I’ve talked about the film Dunkirk in the past, it’s a great film to study. In this post, I’ll be using comparative elements to discover its true form. So if you too enjoy film analysis, then check it out.
Dunkirk is without a doubt a smart and thrilling film about a group of young Allied soldiers, a few piolets, and several civilians who all played their part in this historical battle of WWII. The film was crafted as cunningly as one would expect any of Christopher Nolan’s movies. Nolan has directed successful films such as Inception and Interstellar, two films that shocked the world with their creativity and in-depth plots. Dunkirk is an American film made last summer, July 2017, starring actors such as Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, and Cillian Murphy.
We see these characters face all odds as they are all placed in terrible situations. Most of them don’t get the chance to fight, or even speak much for that matter because of the intense conflict that surrounds them.
This film is different than other Christopher Nolan films with its historical background and little dialogue. It’s different from other war films with a largely one-sided battle, an irrational storyboard, and an even deeper focus involving civilians. Because of this, I raise the question; was Dunkirk a war film up to par with films like Full Metal Jacket, or was it more of a thriller based on creating suspense?
The film Dunkirk takes place on a battlefield but is that enough to qualify it to be a war movie? One could compare Dunkirk to the grittiest, most realistic, and passionate war movie, Full Metal Jacket. By doing so, there would be side to side comparisons between what is surely an American made war film, next to a clever and elegant piece that stuck success at the box office. There is more to compare than just the setting of a war film, but its themes, emotions, and the director’s choices involving elements such as music and dialogue also make a large impact on a film’s genre.
What makes a film a war story? The war itself does not matter, nor does the timeframe, or the individual battles. It is the emotions depicted, the reasoning for the film, and the overlining themes of heroism and bravery that make certain movies war films. Dunkirk shows the historical battle for Dunkirk where the allied forces needed to be rescued by their own British civilians. The story is true as it is powerful showing the desperate situation these men had to endure and the nationalism and bravery the civilians of Great Britain displayed as they traveled to France to save their army.
Full Metal Jacket also showed the dedication of soldiers and opens up to the long-held idea that war is hell. Although these two films were created decades apart from each other and depict wars from separate time periods, they still share the same values, when it comes to the dedication of soldiers.
While everyone is in agreement of uplifting the men who fought and died during combat, not all war movies praised the specific wars that our country participated in. Going back to the definition of a war film, it’s reasoning. “Joker” in the film Full Metal Jacket, played a journalist in the marines long out of combat. He wore a peace symbol button that conflicted with the message written on his helmet “Born to Kill”. After his traumatizing time in boot camp, months spent in Vietnam, then finally his brush in conflict, Joker learned much about this war. He saw that the people they are supposed to be helping hated them, the people they killed were just farmers, and the war itself was changing the psychology of its soldiers.
Compare the suicidal scenes of Full Metal Jacket to Dunkirk. When Private Leonard murder-suicides his Sargent, it was out of revenge for the mistreatment he was put through. When what we saw from the allied soldier on the beach of Dunkirk was an act of desperation. He walked into the sea himself and was never seen again a result of the stressful situation he was in. Sargent Hartford’s death was more of a shocking turn and a statement against the harsh treatment of soldiers in training.
Full Metal Jacket was made to show the real conflicts of war and the suffering that so many men went through for a war that didn’t need to be fought. Dunkirk on the other hand showed a completely different war and had a much more positive message. It was made to show a better side of humanity. In the darkest of moments humans won’t fall apart, but group together as a nation and risk their own life to save others. In Dunkirk, you didn’t have to be a soldier, or even a man, to be a hero. You didn’t have to win the battle to be victorious or even put up a decent fight. As WWII had a more positive cause, the reasoning behind the war films made about it tends to also show positivity. The Vietnam war was widely protested against so the films about it view the war negatively.
While war films can have happy endings, and often do so, the themes of survival, and civilian intervention are not typical in these type of films but do occur.
It seems fairly obvious that Dunkirk should be labeled a war film. After all, it fits the parameter being a fictional piece based on true events of war, the Battle of Dunkirk. But that only describes the setting that needed to be placed, without any indications of what type of action should be featured. “Fighting that war, planning it, and undergoing combat within it should fill the major portion of the running time” (filmrefference.com).
