Thursday, September 7, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Dunkirk

Dunkirk was written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Nolan's a fanboy-favorite who previously co-wrote and directed Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. He wrote and directed Interstellar. He also received "Story Credit" for Man Of Steel, for which he should be publicly flogged.

Dunkirk is an epic film, and like all of Nolan's work, it's visually stunning. He spared no expense in recreating the Battle Of Dunkirk, using practical effects and vehicles wherever possible, even going so far as to film in the actual locations!

Nolan got the idea to make the film after he and his wife Emma Thomas sailed across the English Channel, following the same route as many of the ships involved in the real evacuation of Dunkirk. He seriously considered not writing a script, planning to improvise the entire film (!). Fortunately for us, Thomas talked him out of this terrible idea, and Nolan turned in a seventy six page screenplay (about half the length of his usual scripts). 

As a result of this, Dunkirk is a very atypical Hollywood war movie. It clocks in at a brisk 106 minutes, which is unusual for a film of this scope. It's also an odd subject for a Hollywood war movie. Although many historians consider it a turning point in WWII, The Battle Of Dunkirk was not a military victory. It didn't involve America in any way (the U.S. hadn't even entered WWII at the time!), there are no frontline skirmishes, no scenes of Churchill in a war room surrounded by generals and no German soldiers are ever seen onscreen (save for a couple in the closing seconds).

The film contains surprisingly little dialogue, as the characters spend whole swaths of the movie running from place to place, simply trying to survive. This makes for a highly immersive cinematic experience, putting the audience squarely in the middle of the action. 

Despite this, Dunkirk has a very cold and hollow tone. Rather than focus on one main character, we're introduced to several, but unfortunately we never get to know anything about them. A few get names and maybe one identifying characteristic and that's it. It's a film filled with ciphers, which severely lessens its emotional impact.

So far Dunkirk's grossed $460 million worldwide against its $100 million budget, which makes it one of the bigger hits of the summer. That's surprising to me, as there's been little or no buzz surrounding the film. It's like a stealth hit.


The Plot:
A word of warning: Dunkirk seems like a traditional linear narrative, but it's anything but. The film depicts three interconnected storylines that take place over wildly different time periods. The land story covers an entire week (!), the sea story a day and the air story just one hour. However, the movie freely cuts back and forth between these plots as if they're happening simultaneously, which can be confusing if you're not paying attention.

A helpful title card tells us that it's 1940, and the Germans are invading France. 400,000 Allied soldiers are forced to retreat to the seaside town of Dunkirk, France. As the Germans relentlessly close in, the soldiers desperately wait on the beach for rescue.

The Mole, aka Land (which takes place over the course of a week)
Six British soldiers are walking through the deserted streets of Dunkirk, when they're attacked by German snipers. A young private named Tommy is the only one to survive. He threads his way through the town and makes it to the beach, where he's stunned to see hundreds of thousands of troops waiting to be evacuated.

Tommy gets in the back of a huge line of soldiers and waits. He spots a soldier named Gibson, who's seemingly burying a fellow private, and helps him. Just then a pack of German Stuka dive bombers attacks the beach, killing dozens of men caught out in the open.

Tommy sees a rescue ship that's giving priority to the wounded, and gets an idea. He and Gibson grab a stretcher and carry an injured soldier to the ship. They make it onto the ship, but unfortunately they're ordered off after they deliver the wounded man. They sneak under the pier (aka The Mole), where they wait to board the next rescue ship. Suddenly the German planes attack again, sinking the ship they were just on. Hundreds of soldiers jump off, and Tommy saves a man named Alex (played by Harry Styles, of One Direction fame!) from being crushed.

Eventually the three make it onto another ship, where they can finally relax. Not so fast there, guys! This ship is then hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat, and begins sinking. Gibson saves Tommy and Alex, and they manage to grab onto a packed life boat and make it back to shore. In the first of the interconnected elements, we see the lifeboat is commanded by a man we'll soon come to know as the Shivering Soldier (played by Cillian Murphy).

Meanwhile, British officers Commander Bolton (played by Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (played by James D'Arcy, aka Jarvis of Agent Carter) discuss the situation. Bolton says Churchill refuses to surrender and doesn't want to risk large ships in the evacuation, fearing they'll be needed to defend Britain from a potential invasion. Churchill has also decided not to help evacuate Allied French soldiers in an effort to save space (!). Bolton says in order to speed up the evacuation, the government is commandeering small civilian ships, which can get closer to the beach.

