Shell-shocked. That’s how they describe Cillian Murphy’s “shivering soldier”, rescued from a sinking hull by Mark Rylance’s little boat in the middle of the madness of Dunkirk.
“He may never be himself again,” says Rylance of his new passenger who is soon to be joined by scores of other soldiers fished from the sea.
And maybe that’s what Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s staggering new movie is going for – shell-shock. Audiences will emerge blinking, the sound of bombs, gunfire and panic filling their heads, augmented by Hans Zimmer’s score, which builds from taut, simmering strings to full-on siren wail. At moments, the tension and the fear are suffocating – and so immersive is the IMAX filming, that this applies to the audience as much as the characters up on screen.
Have we ever been the same? Certainly the War changed the map and the psyche of Europe, the repercussions and reverberations echoing still. Nolan’s film, it is generally being acknowledged, takes its place among the great depictions of war on screen – technically and emotionally, it’s a masterpiece and, for me, easily his finest movie.
But is it what we want from our war movies in the modern, war-ravaged 21st century?
There should be no doubting Nolan’s quest for realism and accuracy, or at least the kind of illusory accuracy only cinema is capable of when tasked with re-creating history. The film is an act of memory and compression, themes Nolan has tackled before in Memento, Inception and Interstellar, but here the approach is used as a means to understanding the past and its disorder.
The better to understand the chaos, Nolan imposes a structure. He tells the story from three perspectives: the men, young men, lined up in their helmets and uniforms along the “mole” (a pier-type water break) in the stricken Dunkirk harbour – they are like “fish in a barrel,” as Kenneth Branagh’s Royal Naval commander realises; the sea rescue by requisitioned civilian pleasure boats sailing from our own southern ports (Ramsgate, Deal); Spitfire pilots (played by Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy) engaged in aerial dogfights that, almost on their own, saved literally thousands.
The strands of air, land and sea are brilliantly woven together to give us some idea of the time-lines and hellish confusion. The turning of the tides was crucial, too, but it’s only recognised here when a soldier remarks that the dead bodies are now floating back to shore.
For the most part, Nolan tries to swerve politics to concentrate on the pure, human instinct of survival. Men, young men, jump from sinking, blazing ships into the churning waters, or dive into the sand, eyes closed, praying the Luftwaffe’s bombs do not hit them.
You may have heard that Harry Styles, the One Direction pop star, makes his acting debut here among the soldiers and indeed he does, quite unobtrusively, as part of a band of brothers grappling for survival aboard various vessels, swimming through bullets, water and flaming oil to clamber onto the rescue boats. Styles’ involvement may bring a new generation of viewers to the WWII movie genre and their reactions will be vital.
Yet nobody could be billed as the star man in this cacophony. Although excellent, even Tom Hardy’s air ace is scarcely recognisable behind his pilot goggles and mouthpiece (Nolan really does like to mask and muffle this actor, as he did to the villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises). Terrence Malick had a similar approach in his great anti-war piece, The Thin Red Line (1998), the big Hollywood names all fading into the background against the director’s metaphysical contemplation of the folly of war.
And we have to try and believe that is Nolan’s aim in Dunkirk, as if extending the horrors captured by that memorable, six-minute tracking shot from Joe Wright’s 2007 Atonement into an entire film.
Dunkirk is surely intended as an anti-war movie, contrasting with the 1958 epic of the same name, directed by Leslie Norman and starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough, which is couched in the patriotic, morale-raising tenor of most British war movies of the period, from Ice Cold in Alex, to The Dambusters and Carve Her Name With Pride.
Dunkirk, make no mistake, was an early defeat for the Allied army but spun, by the collective mind and Churchillian rhetoric, into some kind of victory by the fact that so many British soldiers survived and got home when really the German army could have crushed them and changed the tide of history. “We shall fight them on the beaches,” is the speech that comes directly out of its wreckage, the Battle of Britain following hard upon.
Why are there are more war movies than ever on our screens? This year has already brought Churchill, in which Brian Cox played the leader in the run up to the D-Day landings at Normandy, and Their Finest, a comedy about the making of a film based on the civilian boats that sailed to the rescue at Dunkirk. We had Alone in Berlin just a few weeks ago and, looking ahead, Joe Wright himself is back at it with The Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Churchill being unleashed later this year and Suite Francaise director Saul Dibb has taken on filming the classic British First World War play Journey’s End, with Sam Claflin and Paul Bettany.
I’m sure we’re meant to nod sagely that these are all anti-war pieces, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come without heavy baggage or inherent politics. They’re all told from a UK standpoint, all designed to do business in the US (they even made Alone in Berlin in English so it would travel), so stories of bravery and honour end wrapped up in the classic jingoism of those 1950s war films. Nolan is clearly re-packaging those hoary British pillars of “the Dunkirk spirit” and “the Blitz spirit”, all of which have done so much to foster an idea of glorious isolationism and a national scepticism of Europe over the years, among football hooligans, military historians, pub bores, film producers and Nigel Farage.
Even Hans Zimmer’s Dunkirk score eventually glides into a variation on Elgar to swell the pride as our boys arrive safely home to bread, jam, a cup of tea and a hero’s welcome.
Carefully, in the closing credits, Nolan dedicates the film to: “All those whose lives were impacted by the events at Dunkirk.” Which means everything and nothing, like sound and fury.
We can’t take it for granted that these days all war movies are a way of demonstrating the madness so that it should never happen again; this Dunkirk hardly appeals to a united Europe, choosing instead to flatter the British ego and its stiff sense of heroism. Indeed, the real fear you get from it is that, actually, it is all happening again.
Dunkirk is a thundering, resounding war movie. But it isn’t visionary (at least it isn’t re-visionary, I suppose) but it feels cut off from the now – old-fashioned cinema, both thematically and technically. I wanted some relevance to today’s war, to the war depicted in City of Ghosts, some thoughts about why we got to the point where all those boys were on Dunkirk beach, waiting to be slaughtered. And how we could stop it.