Going by this definition of a war film, it’s hard to say that enough action was taken to make Dunkirk a war movie rather than an evacuation movie. Conflict occurs when two foes confront each other, but throughout this film, we saw the Allied Forces as open targets. They had no way to fight and little ways to run. The film was dominated by Germany’s success in cornering the British and French troops onto a beach where they could pick them off slowly. But there still are war movies that are not heavily reliant on action. Films like The Best Years of Our Lives displayed a post-war scenario that was heavily influenced by war, but not inclined to show conflict. Other films will do the same using flashbacks to return to the war periodically as it is an important part of their plot. The question is, do these count as war films?
“I didn’t view this as a war film,” says the director. “I viewed it as a survival story”
Christopher Nolan went to another great director for advice when making this film, the creator of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg. In Spielberg’s recreation of the battle at Omaha Beach, his war movie featured limbs being blown off, vicious battles, and depressing losses that the audience empathized with.
“We didn’t want to compete with that because it is such an achievement. I realized I was looking for a different type of tension” (Nolan).
This director found many ways for his film to distinguish itself from others.
Besides Nolan’s classic cinematography techniques and overly extreme attention to detail, he strived to be different in a variety of ways.
“I needed suspense, and the language of suspense is one where you can’t take your eyes from the screen,” he says. “The language of horror is one where you hide your eyes. You’re looking away. It’s a different form of tension (Lang).
The way Nolan got his audience to keep their eyes glued to the screen was by crafting a thriller like we’ve never seen before. He gave us characters we had no reason to connect to. A random British teen in the middle of the war, a pilot making a brief flight, and a man with nothing but his son, a friend, and their sailboat. The names of the characters did not matter as some of them were only mentioned once. In the traditional war film like Full Metal Jacket, we get involved with our characters, the Marines showed in that film were brought up from the beginning of their training at boot camp. We saw these characters develop into killers before they were shipped out to Vietnam. It was important to see these character’s rise up because it made the film all that more traumatic when they were killed. They spoke to each other, told them stories and we learned of all of their differences being from random parts of our nation. We wanted to see them succeed, not just because they were on the American front, but because we had time invested in them and learned who they were.
Christopher Nolan’s approach to recreating the war was much more different as it was told like a thriller. It was hard to remember characters name’s and faces as they all seemed to be the same. Tommy, who started in The Mole, lost his entire squad within the first minute of the movie. Normally your men are the ones who will stick with you throughout the entire movie, naturally an elite killing force. But Tommy was an inexperienced soldier on his own. His first friend was a French soldier who didn’t speak English and was completely silent in most moments. Together the two met other British soldiers, but still, there was little dialogue. The British soldiers, for the most part, looked alike and when the French spoke, there were no subtitles making you rely almost entirely on what you saw, which was a visual masterpiece.
Instead of focusing the camera on the main points of battle, the conflict, German U boats and air force fleets, we got to see the faces of the terrified Allied soldiers as misfortune struck. When a torpedo was fired at the large destroyer they sneaked on to, we never saw where the missile came from, only the effects of its destruction. When they were in the boat waiting for the tide to come in, you had no idea where the shots were coming from while the soldiers were trapped within the boat. It was all very real, the emotions of the audience were shared with the film’s characters as we had no more information about the world than they did.
The aspect of closely following a set of characters and giving the audience a first-person viewpoint rather than the full knowledge of a third person view is common in thrillers, not war movies. Traditionally, war films pride the soldier’s tactics and show the battle plans usually spoken by generals around a large table then carried out by the foot soldiers. Or in Full Metal Jacket, when the sniper was gunning them down in the final scene, we all knew where she was, but the men didn’t. Imagine if we could have closer felt the emotions that Joker did at that moment. It’s hard to when you know something that he doesn’t.
In Dunkirk, the idea of splitting the story into three separate pieces with different characters have different missions is not too uncommon in war movies. Joker and his buddy from boot camp, Cowboy, met after going their separate ways in the Marines. Similarly, but with an entirely different game plan, Nolan had his three separate stories on three separate timelines, but they all collided towards the end. It may have been confusing to think when you notice Tom Hardy’s character, the pilot, only has one hour of fuel, but Tommy lasted multiple days in Dunkirk. The entire story was broken into pieces then put back together to create a thrilling chain of events with action never letting up. Even in the regular war films, there is time set aside for plot, character development, and time elapsing. But in Dunkirk, it is explosions and gunshot with only the intense feeling of awaiting danger in these in-between time.
