'Dunkirk' and the visceral power of cinema

21 Jul 2017 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

8 mins
Dunkirk (silhouette)
Dunkirk (silhouette)

Dunkirk is the extraordinary new film from writer/director Christopher Nolan, best known for The Dark Knight TrilogyInception and Interstellar. Tackling true-to-life events for the first time in his career, he tells the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, a crucial event in World War Two.

Separated into three elements - following events on the beach, the sea, and in the air - the intercut action takes place over three time periods: a week on the beach; a day at sea; and an hour in the air, roughly reflecting the actual timeline of events as they unfolded. Dialogue is sparse and there is little traditional characterisation. Instead, we have a relentless, unbearably tense survival story that uses a host of pioneering filmmaking techniques to capture something of the experience of one of the defining events of the twentieth century.

Although it took place early in World War Two, events at Dunkirk had a huge impact on the outcome of the war. In late May 1940, around 400,000 troops - mostly from Britain, but also France, Belgium and Canada - were surrounded by the German army and forced back to the beaches of Dunkirk. Home was only 26 miles away, across the Channel, but there was no easy way to reach it. Under intense fire and utterly exhausted, a military catastrophe appeared inevitable.

Due to the shallowness of the beach, the large British naval ships were unable to moor their boats to rescue the men, with only a narrow breakwater known as a ‘mole' to serve as a jetty. Hope came in the form of ordinary citizens, who responded to a call to aid the effort by setting off from the southern coast of England on a flotilla of small boats to bring the men home. Their actions, together with some calm weather and ingenuity from those involved, resulted in more than 340,000 soldiers being successfully rescued, in what came to be known as 'The Miracle of Dunkirk'. Without the evacuation, the war would have had a very different result, and the world would be dramatically different today. The events of Dunkirk have come to embody a sense of plucky determination and togetherness.

Nolan began thinking about this film in the mid-90s, when he and his wife Emma Thomas (who produces all of his films), set sail themselves on a small boat for the beaches of Dunkirk, undergoing an arduous journey full of torrential weather and rough seas. Although it did not come close to the events of 1940, it did give the filmmaker an understanding of how remarkable a feat it was for ordinary citizens to undertake the crossing in their own boats to help with the rescue.

Perhaps because the event lacks the traditional cinematic forms of battle and victorious scenes, Dunkirk is in some ways not the most obvious subject for a film, despite its significance. A 1958 film, also named Dunkirk, starred Richard Attenborough and was notable for its patriotic tone. The events also play an important part in Mrs. Miniver, made during the war itself, and Joe Wright's Atonement, which features a stunning five minute tracking shot, following James McAvoy's soldier along a war-ravaged beach surveying the damage.

The filmmakers did not want to make a conventional war film, and were more interested in telling a, suspenseful, immersive action thriller, balancing a respect for history with an intense, entertaining cinematic experience for audiences. In a season of films which influenced Dunkirk that Nolan recently programmed, there were some surprising choices. Nail-biting thrillers such as Speed and Unstoppable appear, as well as Ridley Scott's Alien, and silent classics Greed and Sunrise. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense,  also made the list, with Foreign Correspondent, filmed in 1940. The downing of a plane at sea in that film was a direct inspiration for what the filmmakers attempted in Dunkirk.

Only one war film makes the list: All Quiet On The Western Front, which focuses on a group of young schoolboys encouraged by their teacher to join the Kaiser's army at the start of World War One. The focus on youth is also a defining feature of Dunkirk. Although the film features established stars such as Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh, a great deal of focus is on younger faces, led by newcomer Fionn Whitehead in the key role of Tommy, a stranded soldier, and pop icon Harry Styles in his first film role as another "everyman", named Alex. Many of these soldiers were barely out of school; a sobering realisation for young audiences learning about the event for the first time.

Christopher Nolan has a reputation a making huge-scale films with as little CGI as possible, pushing the boundaries of cinema at a time when audiences are consuming content on an ever- wider variety of viewing platforms. Continuing techniques he has been developing since The Dark Knight, all of the film was shot on IMAX or 70mm cameras. Filming also took place on the beaches of Dunkirk itself; in the Channel, using up to 60 historically-accurate ships on a huge range of scales; and in the skies above, in actual Spitfire planes. The scale and technical challenges are staggering, particularly when it came to attaching big, heavy IMAX cameras to the cockpit of a plane, or the deck of a small tug-boat in the middle of the sea - not to mention safely and successfully placing the actors in the middle of these situations to capture their performance from a variety of angles.

Adding to the intensity is the film's sound. Hans Zimmer's pulsating score plays as one long piece, but with a complex tonal structure, using samplings from the motor of one of the ships, or with the engine of a spitfire mixed in to give a sense of constant acceleration. Together with this, we also hear the ominous ticking of a watch - Nolan's own - which only adds to the sense of urgency.

Watching the film is to put aside admiration of the filmmaking technique and vividly feel like you are with the soldiers. It is often necessarily chaotic, difficult to know what is going on, or where characters are, but this all feels authentic to the situation. We do not see any German soldiers, a conscious decision from the filmmakers, to reflect the fact that for those on the beach, sightings of what was known as "the enemy" were extremely rare.

Approaching a subject as important as Dunkirk requires care and sensitivity, and the filmmakers were keen to ensure that everything on screen was as authentic as possible. No film can truly capture the horror of the experience for those involved, but Dunkirk is a fitting tribute to a story of survival and communal heroism that has become so ingrained in the British character. A unique experience, the film demonstrates the phenomenal power of cinema and gives its audience more of an understanding of what happened at Dunkirk, allowing us to feel as much as possible like we were actually there.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Into Film programmer

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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