To do and die

Dunkirk tells WWII story from troops’ stand­point

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PHILIP MARTIN

Christo­pher Nolan’s Dunkirk is re­mark­able, a sus­pense film that sus­tains its ten­sion for nearly the en­tirety of its 106- minute run­ning time, re­lent­ing only for a few mo­ments of up­lift­ing re­lief at the end. It is as much of a thrill ride as any of Michael Bay’s Trans­form­ers toss-abouts.

It’s also a very smartly po­si­tioned prod­uct — it doesn’t re­quire its au­di­ence to do any in­tel­lec­tual heavy lift­ing. You don’t need to know a thing about World War II or the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force, and there are no bor­ing ex­pos­i­tory scenes of politi­cians talk­ing about the stakes. Hitler is un­men­tioned, and the Ger­man forces who have trapped the Bri­tish and French sol­diers on the beach are iden­ti­fied only as “the Enemy.” While Royal Air Force fighter pi­lots re­fer to Messer­schmitts, I’m not sure the word “Ger­man” is heard once. One thing Dunkirk is not is a his­tory les­son.

Some peo­ple will prob­a­bly have prob­lems with that, be­cause they would pre­fer that sides be de­mar­cated and his­tor­i­cal penances re­newed. For the record, in 1940, af­ter Hitler’s in­va­sion of Poland caused Eng­land and France to de­clare war on Ger­many — and some months of vir­tual in­ac­tiv­ity on the West­ern Front known as the “Phoney War” — Hitler’s armies blitzkrieged through the Nether­lands, Bel­gium and Lux­em­bourg and be­gan rolling into France.

Be­gin­ning in Septem­ber 1939 the Bri­tish had sent its

Ex­pe­di­tionary Force to guard the French-Bel­gian bor­der. While they pre­pared to en­gage the Ger­mans at the bor­der, they were cut off from the main French forces when the Ger­mans ex­e­cuted a pin­cer move, driv­ing west from Lux­em­bourg to­ward the English Chan­nel. Then the Ger­mans drove north along the beach, iso­lat­ing the out­flanked Bri­tish in the north­ern­most tip of France, strand­ing some 400,000 Bri­tish and French sol­diers in a north­ern sea­side town six miles from the Bel­gian bor­der. Some peo­ple think that if the Ger­mans had not halted their ad­vance, that if they’d pressed into Dunkirk in­stead of stop­ping and lay­ing siege to the city, the Bri­tish would have been mor­tally wounded and the next ma­jor bat­tle of World War II would have been fought on English soil.

I apol­o­gize to his­tory buffs who re­al­ize how I’ve just over­sim­pli­fied the con­di­tions that led to the Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion — I didn’t talk about the Maginot Line or the Dyle Plan be­cause I’m a movie critic with a lim­ited amount of space and I need to get on with dis­cussing the movie. So maybe Nolan’s choice not to clut­ter his film with dis­cus­sions of his­tory and strat­egy is de­fen­si­ble, even though it opens him up to charges of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. (On the other hand, at least one critic lamented that the movie didn’t have more roles for women and peo­ple of color. Sigh.)

What Nolan does with Dunkirk is at­tempt to put you in the mid­dle of the ac­tion, wait­ing on the beach for res­cue, beat­ing over the waves to be of ser­vice, squashed into the cock­pit of a Spit­fire. It’s an at­tempt to re­pro­duce the vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence of the bat­tle from the per­spec­tives of those caught up in it. Telling the story of the Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion is sec­ondary, or even ter­tiary to his cin­e­matic pur­poses — for that you could (and should) read a book.

... Re-cre­at­ing the sen­sa­tion of bat­tle on screen is tricky, and maybe even more prob­lem­atic when the one do­ing the cre­at­ing hasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced com­bat. A lot of com­bat vet­er­ans dis­miss the way the movies de­pict the sen­sa­tion of war­fare. No mat­ter how care­ful the re­con­struc­tion, the fact is a movie oc­curs in a de­lim­ited field on a wall. It’s not the same as be­ing in coun­try. No mat­ter how tough and bloody the spe­cial-ef­fects peo­ple make it, it can still be dis­missed as only a movie. You can al­ways walk out into the lobby.

Still, it may be worth the ef­fort to try to imag­ine the hor­ror our kind in­flicts on it­self. I once wit­nessed a se­lect au­di­ence of Viet­nam vets re­duced to tears by an ad­vance screen­ing of Oliver Stone’s Pla­toon. The 25-minute long Omaha Beach land­ing se­quence from Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan ought to be shown in ev­ery high school class­room in Amer­ica. The crim­i­nally un­der­seen Men Go to Bat­tle (2015) never opens up beyond the cir­cum­scribed per­sonal per­spec­tives of the broth­ers who wind up on op­po­site sides of the Civil War.

