“It’s never for anything. Why do you think that people like films? It’s because stories are structured; have a shape, a purpose, a meaning; and when things go bad they’re still a part of a plan; there’s a point to them. Unlike life.”
– Tom Buckley, Their Finest
When the closest thing Dunkirk has to a protagonist, played by 20-year old Fionn Whitehead in his first film role, meets the second character of the broken troupe that makes up Christopher Nolan’s strange, breathtaking war epic, the other is burying a fallen comrade, after having stolen the dead man’s boots. The camera lingers for the slightest moment on the corpse’s bare feet, and glances over the young man tying his new shoes matter-of-factly. In that moment, the audience is seeing what Whitehead sees, and he is more concerned with the other boy’s water canteen, which is shared.
The bare feet, though; the boots. They were the first image that made me sit up in the cinema and start to really take stock of what kind of story was being told here. Whether purposeful or not, they immediately called to mind for me – and, I would wager, for most who have read the novel – the dead airman’s boots in Erich Maria Remarque’s scathing critique of World War I, All Quiet On the Western Front. In the book, the main characters rid a dead pilot of his boots, much nicer than any of their own. The boots become a symbol or forewarning throughout the rest of the novel: whoever is wearing them is the next marked to die.
Even before characters start to drop, however, the boots provide a different sort of commentary: why should a pilot, someone in the air, off their feet, have boots of such a higher quality than the men who spend their days and many of their nights marching, marching, through unthinkable conditions of sticking mud and mire, a hellish bog made from an earth scarred by artillery and soaked in blood? I remember, over a decade later, the roiling horror that pitched through my stomach when my eighth-grade English teacher asked our class this very question.
The answer of course, is that he shouldn’t, but he does anyway. The answer, if you care to extrapolate, is that war isn’t a fair or meaningful narrative but simply a nonsensical atrocity that must be survived by those caught in it.
The reason I called Dunkirk a strange film in my opening paragraph is the same reason that I immediately veered into talking about a novel published nearly a century ago: because the film understands this lack of narrative coherence to real life, real death, in a way that we have for the most part stopped acknowledging in our arts and entertainment. When World War I decimated Europe, robbing the continent of a generation of men and literally carving scars into the landscape – scars that are present to this day – the way we talked about war changed.
To pull a standard first-year literature class method of illustrating this change, compare this idealistic stanza from “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke (who died from sepsis before he ever faced combat in Gallipoli):
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
— with this from “Anthem For Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen (the most famous of the war poets, who died shortly before an armistice was reached, and who wrote this while in hospital for shell-shock before being re-deployed to the trenches):
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
Brooke is selling the old line, about the glory of dying for one’s nation, the idea of meaning and even heroism in the midst of war. Owen knows better. He has seen his comrades fall, seen how their deaths mean nothing, how they have been nothing, in the eyes of the war and the men who orchestrate it, but cannon fodder, more bodies to be thrown in front of guns until one side or the other runs out of bodies or guns or both. Anonymous in their utterly, utterly pointless deaths.
After World War I, depictions of war split. While some propagandists still attempted to make a narrative of it, to give us heroism and adventure and glory, war in art became, for the most part, horror and confusion. From Eliot’s The Waste Land to Picasso’s Guernica, depictions of war were howls of anguish.
The problem with this when it came to film was that, as we all know, the movies love a hero. So, while the devastation of the war was still fresh, films like The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, the highest-grossing film of 1921 (beating even Chaplin) and one of the first true anti-war movies, dealt with the personal cost of war. But it was easier for popular cinema to slip back into stories of dashing heroism than it may have been for other art forms. And it became even easier still after the end of World War II.
Despite the fact of the incomprehensible death toll of the Second World War, a number so big it is impossible to truly understand or reckon with, its outcome still ushered in a new age of the heroic war story. This is likely because, unlike World War I, there was a clear bad guy in this conflict. Even the revelation of the death camps, a crime against humanity so huge that words cannot contain it – in the famous words of Adorno, “no poetry after Auschwitz” – did not stop the cultural tide of the war story (and the war movie in particular) becoming once again nationalistic and individualistic in nature. Think of the big, highly acclaimed, war movies of even the last few years: Hacksaw Ridge, American Sniper, even Inglorious Basterds: these are not movies that criticize war, not truly. They are movies that emphasize individual heroism in the face of war, that make it seem like there is a narrative to be found in the chaos, and that, in doing so, become propagandistic tools of nationalism and/or of the industrial war machine as a whole.
Which is why Dunkirk is so strange.
In a period characterized by the rapid international rise of nationalism, fascism, and toothless individualized politics, Nolan’s film is as anti-individualistic as it is anti-war. And it is decidedly anti-war.
