WORK­ING HIS MIR­A­CLE WITH DUNKIRK

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES -

His­tory - some of it in­tensely per­sonal - leant heav­ily on Christo­pher Nolan when he was mak­ing his wartime epic Dunkirk, which got ec­static re­views from crit­ics. The English-born di­rec­tor of the Bat­man movies had longed for years to tackle the story of how a kind of vic­tory was pulled from Bri­tain’s worst de­feat of World War II.

And given its string of fives­tar re­views it was worth the wait, with the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter call­ing it “an im­pres­sion­ist mas­ter­piece”, The Guardian deem­ing it “his best film” while Va­ri­ety - blown-away by its “ver­te­brae-rat­tling” pace - sim­ply de­clared, “What an achieve­ment it is!”

Yet the film’s set­ting could not be more som­bre. With the cream of the Bri­tish army trapped by a light­ning Ger­man ad­vance into north­ern France in May 1940, the coun­try’s new leader Win­ston Churchill was told they would be lucky to get 30,000 men out alive. But in nine days more than ten times that num­ber of Bri­tish, French and Canadian troops were evac­u­ated in what be­came known as the ‘Mir­a­cle of Dunkirk’. Many were plucked from the beaches by a flotilla of “lit­tle ships” crewed by civil­ians who an­swered the call to cross the Chan­nel.

Their courage came home to Nolan and his wife, pro­ducer Emma Thomas, when they crossed the same stretch of wa­ter in a small boat in what he de­scribed as “one of the most dif­fi­cult and frankly dan­ger­ous ex­pe­ri­ences of my life”.

“It drove home to us how heroic this was,” said Thomas. “And no one was shoot­ing or drop­ping bombs on us.”

“I grew up in a house­hold where the war was very im­por­tant,” Nolan added.

“My grand­fa­ther (Fran­cis Thomas Nolan) was a nav­i­ga­tor on a Lan­caster bomber and he died near here in 1944. While we were shoot­ing the film I took the chil­dren to see his grave. See­ing my own grand­fa­ther and the rest of his crew in a com­mu­nal grave, you re­alise the con­cept of en­ter­tain­ment and war is a very tricky thing.” Which is why Dunkirk - de­spite its re­lent­less high-octane score and ac­tion scenes - is not “re­ally a war film”, he said. In­deed Nolan wanted to turn it into a “sur­vival story... and to cre­ate a dif­fer­ent feel­ing and rhythm to what peo­ple have ever seen or ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore in a cin­ema”.

“The leads at the heart of the film are kids,” he told, in­clud­ing the pop star Harry Styles of One Di­rec­tion fame.

“You are not ex­pect­ing them to take on the Ger­man army. When you see the young sol­dier played by Fionn White­head at the be­gin­ning (flee­ing Ger­man fire) you just want this guy to be OK. You don’t have a prob­lem with him drop­ping his ri­fle and run­ning. Be­cause that is what you would have done.”

For a while, Nolan - who is known for his tech­ni­cal and nar­ra­tive dar­ing - toyed with even mak­ing Dunkirk “al­most as a silent film”, driven by “pic­tures and sound ef­fects rather than di­a­logue”.

“I was look­ing for ec­static truth of what hap­pened” to the hun­dreds of thou­sands of men left stranded like sit­ting ducks on the beach.

“I was try­ing to make pure cin­ema,” he said, us­ing huge IMAX cam­eras and shoot­ing with 70mm film - twice the size of the usual for­mat - to make the “ex­pe­ri­ence over­whelm­ingly real”.

Rather than re­ly­ing on special ef­fects, Nolan shot on, above and off the very beaches where the evac­u­a­tion took place with real World War II planes and war­ships. Some of the orig­i­nal lit­tle ships which picked the sol­diers up were also pressed back into ser­vice.

The gar­gan­tuan pro­duc­tion star­ring Cil­lian Mur­phy, Ken­neth Branagh and Mark Ry­lance even in­volved re­build­ing the one kilo­me­tre long break­wa­ter called The Mole, from which thou­sands of troops were taken onto larger ships. “I think we had the largest ma­rine unit ever used in a film,” Nolan added. “At one point we had 60 plus boats in the wa­ter,” in­clud­ing three for­mer minesweep­ers, a de­stroyer and a hos­pi­tal ship. Storms played havoc with the ar­du­ous shoot, rip­ping chunks out of The Mole. But Nolan said they also gave him “in­cred­i­ble im­ages that you couldn’t plan or fake”.

And then as film­ing reached its cli­max last year came the Brexit bomb­shell. Sud­denly the prospect of an­other re­treat from Europe gave the film an un­ex­pected and un­wanted po­lit­i­cal res­o­nance. Nolan said that “like most Bri­tish peo­ple we didn’t think Brexit would hap­pen”.

With the idea of Bri­tain alone against the world again in the air, he warned against “the Dunkirk spirit” be­ing abused.

“Dunkirk is al­ways be­ing used by politi­cians as a sym­bol of some­thing. But when­ever any­one tries to link it with con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics they are fly­ing in the face of the fact that it hap­pened in 1940," he said.

Christo­pher Nolan on the sets of Dunkirk

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