk.” Zimmer’s valedictory score at the end mobilizes the Miracle of Dunkirk motif. It’s hard to imagine Nolan adding a coda to acknowledge a June 2, 1940 report from the Paris bureau of the Associated Press headlined: “Turn Back Nazis at Dunkirk. 200,000 Germans Attack in Waist Deep Flood; Mowed Down.” Allied defenders opened flood sluices to create a seawater moat to block Germans advancing on Dunkirk. “Bursting shells made geysers in the water and churned it into a muddy and bloody froth.”

©2017 Bill Stamets