The following has some spoilers for the movie Dunkirk. Please bear that in mind before reading on.
World War Two movies are a dime a dozen. Plenty of filmmakers and audiences like re-living that period of 20th century history when people were united against an unambiguous threat. While there were many acts of heroism and intrigue that happened during that time, however, it was also deeply traumatizing for many of the soldiers on the ground, and a lot of fiction produced about World War Two tends to glorify it in some way.
This tendency to romanticize the Second World War exists outside of cinema as well. People like bragging about how eighteen-year-olds in the 1940s were facing life and death and that kids of our generation have it too easy, which bothers me a lot. Character building should not be the result of trauma or watching the people around you die. I’m writing this from the perspective of someone whose family served in both World Wars. I’ll tell you for free that nothing I’ve heard over the years has ever made me want to enlist.
It seems Christopher Nolan has a similar bone to pick with that mindset, as seen in his latest film Dunkirk. Taking place during three different times and places that slowly intersect as the film goes on, the story focuses on the rescuing of British and French soldiers stranded on the titular beaches of Dunkirk (or rather, Dunkerque) in France. Our focal characters are a lone soldier named Tommy stuck at Dunkirk, three civilians in a rescue boat on their way to the battlefield, and a Spitfire pilot engaging in dogfights with Nazi planes.
Now, Dunkirk is not the best World War Two film in that it still gets a little too patriotic for my liking. It’s worth noting, for example, that the Germans are almost entirely absent from Dunkirk, depicted only as faceless foes popping shots at our heroes from unseen locations or firing at them from U-boats or planes. It’s a controversial decision because it deeply dehumanizes the Germans and makes them more of a phantom threat characterized only by their weaponry.
That said, it is a creative decision that ties well into the themes of the film. After all, you’re not always going to be clashing bayonets with your foes or engaging in fancy gunplay. Dunkirk understands that, and utilizes cinematography rife with tight close-ups and wide shots that not only show a deep loneliness and desolation, but also a sheer creeping panic on our protagonists’ faces. For me, the scene that conveys this well, which you can see in the trailers for Dunkirk, is when one shell-shocked soldier strips off his gear and walks directly into the ocean. Watching the whole scene play out directly conveys the helplessness of their situation, especially since this takes place after two of the Allied troops’ rescue vessels were bombed to shit.
Another scene that’s a personal favourite of mine is right at the beginning, when British private Tommy is exploring the abandoned town of Dunkirk shortly before the platoon of soldiers he’s travelling with are all gunned down by the Germans. There’s a lot of tension in this scene as the camera follows Tommy during frantic his escape, comrades dropping at the hands of assassins we don’t see. In cases like this, not showing the Germans shouting at each other or cackling as they opened fire on our hero and his mates is incredibly effective, and closer to what people tend to experience in a war zone.
There’s more to draw from, but I feel like this sense of anxiety and claustrophobia is where Dunkirk shines. When we see the Spitfire pilots – Farrier and Collins – trapped in their planes as they do their rounds, we see their journey from their perspective. Like them, we’re forced to watch the carnage unfold across the sea they’re patrolling. When the beach is attacked in the very beginning and Tommy takes cover as the film’s first bombing run draws closer and closer to him (and the viewer), we feel that tension and defenselessness, that sense of dread as his allies slowly vanish under clouds of sand and debris. All the while, the orchestral soundtrack is set to this oppressive ticking that seems to get louder and louder during the more intense moments.
In doing this, Dunkirk demonstrates that war is agonizing and disorienting. There’s no glory to be had in being shot at on a beach by some asshole in a plane, and chances are the most likable people you meet and support you the most are those that also end up dead. You don’t know who’s shooting at you, or when people will start shooting at you, or when their assaults will let up. You don’t know where a safe place is. And in the end, if and when you make it home, you just end up wondering why the hell you left to fight in the first place.