Christopher Nolan has written and directed a thoughtful and visually stunning piece of cinema in “Dunkirk”. In contrast to the graphic and (frankly blood-spattered) portrayals of the second world war in films such as Saving Private Ryan and Fury, Dunkirk focuses not on the physical trauma of the events of May/June 1940, but rather the emotional and psychological impact. The film focuses exclusively on the behavior of allied (mostly British) soldiers and airmen, and the civilians who sailed the flotilla of small craft from the south coast of England to Dunkirk to assist with the evacuation. There is barely sight of a German soldier until the closing frames of the film. The ‘good guy : bad guy’, Allied forces : German forces, narrative that so often permeates film dramatisations of events from this period in history, is therefore noticeably absent from Dunkirk. Instead, the tensions and ethical conflicts are all played out amongst the soldiers and civilians on the British side. Thus, we see French soldiers prevented from embarking onto British ships in the initial stages of the evacuation; and soldiers from different units being turned away from a line waiting to go on board because they aren’t “Grenadiers”. The opportunism (borne out of desperation) that leads two privates to pick up a stretcher and run across the sand to get a casualty on board a hospital ship (hoping that this would be their ticket out) only serves to highlight the ethical and moral compromises that are made in the name of survival. The fact that the two soldiers, having delivered the casualty, are then ordered off the ship and back to the beach seems scant reward for their efforts, until the ship itself is then bombed and sunk while still at the jetty waiting to depart. This is one of a number of episodes in the film that brings into sharp relief the randomness of war and the way that casualties occur. Soldiers who are injured but survive the bombing on the beaches, then drown when their hospital ship is sunk at sea; the only civilian casualty in the film is killed accidentally in a scuffle involving the boat’s owner and a survivor picked up from the sea en route to Dunkirk; a Spitfire pilot shot down over the channel is on the verge of perishing when he is rescued by a passing small boat. To this extent, at least, Nolan captures perfectly the lottery of life and death in the theatre of war.
Similarly, the scene in the Dutch trawler where soldiers who have sensed an opportunity to escape under their own steam, then turn on each other seeking a scapegoat when the trawler becomes target practice for unseen but advancing German troops, demonstrates the all-to-human trait of demonizing the ‘other’ when things go wrong. In this case, the ‘other’ taking the form of a French soldier who has ‘borrowed’ the uniform from a dead British soldier in order to try to get off the beach. Ultimately, the French soldier dies not at the hands of one of the group, but drowning as the trawler sinks under the incoming tide as water pours in through the bullet-ridden hull.
If I have a criticism of the film then it’s around the fact that there is little character development and so it’s actually quite hard to feel any particularly strong sense of emotional attachment to, or even empathy with, the main protagonists. We learn right at the end of the film that the eldest son of the owner of the small boat through whose eyes the account of the evacuation fleet is told, was an RAF pilot who was killed in the early days of the war; and we get some insight into the fears that evacuated soldiers had about their reception back home having retreated in the face of the Germans and needed to be rescued (unfounded fears as it turns out). Beyond that though, we learn little to nothing about the backgrounds of the main characters. That was doubtless deliberate as Nolan sought to focus on the ‘here and now’ of the situation facing the soldiers on the beach; but it did leave me feeling more like I had watched a drama-documentary – engaging me on an intellectual level; rather than a piece of cinema that works both intellectually and emotionally. I was reinforced in my view that war is wholly barbaric and utterly de-humanizing, but I can’t say that I was particularly moved by or sad or even anguished at the plight of any of the individual characters.
Overall, Dunkirk is a good film, succeeding in depicting historical events accurately and immersively, without over-playing things. Perhaps, though, it’s just a little too cerebral to be compelling drama.