We are in the midst of a strange sort of nostalgia boom for World War II, and for the British experience of Dunkirk and the Blitz in particular. In this year alone, we will see four films on the subject: Dunkirk, the tender home-front story Their Finest, also built around the evacuation of Dunkirk, and two separate Churchill biopics, at least one of which again makes explicit mention of the “miracle” on the beach. What is it that makes this the period and the story we feel we need to tell ourselves right now?
Leaving aside the Churchill films, as I’ve not seen either (and because, I suspect, there is an extra force at work in their provenance: something, perhaps, to do with the image of a popular orator and figurehead leading a nation that is on the brink. Though the popular conception of Churchill, at least, is diametrically opposed to the terrifying-yet-buffoonesque shadow that looms over global politics). Why are we returning to one of the darkest moments in the history of what is regularly if misleadingly termed “the free world,” a moment when we dangled on a dangerous precipice and very nearly fell?
Because, I think, we know what comes next: we know, at least, how that story ended. And because Hitler and his empire fell, we can tell ourselves, despite the massive loss of life and traumas still echoing through generations, that it was a clean-cut victory. We’re indulging in nostalgia for what we consider to be the good old days, when things were clearly black and white, and the good guys won.
The problem is, just like war stories, nostalgia can be leveraged in different ways. It can be a political tool for both the left and the right. In his excellent 2016 book The Ministry of Nostalgia, critic Owen Hatherley tears apart the current UK Conservative government’s claims of “austerity”. The original Austerity Britain, or the nation directly post-war, as he shows us, was one of massive amounts of social programming, an extremely communal approach to the rebuilding of the country, and the implementation of many of the programs and policies that were later decimated by Thatcher and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in turn, with New Labour not doing them much good either. So why on earth are the Conservatives using the same buzzword as the 1945 Labour government?
Well, because they’re hoping to pull off something very similar to what I think most war films do: the use of the aesthetic of a mythical, never existent past known as the “good old days” in order to sell their own, often completely opposite, agenda.
For Brits, the phrase “Austerity Britain” and the prior period of wartime Britain tend to evoke the idea of a time when communities were closer-knit, when people came together to help each other. The third Google result for “1950s Britain” is this Daily Mail article that quite literally has the tagline “imagine a country where doors are left unlocked, children play in the street, and people really do look out for each other”. It is a myth very similar to the equally-dangerous “bootstraps” one told in America.
What people tend to forget, in the warm haze of nostalgia, is that people in those decades came together because they had to, because there was no other choice, because the options were working together or the collapse of everything they knew and loved. And while that communal spirit is worth celebrating, using its aesthetics while stripping them of the values they were built upon is a dangerous rhetorical strategy often employed by the right.
Just over halfway through Dunkirk, Mark Rylance’s character screams desperately at his son, who is trying to reason with him, “we may be able to help!” It is the most heated the man gets, and it is in the face of being told that his attempt at aid might very well be useless. This is his character’s guiding principle, the one he engenders in the other characters who inhabit the sphere of his boat, and, in turn, the moral heart of the entire movie: we have to try to help each other.
It is also a moment that echoes the line that titles this essay, spoken by George, the young boy who accompanies father and son on their sea journey to Dunkirk, when they warn him that they are going into war: “I’ll be useful.”
I’ll be useful. I will do what I can.
The moral idealism is given to the civilians in the sea portion of the film for a very simple reason: they’re the only ones who have time to cling to or even think about it. Everyone else is busy – surviving. The young pseudo-protagonist has a moment when he tries to stop a group he has fallen in with from sacrificing a Frenchman for their own survival, but even he, when pressed, will do no more than protest. The desire for survival, to get out of the hell that is Dunkirk and go home, rides strongest in him.
This insistence on the need to help each other that Dunkirk presents is, in some ways, quite similar to the tagline for a much smaller budget film also about the Dunkirk landing that came out this year, the romantic interpersonal drama Their Finest. The poster for Their Finest evokes exactly the sort of nostalgia Owen Hatherley lampoons: the leads stand in front of a Union Jack which reads, “in the fight for freedom, everyone played a part.”
What’s the difference? Well, there’s a few tells: biggest of all is, of course, the inclusion of the national flag in the promotional material. This is a nationalist film, then. Then there’s the tagline itself, and its eery reminiscence to government home front propaganda. Finally, there is the fact that, unlike Dunkirk, Their Finest is a traditional narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end, and a protagonist who comes into herself over the course of the movie.
