That Dunkirk is one of the most anticipated films of the year should not make us forget that it is still a remarkably unusual summer release from Hollywood, now dominated by 3D fantasies packed with digital effects. Summer movies this season have tended to be sequels, prequels, reboots or remakes, whether it’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, Wonder Woman, Transformers 5 or Spider-Man: Homecoming. As expected, each of these made at least $500 million at the box-office and are among the highest grossing films of 2017 so far. Dunkirk could not be more diametrically opposite.
Firstly, Dunkirk is a serious World War II film without any renowned movie stars or digital effects. Secondly, it tells three separate stories, occurring simultaneously but each with a different time frame, inextricably interwoven into one coherent narrative. Moreover, films of this kind are usually released near the end of the year for award considerations, and are at best moderate hits –like Thin Red Line, Fury and Hacksaw Ridge. The only exception to the rule is Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which was a summer release that became the second highest grossing film of that year, and eventually won five Oscars. But Spielberg’s film was about the greatest victory of WWII that ultimately defeated the enemy, and Dunkirk is about the worst defeat and according to Winston Churchill, “A colossal military blunder”. Dunkirk is clearly a very ambitious project - so what’s the selling point?
Read More: Dunkirk is here
All the buzz is because of writer-director Christopher Nolan, who with each film raises the bar very high. The Dark Knight Trilogy made nearly $2.5 billion, and created the current obsession with superhero movies; Inception made $825 million and won four Oscars out of eight nominations; Interstellar made $675 million. We were expecting a lot from Nolan’s latest film - and we got it.
Dunkirk is basically a suspense-thriller where the audience is put right in the middle of the soldiers. We see what they see, we feel what they feel. The opening screen titles keep the war timeless, and the enemy nameless: “The enemies have driven the British and French Armies to the sea. Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate.”
Information is given to the audience visually: leaflets that fall from the sky sets up the story, the camera pulls back and flag poles appear like prison bars; a small sailing boat passes a minesweeper to show how inadequate it is for the rescue mission. This is not a character drama, and dialogues are used mainly for creating suspense. Nolan demands a lot from the audience but aids them in every way possible. The storytelling might be unconventional but the story itself is simple. Established actors have been cast for each of the three storylines (Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy) to make the narrative easy to follow.
Dunkirk is not a tale of individual heroism, but of collective heroism. The philosophy of the film is summed up by the sailor who lost his son at war - “Men my age dictate this war, then why should we send our children to fight?”
Dunkirk is undoubtedly Christopher Nolan’s greatest achievement as a storyteller, a masterwork of motion picture. We can read a book or look at a painting in our own time, but film, like music, is frozen in time. Directors are required to follow the rules of film-time. One of the greatest tragedy for film is the destruction of Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece Greed (1924) because it was nearly eight hours long. Dunkirk is an encyclopedia of film-editing, employing long takes, jump-cuts, match-cuts, flashbacks, flash-forwards and parallel-sequences like it has never been done before. The basic race-against-time concept of High Noon (1952), where one-minute of screen-time is one-minute of real-time, has been taken to the next level with three separate timelines - one-week, one-day, and one-hour – mixed and matched with mathematical precision.
Nolan is not claiming to be a historian with Dunkirk, his main interest is storytelling. Nevertheless, many of us have mixed feelings about paying tribute to British soldiers, especially in the Indian subcontinent. In order to feed the soldiers during WWII, Churchill seized our food and caused a holocaust in Bengal killing over 4 million people, known as the man-made Bengal Famine of 1943.
Composer Hans Zimmer is Christopher Nolan’s timekeeper. His themes are stranded away from the home key, constantly ending without resolution, with open or deceptive cadence. The recurring time-motifs and below-of-the-beast motifs create more questions than answers. Are we monsters? We get some answers only near the end in the form of an outpouring of unrestrained musical emotions.
The film ends with the shot of burning debris gradually filling up the screen, and then everything fades to black. Is there no hope? Suddenly, for a brief moment, the screen lights up again with a close-up. Yes, we must keep fighting.
Perceptive audiences will discern that several scenes from Dunkirk resonate with the refugee crisis in Europe now, which is really a moral crisis. Today, 3000 people are stranded at Dunkirk, seeking asylum in England. Can we expect another miracle of Dunkirk?