Some time later, Tommy, Gibson and Alex spot an abandoned fishing trawler on the beach, grounded by low tide. They run toward it, hoping to hide in it until high tide arrives and floats it out to sea. They're joined by a squad of Scottish soldiers who have the same idea. The soldiers all board the boat and wait in the hold.

Unfortunately the boat's in German territory, and they begin using it for target practice. The soldiers flatten themselves on the floor, desperately trying to avoid the hail of bullets. Just then the tide begins rising, and water pours through the bullet holes in the ship's side. One of the Scottish soldiers says they need to lighten the load, demanding one of the group get off the boat. They suspect Gibson of being a German spy, because he's yet to say anything. Tommy defends Gibson, who reveals he's actually French. He stole the uniform of the man he was burying when we first saw him, hoping to make it onto a British evac ship.

Just then the tide floats the boat out to sea, but unfortunately it starts sinking. The soldiers abandoned the boat, but Gibson's caught in a net and drowns. Tommy and Alex swim for a minesweeper ship, but once again it's hit and sunk by German forces. Oil pours from the sunken ship, turning the sea into an inferno. Fortunately they're finally rescued by Mr. Dawson, who we'll hear about in a minute, and pulled onto his boat.

The Sea (which takes place over a day)
In the English town of Weymouth, the Royal Navy is commandeering civilian boats to help with the Dunkirk evacuation. Mr. Dawson agrees to help, but insists on sailing his boat himself. Hhis son Peter and his friend George tagalong.

On the way they spot three Spitfires flying overhead (which we'll find out more about later). Mr. Dawson spots a British officer clinging to the wreckage of a ship destroyed by a U-boat attack, and rescues him. He turns out to be the Shivering Soldier we saw earlier. The Soldier hides silently in a corner until he sees Dawson's heading for Dunkirk, and demands he turn the boat around. 
Dawson calms the Shivering Soldier, and Peter locks him in a bedroom below deck.

When Dawson finds out Peter locked up the Soldier, he demands he let him out. The Soldier rushes up to the deck and tries to turn the boat around. There's a scuffle, and George is knocked backward, falling into the hold. He hits his head on the deck, severely injuring him. Peter rushes to his side, and George says he can't see. Dawson makes the decision to continue to Dunkirk.

Dawson sees a Spitfire crash into the ocean and heads for it. He rescues a pilot named Collins, who we'll meet in the next segment, seconds before he drowns. They make it to Dunkirk, where they see dozens of soldiers leaping off a sinking minesweeper that's surrounded by flames. Dawson risks his life rescuing as many soldiers as he can, including Tommy and Alex.

Peter attempts to move George to make more room, but sees he's dead. On deck, the Shivering Soldier asks if George is OK. Peter realizes the man's out of his head and lies, saying George is fine.

The Air (which takes place over an hour)
Three RAF Spitfires, piloted by Ferrier (played by Tom Hardy), Collins and "Fortis Leader," head across the English Channel to Dunkirk to protect the evacuating soldiers. They encounter a squad of German fighters and engage in a dogfight. Fortis Leader's shot down, and Ferrier assumes command of the mission.

Ferrier's fuel gauge was damaged during the skirmish, preventing him from telling how full his tank is. Collins asks if he want to abort the mission, but Ferrier insists they continue to France.

They shoot down another German plane, but Collins' Spitfire is damaged and he crashes into the English Channel (where he's later picked up by Mr. Dawson). Farrier sees another German bomber attack a minesweeper and shoots it down. Unfortunately it ignites the oil leaking out of the minesweeper, turning the sea into an inferno.

Farrier reaches Dunkirk just as his fuel runs out. He manages to glide long enough to shoot down a dive bomber, and safely lands his plane outside the Allied perimeter. He sees German soldiers approaching and sets fire to his plane to keep it out of their hands. He's captured by the Germans and taken prisoner.

The Wrap Up
Dawson's boat makes it back to Weymouth, where he's celebrated for saving so many soldiers. George's body is carried off the boat, as the Shivering Soldier looks on. Peter takes a photo of George to the local paper, which publishes an article praising him as a war hero.

The surviving soldiers are put on a train. Tommy and Alex assume the public will treat them as cowards for retreating from France, but instead they're given a heroes' welcome. Tommy reads a newspaper article in which Churchill praises the bravery of the soldiers and vows to never surrender.

Back on the beach, Commander Bolton says they expected to save 30,000 soldiers, but over 300,000 were actually evacuated. He tells Colonel Winnant he's staying behind to help evac the French soldiers as well.