Now, a confession must be made: I loved Their Finest. I saw it twice in cinema, and both times I wept. Just because I am writing this piece doesn’t mean that I’m immune to the power that nostalgia holds over us. But also – and I promise this is not just to excuse my fondness for the film – I do believe that Their Finest troubles the propagandistic war movie mold somewhat, if not as much as Dunkirk does. It achieves this in two ways: firstly and primarily, Their Finest is a film about war films and how they work. The dialogue between the characters, like the quote with which I started this essay, regularly cuts through the illusion of cinema and shows the wires at work: what matters is the story and how it is told, and the story and real life are not the same thing. It is too self-aware a film to be wholly aestheticizing. Secondly, it ends in tragedy, if one small in scale compared to the whole war.
Dunkirk pushes beyond this. It is not, by any stretch, a traditionally narrative film. Rather, the action jumps between a week, a day, and an hour out from the moment of rescue, moving between the beach, the Channel, and the air respectively, all of them intercut with each other until the climax when they are finally happening concurrently. Also, there isn’t a story, not in the way we traditionally mean. There is no narrative arc, there is simply a representation of the events that make up the rescue at Dunkirk, with a smallish cast as symbols of the three main groups that made up the operation. We see the happenings on one boat, in two planes, and between three boys stranded on the beach, and these happenings stand in for what happened for all of the people involved.
There is also, as you may have heard, very little dialogue. What words are spoken are utterly necessary: Nolan does not want to tell you anything in this film, simply to show you, something that Tom Hardy echoes when describing his approach to playing his character. In place of words, the soundtrack does the heavy lifting, with an incredibly tense, almost suffocating atmosphere from a ticking clock, the screech of capsizing boats, and the droning howl of the planes. Nolan uses sound to its full effect to draw the audience in to the happenings on screen. The collapsing and stretching of time throughout the film is used similarly, as when instead of speeding up the dogfights in an attempt to make them seem more exciting, Nolan instead lets them occur in real time, creating a nail-biting crescendo of tension. Dunkirk is concerned with how war is experienced, not how it is told.
It is fitting that Hardy understands and echoes Nolan’s directorial method in his own acting as, while Whitehead is arguably the protagonist and Rylance is the moral heart of the film, it is Hardy’s character who is the closest Dunkirk comes to having a hero. He embodies Rylance’s assertion that “we’ve all got to do what we can,” and Dunkirk’s emphasis on the necessity to help each other to the point of sacrificing himself, a decision he makes – in an easily missed moment I only caught on my second viewing – less than a third of the way into the film. From his first air battle onwards, Hardy’s character is perfectly aware that he will not be returning home if he continues, and chooses to go on regardless, and do what he can.
His story ends with him alone on the beach in enemy territory, lit up with the glow of his aircraft, standing tall, proud and calm – every inch the classic hero. The difference between him and traditional war hero narratives is a simple one: he will not end in personal triumph but self-sacrifice, and that sacrifice was made not for glory or recognition, will not get a moving tribute in the final act, but nigh-anonymously, in order to help the greater good.
This is reinforced by the headline which hails George as a “hero at Dunkirk” in a moment much more bitter than it is sweet: certainly he’s accomplished his dream of making the local paper, but at what cost? It does not feel worth it.
There is much about the ending of Dunkirk that carries this ambivalence. The audience goes into the film knowing the outcome of both the rescue operation and the war as a whole, so there is an expectation of a triumphal finish that is never allowed to take hold. Harry Styles’ character says to an old man in the welcome effort, “all we did is survive,” and the reply is “well, that’s enough,” and it is – but it isn’t, not in the traditional war story. No one has won yet. The young soldiers are exhausted, ashamed, and fully aware that they will see battle again. The nation is, as the famous Churchill speech intimates, bracing for the war to arrive on their shores. The enemy is not yet defeated, and hundreds of thousands more are yet to die.
And yet, a different kind of triumph has taken place. Huge amounts of people – ordinary people, as we all are, in the end – have banded together to make something extraordinary happen. They have come together to do what they can to help, and in doing so have saved 300 000 young men from being slaughtered.
Dunkirk is not a perfect anti-war movie – the French resistance efforts that helped ensure the survival of the forces on Dunkirk beach occurs almost entirely offscreen, leading to a not-wholly-accurate focus on British forces. But it is an anti-war movie nonetheless, and one with an important and timely moral and political message: that we must help each other. That, in the face of defeat, the only hope we have is in one another. •
All Images © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc
Jacqui Deighton still considers London, England “home”, but currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and is pretty okay with that. Her writing has appeared in One Week / One Band, Goblin Fruit and elsewhere, as well as winning some awards. She likes lip gloss, stompy boots, and cephalopods. Probably she was Remus Lupin in a past life.