This suspense has a sound to it that kept the audience thrilled even in the dialogue-less quiet moments. Christopher Nolan’s composer Hans Zimmer has worked with him in the past and the two enjoy putting a special kind of sound illusion to give his films that suspenseful touch. He is able to create a tone that seems to be getting higher and higher without actually changing its audio. The technique is called The Shepard’s Tone, it’s used by creating multiple layers on an ongoing loop. Three tones are made at different levels but all play at once separated by octaves. As the audio plays out, the highest tone comes in but fades away, the middle tone plays loudly all the way through, and the deepest bass tone slowly comes into audibility. When placed in a loop, you will always hear two of the tones ascending up the scales at the same time. You think you are hearing something constantly ascending, just like the suspense in the movie. This never-ending intense loop sounds eerie like you are rising up without control, it relates directly to the rising tension of the film, which is why Christopher Nolan loves using it so much (Vox).
Music like this should be featured in war movies, but it’s not because it’s too much. The goal of a war movie isn’t to scare or intimidate your audience. The bloodshed and gore they show in Full Metal Jacket or Saving Private Ryan is purely for historical accuracy. Dunkirk doesn’t even feature that much blood and remained a PG-13 movie despite the countless deaths. Perhaps this is because Dunkirk is one of the few war movies where you should fear drowning more than you should gunfire.
Throughout the several scenes out at sea, there is always the threat of sinking. Within the labyrinths of WWII warships, one torpedo strike could fill an entire level full of water with no way out. In this film, you either drowned or were blown away off camera by dropped bombs. Not one big name character died, they didn’t use any cheap gimmicks to make you feel sad. This wasn’t an emotional movie it was an intense one. Films like, Saving Private Ryan, wanted you to feel sad for the lost characters, and in Full Metal Jacket, you were supposed to think about the corruption of government. But Dunkirk the only way that you connected with these characters was by seeing through their eyes better than you did in either of those two war films.
Unlike Full Metal Jacket with its gloomy ending where we question what it is we are fighting for, Dunkirk ends at first with a glimpse into what “survivors guilt” looks like. They were just saved by an amazing feat of heroism like we see in countless movies, but no one was happy. They rode away from danger with blue faces covered in black oil. Tommy had seen so many deaths, the owner of the sailboat and his son had lost a friend, and Tom Hardy’s flew away into the sunset deeper into German territory out of fuel and ready to surrender. They were depressed as they got off their ships and made their way into England to prepare for the inevitable next stages of the war fearing Germany would soon conquer the world.
The blind man handing out blankets to the troops told everyone “Well done.” One responded with “All we did is survive.” To which he replied, “That’s enough.” It wasn’t until they truly reached England that the story took an uplifting turn, because the film’s message wasn’t at all about the troops in battle or heroism of soldiers because all they really did was die and cower. The real heroes were the citizens of Britain who risked their lives to save their army, but still, they all rejoiced as the soldiers returned home. There was talk in the papers of the bravery those sailors had and their prime minister Churchill rallied the nation with his famous speech “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”. No true war film shows such defeat, no war film avoids the theme of soldiers’ bravery and sorrow over fallen brothers.
Can we call the film about the greatest military disaster a war movie when the true heroes were not soldiers but civilians? Can we call Dunkirk a war movie if it was a one-sided battle with enemies on all sides with a vicious air force that slaughtered the Allied men?
Dunkirk is without a doubt a war film, yet it has the tendencies of a good thriller. Who is to say that thriller cannot take on a battlefield? Who’s to say war films can’t have the aspects of horror? We mix genres more and more today with our interest shrinking and greater stories being required. This type of film needed to take place on Dunkirk because you cannot be so easily thrilled with regular warfare which the Battle for Dunkirk was not.
A horror takes place when characters are put up against a force so powerful that they are completely outmatched and only until they have grown as characters can they lay an attack. But for the most part, horror movies are just about survival, which Christopher Nolan himself said, this is not a war film, but a survival film. It has the music of a thriller and the videography of a blockbuster that showed the emotions of the battle that took place long ago. If there can be such thing as a thriller war film, then that is what Dunkirk is classified as. It cannot be just a war film, because it is the first of its kind, different than the gritty Full Metal Jacket, or the blood-filled Saving Private Ryan. Dunkirk is virtual reality without the headset and a visual masterpiece to all who watch it.
Lang, Brent. “Christopher Nolan Gets Candid on the State of Movies, Rise of TV and Spielberg’s Influence.” Variety, 8 Nov. 2017.
Vox, director. The Sound Illusion That Makes Dunkirk so Intense. 26 July 2017.
“War Films.” Film Reference.