“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”
Those were the words Churchill spoke in the House of Commons when he addressed them in the aftermath of the military campaign at Dunkirk, France.
Christopher Nolan’s 2017 war epic tells the simple, yet harrowing story of 4,00,000 British soldiers, routed and driven back by German troops, ending up on the beach of Dunkirk in the north of France. With enemy forces advancing on them in every direction, the British troops are desperately trying to cross the English Channel to get to British mainland, but their efforts are thwarted by German U-boats and aerial bombers sinking every one of their warships and destroyers.
“Why waste their precious tanks when they can pick us off from the air like fish in a barrel?” – Colonel Winnant
The screenplay’s narrow focus is one of the many, many things Nolan gets right with the movie. Rather than divert the audience’s attention to the political or strategic wars being fought within board rooms, Nolan chose instead to focus entirely on the events taking place on the Channel, in the skies above it, and on the beach itself.
Those self-imposed boundaries makes for a visceral experience that exquisitely captures the hopelessness, the frustration and the sheer desolation that stares these hundreds of thousands of young British soldiers right in the face. They’re cornered, the enemy draws closer with every passing hour, and as they watch, ships they were too late to get on leave them behind, only to be bombed and sunk in the middle of the Channel, the survivors swimming frantically back ashore.
It’s a fundamentally different approach to war films, and it works. There’s no one character the film focusses on, no quintessential ‘hero’ we come to root for (although there are many you come to grow quite attached to by the end). And somehow, you’re left feeling anything but indifferent to the fates of these mostly strange men.
Nor is there much dialogue – the film conveys mood, character and emotions largely through meaningful silences and pregnant pauses. A glance between two soldiers, or a quiet moment shared between a father and his son, out in the middle of the English Channel as British ships sink around them and soldiers desperately clamber onto their small pleasure yacht.
Action takes on a different form here, as well. As bombs explode against ships carrying hundreds of men, the soldiers struggle for their lives, stuck in the giant metal deathtrap as it sinks, taking them with it. Fighting for breath, they scream for help and desperately look for a way out, a way to the surface. It’s all very suffocating to watch, yet impossibly compelling.
But just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, you see RAF pilots chasing down Messerschmitt bombers, the tantalising cat and mouse chase between the two as the pilot in the rear tries to get the enemy plane bang in the middle of his sights so he can press a button and unleash a stream of bullets. It’s all very exciting, and the sound of the planes screaming through the clear blue skies still echoes in my ear.
And that, in my opinion, is Dunkirk’s greatest achievement. It’s not about Tom Hardy the pilot or Mark Rylance the boatman or Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles the soldiers. It’s about all of them, and all of the thousands of other men, most of them no older than 21, out there on a lonely beach with no hope of rescue and only the crushing eventuality of death brought on by bombers from above. And it’s about their frenzied attempts to fight the odds even when there’s no deliverance in sight, in a time when nothing could possibly go more wrong.
You see the mass of terrified young faces look up to the sky every time they hear the high-pitched whine of a German bomber, hunker down with their hands on their helmets hoping beyond hope that the next bomb doesn’t land on them. It’s the story of the army that by some damn miracle was saved from total destruction; the story of all 4,00,000, even the ones whose stories at Dunkirk ended in tragedy.
It’s impossible to imagine what it was like for those youths out there on Dunkirk beach, but Nolan’s film is about as close we could possibly get.
It’s slow and deliberate when it needs to be, loud and explosive when the occasion calls for it, and it remains compelling every minute that I watched it. Hans Zimmer’s score played no small part in this. Zimmer’s music is effortlessly woven into the film itself so distinguishing it from the movie becomes a difficult task, especially in the more tense scenes. The sound engineering in this movie is absurdly fantastic, and you’re doing yourself a disservice not watching it in IMAX, let alone the theatre.
Every one of the actors was suited for their roles, and they ranged from very good to extraordinary. It’s a testament to the filmmakers and the artists themselves when a film with so little dialogue could bring out such strong performances from every actor (yes, even Harry Styles!).
When I watched the credits roll in Dunkirk, I knew I had to write on here about it. But just a review wouldn’t suffice. I wanted to say so much about it, because there’s so much to be said about it. It was a risky, experimental film Nolan chose to make, and I think it’s totally paid off, and then some. Some viewers might not appreciate the hyper-realistic approach he took with the story, but I for one loved it. It was fresh, and it’s something I’d love seeing more of. Nolan never disappointed me as a director, and he has yet to do that.
Hey guys! Aneesh Bhargav here. If you like my work, please follow my blog and share it with all your friends! Let me know what you think in the comments! Hit me up on Twitter: @aneeshbhargav