Christopher Nolan takes on one of the most crucial events of World War II in Dunkirk.
What is the measure of a good film? Its cast and director? The studio behind the production? How well it performs at the box office? Whether or not an aggregated review score rates highly as a percentage on a website? My litmus test is far less complicated: if I’m still thinking about the film a week later, then it’s classified as a winner. Four months after seeing Dunkirk at the media screening, I’m still thinking about it.
This month not only brings the joy of Christmas, but Dunkirk finally lands in-store at JB. Historical drama is new territory for director Christopher Nolan and taking on the biggest seaborne evacuation in history could, understandably, be conceived as sheer lunacy for the filmmaker.
However, undeterred by the scale of the ambitious production, Nolan set to work recreating the great escape of the British Expeditionary Force, intent on keeping the CGI effects to a minimum. Consequently, Nolan shot actual aerial photography using vintage aircraft. He built a full-scale ship that could be sunk and used cutouts for the troops on the beach as opposed to rendering the soldiers on a computer.
“I’ve never quite understood why a modern film hadn’t been made about it”
All of this, alongside the director’s reliance on performances to tell the story instead of a detailed script, and a brilliant score from Hans Zimmer, help create a modern innovative take on the war genre that rewrites all the rules.
Codenamed Operation Dynamo, Dunkirk was an unmitigated disaster despite being pushed as a morale boosting victory. When Germany invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France in early May 1940, a series of decisive victories spearheaded by Hitler’s relentless armoured divisions forced the British Expeditionary Force (400,000) and French armies back to the coast.
The town of Dunkirk became the focus of a frenetic evacuation. In just over a week, 338,226 personnel escaped across the channel utilising navy and civilian craft. The British prime minister had predicted that only 30,000 would be rescued in the lead up to the mass exodus.
“Like with most British people, Dunkirk is a story I grew up with,” says Christopher Nolan, talking during a Los Angeles press junket. “As children, we received a very simplified, almost mythic, fairytale version of what happened there. About 20 years ago, my producing partner and wife Emma Thomas made the crossing across the English Channel to Dunkirk with a friend of ours, who owned a small boat.
“It was about the same time of year the evacuation had taken place. The crossing was extremely difficult. It felt difficult and dangerous – and that was without people dropping bombs on us, and us heading into a war zone.
“I came away from that experience with respect for and fascination with the people who had taken part in the real evacuation. I’ve never quite understood why a modern film hadn’t been made about it, and as a filmmaker, those are the kind of gaps you’re looking to fill.”
Eschewing the Spielbergian docudrama style that has become the standard for war films since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, Nolan has crafted a film that harnesses relentless tension as opposed to the shock of violent imagery. There is no principal narrative or character, no pinned love interest; the film is about survival. War film clichés are vehemently avoided. And the lack of CGI adds a layer of verisimilitude to the film. You know the aircraft dogfighting sequences were shot in
“Everything in the film is intended to be intense, suspenseful and subjective”
“In planning the aerial sequences it was very important to me that we try to achieve as much in camera as possible,” explains Nolan. “We were able to secure real Spitfires, a real bomber, real Heinkels, and tried to situate the IMAX camera where we’d never tried before.
“It was all about putting the audience in the cockpit of the plane with the pilot. It was a lot of attention to detail, and a lot of careful planning. We shot all those sequences on IMAX and overwhelmingly for real.
“We bought a Yak airplane that’s very similar in size and shape to a Spitfire, but has two cockpits, so we could have a real pilot flying, while we had our actor up in the air with a camera mounted on the wing getting his close-ups. We really wanted to tell this aerial story in a way we hadn’t seen before.”
Nolan tells the Dunkirk story in three parts, theming the individual plot lines as land, sea and air (one week, one day, one hour).
“The idea behind the structure of the story and the way in which we’ve told it is to create what I refer to as an intimate epic,” he says. “You’re trying to stay in a very intimate point of view with each of the story threads, but have them gradually create a cumulative picture about a very, very large event.”
“What I was hoping to gain was a way of maintaining a subjective storytelling approach, while building a coherent picture of the larger events at Dunkirk. Everything in the film is intended to be intense, suspenseful and subjective. You want to be on the beach with these guys, seeing events through their points of view. But then you also want to construct this bigger picture, which also requires a view from the air, from a Spitfire pilot, and from the sea, from people coming over to help with the evacuation.
“That way, you don’t allow the audience to step out of the movie,” he continues. “I didn’t want to give the audience knowledge that the characters didn’t have, apart from the interaction of these three distinct story threads.”
From the opening scene of Dunkirk to its conclusion, the suspense is indeed relentless; at times almost unbearable. Nolan avoids the big cinematic set pieces, instead relying on personal vignettes that capture the disbelief and desperation of the escape; Kenneth Branagh attempting to orchestrate the pier evacuation and maintaining a sense of stoicism and duty throughout; a soldier discarding his equipment and striding into the sea; Tom Hardy chalking his Spitfire’s remaining fuel consumption on to the cockpit panel. Together, these moments form an epic story of survival.
The most powerful war film since Terrence Malick’s brilliant The Thin Red Line (1998), Dunkirk is a game changer for the genre, from an exceptional filmmaker.
Dunkirk in film
Director Joe Wright’s incredible, sweeping, one-take shot of the evacuation at Dunkirk in Atonement succinctly captures in just under five minutes the futility and desperation of a shattered army on the beaches, that just wants to get home. The choreography is brilliant.
Two stories rolled into one. The first follows the attempts of a group of British soldiers left to fend for themselves in France, while a second story thread centers on a group of civilians that make their way across the English Channel in a boat to assist with the rescue mission.
While only briefly featuring Operation Dynamo, Mrs. Miniver deals with the inevitable personal loss that the war brought and how it affected many families. Filmed during the Second World War, Mrs. Miniver would win six Academy Awards in 1943, including Best Picture.
Dunkirk’s Shepard Tone
A significant aspect of portraying the desperation and futility of the evacuation from the beaches in Nolan’s Dunkirk is the pulsating score. Written by Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Black Hawk Down, Inception), the score uses an audio illusion known as a Shepard tone.
Think of it as the Penrose stairs or the barber’s pole optical illusion. The Shepard tone gives the illusion of a tone either continuously rising or falling.
However the rising tone, for example, is simply a limited series of cycling tones each separated by an octave and played at different volumes.
These volume changes force the listener to concentrate on certain notes while ignoring the others. Thus the illusion of a continuous rise is created. Zimmer deployed this audio trick with startling effect in Dunkirk, raising the tension to fever pitch with this seemingly incessant sonic crawl.
Nolan also recorded his pocket watch and sent the recording to Zimmer, who put it in the score to add to the drama.