But no, the hell of war does not trans­late to the screen any more than any other full-felt emo­tion, and Nolan’s ad­mirable at­tempts to en­velop his au­di­ence in the sights and sounds of des­per­ate strug­gle work only to a point. I’ll take the word of those who tell me his shoot­ing it in (mostly) large for­mat film al­lows for greater res­o­lu­tion of de­tail than dig­i­tal for­mats. More im­pres­sive is the use of ac­tual lo­ca­tions and vin­tage planes and some boats that were part of the orig­i­nal civil­ian flotilla req­ui­si­tioned to res­cue the troops from the beach. Dunkirk may skimp on the his­tor­i­cal con­text, but it tries to get the de­tails right.

Still, by fo­cus­ing on the per­spec­tive of a few char­ac­ters, some of the larger pic­ture is ob­scured. In the movie it seems as though the Bri­tish have only a cou­ple of large ships avail­able. In fact, they had the largest navy in the world, and more than 200 de­stroy­ers par­tic­i­pated in the evac­u­a­tion. World War II his­to­rian and Dunkirk: Duty Calls au­thor James Hol­land told the Bri­tish news­pa­per The I that the role of the lit­tle ships in the film is “mas­sively ex­ag­ger­ated.” It’s not hard to un­der­stand why — one of the three sto­ries Nolan set out to tell in­volves the jour­ney of one of these lit­tle ships.

Hol­land points out that a Bri­tish Spit­fire only car­ried enough am­mu­ni­tion to last about 15 sec­onds; in the film the Spit­fire pi­lot played by Tom Hardy seems to have un­lim­ited am­mu­ni­tion and is able to shoot down four planes dur­ing his hour aloft. ( Hol­land pooh- poohs the beach land­ing brought about by Hardy af­ter his plane runs out of fuel; he says the plane’s land­ing gear — which Hardy des­per­ately hand-cranks down — would have dug into the sand and caused the plane to crash. If any­thing, the pi­lot would have at­tempted to land the plane on its belly.)

These “mis­takes” didn’t take me out of the movie sim­ply be­cause I didn’t rec­og­nize them as mis­takes; I’ve never tried to land a Spit­fire on a beach. (On the other hand, dur­ing the film my wife leaned over and whis­pered that Hardy sure seemed to have a lot of bul­lets at his dis­posal.) And even Hol­land al­lows that the film did a good job with its pre­sen­ta­tion of the sol­diers: “All the men looked right,” he said. “They’re all nice and thin and young and they all look filthy.”

... “Dunkirk” means some­thing dif­fer­ent in the U. K. than it means here; had some­one asked me about the bat­tle a year ago I would have de­scribed it as a dis­as­ter, a nar­row es­cape that was hu­mil­i­at­ing for the Bri­tish. But ap­par­ently it’s seen over­seas as a mo­ment of na­tional pride, a shin­ing ex­am­ple of Bri­tish “mud­dling through.” Here it’s a bat­tle you might read about, that oc­curred be­fore the Ja­panese bombed Pearl Har­bor and roused the mighty United States.

In the U.K. it’s a cul­tural touch­stone that has been re­vis­ited many times — from the 1942 home­front melo­drama Mrs. Miniver and Les­lie Nor­man’s 1958 ver­sion ( also called Dunkirk) to Joe Wright’s re­mark­able 5- ½ - minute track­ing shot in Atone­ment, in which a world-weary Bri­tish sol­dier (James McAvoy) is led by a Vir­gil-like Scot­tish cor­po­ral across the beach and through the blasted town as the French slaugh­ter their horses and a makeshift choir sings a hymn to Eng­land. ( You can find Wright’s track­ing shot here: tinyurl.com/y8­mo6lug.)

Win­ston Churchill cer­tainly mined it for pro­pa­ganda value. But the boys on the beach were likely just happy to get home.

Not all of them did. The B. E. F. lost 68,000 sol­diers (dead, wounded, miss­ing, or cap­tured) and an as­tound­ing amount of equip­ment — 20,000 mo­tor­cy­cles, 445 tanks and 65,000 other ve­hi­cles along with more than 2,000 heavy guns. Some 40,000 French sol­diers were killed or cap­tured. (The French news­pa­per Le Monde has ob­jected to the way the French are por­trayed in the film, a com­plaint that might seem nig­gling un­less you’re French. I’d hold that while a di­rec­tor work­ing with his­tor­i­cal ma­te­rial has a duty to the truth, he also has the right to se­lect what parts of a story to present. Dunkirk isn’t his­tory, and peo­ple who get their his­tory from the movies get the his­tory they de­serve.)

Some peo­ple have called Dunkirk “the best war movie ever made,” and while I’m still more in­clined to Apoc­a­lypse Now and Pla­toon, there’s no deny­ing its tech­ni­cal pre­ci­sion and moral pur­pose. Nolan’s stub­born in­sis­tence on fo­cus­ing on the troops, the grunts who can see only a few feet in front of their faces, rather than the elites who plan and or­der wars, makes us all present in their strug­gles. They do what they do for var­i­ous rea­sons, but mostly be­cause they must: Theirs not to rea­son why,/Theirs but to do and die.

The evac­u­a­tion of Dunkirk has been por­trayed on film be­fore — notably in a 5 ½-minute track­ing shot in Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atone­ment.

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