It may be true that war never changes, but the way we film it just has.
For about as long as cinema has existed, war has been a favourite choice of subject matter for film-makers. As early as 1915, D. W. Griffith created one of the first ever war epics with The Birth of a Nation: a massively racist, KKK-sympathetic depiction of the American Civil War.
– A clip from The Birth of a Nation
In the century since, war has not lost its appeal for directors and writers. Countless films depicting countless conflicts have consistently been produced by independent film-makers and Hollywood bigshots alike. And while Christopher Nolan certainly fits the label of ‘Hollywood bigshot’, his most recent release Dunkirk is anything but a conventional, big-budget war flick.
WWII seems like a strange subject for a Nolan film. Most great war films get their power from their exploration of the psychological impact of war: the hallucinogenic psychosis of Apocalypse Now; the horrific brutality of The Deer Hunter; the tragedy but ultimate optimism of Saving Private Ryan.
With this in mind, Nolan’s strength as a film-maker rarely comes from his ability to depict emotion. Memento, Inception and Interstellar are all successful because of their exploration of the subconscious and the surreal.
So rather than pad the film out with a bunch of emotional speeches and tragic backstories, Nolan tries something different. He almost entirely avoids any sort of conventional character development. Despite the all-star cast, we learn almost nothing about any of the characters. Perhaps the only sort of emotional insight we gain about a character is when 17-year-old George says on his death-bed that all he ever wanted was to get his name in the local paper – definitely the most emotionally powerful scene of the film. But other than that, we learn little about individual characters.
Instead, Nolan decides to go for an all-out assault on the audience. There’s a near constant bombardment of explosions, screaming planes and sinking ships. Hans Zimmer’s score and the excellent sound-design are both largely responsible for how effective this approach is. Tension and fear take the place of emotion and human-tragedy.
Let’s look at The Deer Hunter as an example of a more traditional kind of war film. It’s very subdued – only about a third of the movie is set in the Vietnam war itself. The rest is dedicated to establishing Robert De Niro’s relationships with his friends back home and the aftermath which lingers long after he has returned to the USA.
Dunkirk takes the absolute opposite approach. It zooms out from the individual tragedies of war and focuses on the wide-scale disregard for human life which war itself leads to. It would have been easy for Nolan to drop in a few conversations between Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles about their families back home, a crush they want to propose to when they return, or some other war-time cliché. Nolan avoids this like the plague, deciding instead to keep the movie cold and detached.
Another immediately noticeable feature of Dunkirk is the lack of blood. There are no gore-soaked battlegrounds like in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan where blood splatters onto camera lenses and disfigured bodies line the beach. This refusal to use gore to enhance the film adds to this dehumanisation of its soldiers. The audience focuses more on the war itself and not on the individual deaths.
Nolan uses all this disregard for humanity to make the ending of the film more powerful. Ultimately what saves the soldiers stranded in Dunkirk isn’t the huge naval destroyers or the RAF, but individual fishing boats sailed over by English civilians. War leads to the disregard of human life, but ultimately it is humanity that saves the men in danger.
While Nolan’s approach is definitely original, it doesn’t always succeed. Personally, I left the film feeling a bit dissatisfied. There was little sense of progression over most of the sub-2 hour running time. Then all of a sudden, in the last 10 minutes, everything seemed to work out just fine and dandy. Nolan’s decision to try something different was refreshing, but not executed perfectly.
While Dunkirk is by no means a perfect movie, it indicates a shift towards a different approach to a genre of film which is long overdue a mix-up. The old, human-focused approach to war films has given us some of the greatest films ever made. But there isn’t much more to be done with this template.
It was a brave decision by Christopher Nolan to attempt a war-film with so little focus on the emotional aspect. In the not-to-distant future, hopefully writers and directors will follow Christopher Nolan’s example and breathe some new life into a fairly stale genre.