Dunkirk was no ordinary evacuation. Over nine days in mid-1940 almost 340,000 British, French and Belgian troops were ferried across the English channel to safety – not by the Royal Navy but mostly in fishing boats, merchantmen and yachts sailed by ordinary Englishmen. Remembered as one of history’s great escapes, the evacuation gave a boost to the Brits and, more importantly, it kept the Allies on their feet.
It’s fitting, then, that Dunkirk is no ordinary war movie. At first glance it delivers all the on-screen death and destruction we expect from a modern-day epic: men dying horribly and in droves, bombs blowing up, ships and planes going down. The carnage is appalling but what makes it especially compelling is its closeness. There’s a clarity to the film’s cinematography and sound design that draws us, its audience, into the action, casting us more as actors than onlookers. Thus we find ourselves trapped, for example, in a cabin filled with drowning men or in the cockpit of a creaking Spitfire alongside its anxious pilot.
It’s an exhilarating and excruciating experience, one made all the more powerful by the sequencing of the story. This is the filmmaker’s masterstroke. Using a technique more often associated with arthouse thrillers, Christopher Nolan presents us with three perspectives of the one event, splicing the storylines together with assiduous asynchrony, throwing them all out of time. The effect on us, his unsuspecting subjects, is unsettling. Before long, we’re as dazed and disoriented as the boys on the beach. Their eventual rescue restores our temporal equilibrium, so that the film’s climax hits us with all the impact of a triple crescendo.
And yet for all its active ingredients, Dunkirk is far from a balanced diet. A feast for the senses, it provides scant food for thought. To his credit, Nolan tries to give the film a point, by showing us that war makes monsters of men. In doing so, though, he radically dehumanises the movie’s combatants, rendering them less than lifelike. The scenes on the beach exemplify this retreat from reality. In them, soldiers queue on the sand in uniform masses, mute and unmoving, devoid of individuality and expression. Few are recognisable as people. Even the pilots are depersonalised; oxygen masks obliterate their faces and radio deadens their voices.
Nolan’s combatants are unnatural in another way too: they are, in the main, amoral beings, automatons bent only on self-preservation. The soldiers we follow struggle among themselves for survival, exploiting the injured and deserting the endangered. Only twice do they act selflessly on screen and even then their actions are shown to be futile. Missing from these figures are the myriad motives that more or less drive all mortals: the urge to impress and inspire, the desire to help others, the need to defy fate and to hope for the best. In reality, few men are so fully debased by battle; most continue to behave in complex and self-conflicting ways, some even heroically.
In Dunkirk, the heroes are not to be found in Dunkirk. Instead, Nolan’s ministering angels are civilian sailors, the old men and boys who set out from England in small boats to save the entrapped army. The film features three such folk, and all are endowed with qualities the soldiers lack: singularity, speech and scruples. Untainted by war, they appear almost lifelike, thanks to their ordinary attire and earnest exchanges, to their concern and their courage. And yet for all their humanity these civilians are barely more believable than the film’s military men: they’re just too good to be true.
As a visceral experience, Dunkirk truly excels. Like many war movies, though, it misses the metaphysical mark, as it misrepresents the actuality of battle by demeaning one side while idealising the other. No matter that the two parties – soldiers and civilians – are on the same side, because the retreat from reality remains. A beach can be evacuated with élan on the big screen and yet there’s no escaping the facts: war is more complex than that.