Dunkirk stars several members of Christopher Nolan's little repertoire company, including Tom Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises), Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception) and of course, Michael Caine (The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Interstellar), although his role is just a voiceover cameo.

• Tom Hardy apparently hates the bottom half of his own face. He wore a partial mask as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, his face was half covered for much of Fury Road and he spends most of Dunkirk with the lower half of his face hidden by an oxygen mask. He eventually takes if off the mask in the final seconds of the film.

C'mon, Tom! You're not that hard to look at!

• Nolan used practical effects in the film wherever possible. For example, to populate the beach during the evacuation scenes, he used over one thousand extras. These crowds were then enhanced by using numerous cardboard cutouts of soldiers (!).

He also used era-appropriate planes for the aerial scenes, along with twelve of the surviving civilian ships that participated in the actual Dunkirk evacuation back in 1940! Pretty cool!

Also, the military uniforms worn in 1940 were made from heavy wool, which was no longer produced. The producers used a factory in Pakistan to manufacture wool fabric and create thousands 
of historically accurate wool uniforms for the actors and extras. 

• Hans Zimmer composed the film's score, making extensive use of the Shepard Tone to generate tension in the audience. It's kind of hard to explain, but basically it consists of three overlapping, rising tones. One tone is played at a consistent volume, while a second fades out as it rises. The third tone fades in as it gets higher. When the three are played at the same time and infinitely looped, they give the illusion of a tone that seems to rise forever, even though it never actually gets any higher, which makes the listener edgy and uneasy.

Zimmer also used the sound of a ticking clock on the soundtrack, to suggest urgency I guess. The ticking was supplied by Nolan's own pocket watch.

• A big part of the Dunkirk evacuation's success lies with the fleet of civilians who used their own boats and risked their lives to rescue thousands of trapped soldiers.

That's something that could have only happened in WWII, and a feat only the British with their stiff upper lips and can-do attitudes could have pulled off. No matter how hard I try, I can't imagine current day American citizens crossing enemy lines and risking their lives to evacuate a bunch of soldiers. WWII was a different time.

• Whenever the German Stuka dive bombers, er, dive toward the beach, there's a distinctive whining sound that signals their approach. This sound came from sirens mounted on the planes' landing gear, which the Germans called the "Jericho Trumpet." 

These sirens were solely for psychological effect, meant to strike fear into the troops on the ground. They did their job well, as troops were terrified and would scatter whenever they'd hear the distinctive Stuka whine.

George Lucas supposedly used this idea for the sound of the TIE Fighters in the Star Wars movies!

• As longtime readers of Bob Canada's BlogWorld know all too well, I'm not a fan of biopics or historical dramas, as they're usually woefully inaccurate. In fact most of them outright fabricate characters and events to make their stories more cinematic.

Amazingly, Dunkirk is actually fairly historically accurate! In fact a few surviving Dunkirk survivors were invited to the film's premiere, and they all praised its realism and accuracy. One survivor did say however that the movie was louder than the battle (!).

Here are a just a few of the things Dunkirk actually got right:

The Germans really did drop propaganda material that illustrated how the British troops were surrounded, and demanded they surrender (the actual leaflets didn't look like the ones in the movie though). 

The Royal Navy really keep their destroyers and other large ships from participating in the evacuation. They did this partly because they didn't want to lose ships they'd need in a larger battle they expected, and also because the huge ships couldn't get close enough to the shallow beach to be of any help.

The Royal Air Force really did engage in dogfights with German planes over the sea, and they really were limited to just an hour of flight time by their fuel capacity.

The soldiers on Dunkirk beach really did curse the Air Force for not protecting them from German bombers. The film fails to mention though that the Royal Air Force planes actually did battle the German planes, but they did so far inland, out of sight from the beach. This led the soldiers to think the RAF had abandoned them.

The British commanders really did refuse to evacuate French soldiers at first. Churchill later insisted they be rescued along with the British troops.

None of the characters in the film are real, although a few, like Kenneth Branagh's Commander Bolton, are composites of several actual people.

Dunkirk is a visually spectacular film that's a throwback to old school war films. There's little or no dialogue, which helps immerse the audience in the action. Unfortunately there's no central character, and the ones we do meet are virtual ciphers with absolutely no depth, resulting in a cold and clinical film. It's still worth a look on the big screen though, if nothing else than for the sound. I give it a solid B.

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