Dunkirk: Movie Review. What the history student thought.

Disappointed. Well those are the words of Michael Korda when it comes to similar adaptions of Nolan’s epic based upon victory in defeat. in many ways this is apt of my viewing experience as it was a victory for me to leave the house and a victory for me to reach the end of the film without losing my hearing but a defeat in the sense that I felt I could’ve done better. Not that I tout myself as a better director, producer or sound editor (researcher maybe). Neither am I suggesting that the film itself lacked entertainment as it had its moments but I’m not sure I would want to sit through it again.

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You’d think a history student with a penchant for all things spitfire and Panzer would practically throw themselves at the trailer for the film, and that I did. Poised in a premium cinema seat anticipating the sight that had befallen me only a year earlier. No I had not been soaking up that famous French soleil and ‘optimism’ which Junker is trying to restrict us from but rather the watered down seaside resort of Weymouth. The popular holiday destination may not be your first pick for a Hollywood blockbuster but if you add a dash of beige and a splash of MG motor vehicles, you get a glimpse at its heritage accolades, that or an uncanny resemblance to where the Conservatives plan to take us. Regardless of the tweens taking the Germans’ agenda and baying for Harry Style’s blood or the rudeness of the production company without a care for the places they shoot in but can not spell, Nolan’s name to a war flick was too far from exciting as Batman in a tank! The trailer aforementioned attested to this action greatly which i found to be the most interesting as how could they breathtakingly summarize a battle which was in essence less successful of a campaign than Clinton or May ran combined? From what I understand, they took this last stand to be that of a plight for survival for which man stood with man no matter the distance.

Nolan stands by this in interviews when making clear why the Wehrmacht didn’t show their faces which being odd for the most part as it failed to depict any German activity apart from a couple of badly timed pot shots. Dunkirk itself should’ve been rubble as per the hasty French exit seeing as it was barraged from a distanced rather than significantly advance upon during the evacuation. Generalfeldmarschall Rundstedt had given the order endorsed by the Fuhrer for the Wehrmacht not to traverse any marshy French terrain until the Allied forces had pulled back as it would have left their flanks exposed and their tanks divisions vulnerable. I shall leave such an inaccuracy next to the yellow nose cones upon the German planes as that is not what disturbed my landing ground per say but more on that in a moment. In hiding the enemy Nolan had visualized the collective aggression first reinforced by Churchill’s imaginative reaction to Operation Barbarossa as the Germans being nothing more than an unstoppable force void of emotion hence the “Nazi War Machine.”

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I don’t know about anyone else but I would have liked that visualization put to something those in the British educational system know less about like how the Battle of France had even got to that point. Anything from the strategy behind launching an offensive against the entirety of the Low Countries in a single day on the 10th of May 1940 to the courageous resistance fought by the Belgians at Eben Emael a day later would have offered more to the imagination than two men running in silence on a beach for five minutes. These could have allowed Nolan to keep the survival and defiance without having to stretch out action points catered to an audience who know as much about history as the former White House Press Speaker. It may seem a snide remark at its academic qualifications but I sat in that cinema to be entertained and not berated by conspicuous facts. Even saying that, I saw it with a group of friends who collectively had little historical interest but were too deafened or just too confused by the jumps in narrative to have learnt anything by the end! To be specific for it to be a worldwide hit Nolan had to appropriate what we British see as phrased resilience and the French mostly overlook as exemplified by the lack of French school groups to a museum dedicated to the evacuation, 1940 Dynamo. This appropriation is where most of my disappointment is invested for I saw it as another documentary albeit a glorified one. To have known nothing about the war in Europe beforehand would have allowed me to have enjoyed it more as at least I would have learned something.

The film itself offered nothing new in content which yes they can’t manipulate history but even with the triad of perspectives, it just seemed like a mash of various war chronicles. Out of the eleven films which inspired Nolan, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Foreign Correspondent (1940) seem most to blame as much of the dilemmas and character arcs mirror that of their 2017 counterparts. For those who aren’t aware, Nolan plays with the military triad of air, land and sea in which none have very little to any resonance to each other despite the brotherhood sought by the director or felt by the forces at the time. This was done to show the decisiveness of each branch to the outcome which is refreshing considering many skip over the role of the RAF for their more iconic performance in the Battle of Britain a couple of months later. I would have like to have seen this played out more with two of the aforementioned branches not out of action for much of the movie as than it all hinged upon my least favorite flaw.

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The acting or the scripting was awful. It was hard to tell which as on the one hand you had a young boy who refused to leave those who fight for his freedom on a French beach, die with only a “oh” and continuation of the mission like nothing had happened. On the other you had Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnart on the beach forcing their way through conversation half-halfheartedly before Bolton declares he will stay behind to help evacuate the French rearguard and Winnart just walking off. Clearly Nolan did not take note from one of the supposed eleven inspiring films, The Battle of Algiers (1966), as his attempt to draw empathy from the characters was hindered by the missing emotional development and in fact had to rely on the same discourse they faced that they lacked emotion towards. To show this in within light to one of my examples, Consider that the second global war of the twentieth century was one of the first to consider war of total nature. Families before could only marvel at industrialized conflict from behind the box of popcorn but know Hitler had set his sights on the British Isles, families had involuntarily become the actors. The film should have developed within the civilian merchant characters turned rescuers the same trepidation felt when historical attacks at home had happened. You only have to look at the bombing of Sandhurst Road School on the 20th of January 1943 as it wasn’t the fact that 38 pupils with 6 of their teachers had been killed and 60 others injured which caused the largest public upset (of course the loss was reserved for loved ones) but rather unpreparedness. Many were devastated that if the sirens had been raised earlier and or the local Civil Defenses had responded prompter than these children’s bodies would not have to be excavated from the debris by their distraught parents. I’m not suggesting for those who have seen the film that the young boy perished as a result of direct combat but rather he nor anyone on that boat was prepared to be confronted with the traumatized and unstable pilot. The effects dramatisedof war on both the civilians and armed forces present was not fully recognized despite they key role it played in establishing tension in the contemporary setting as Nolan was more concerned with overloading an already action packed narrative just to sell it to the US market. The minimal dialogue adheres to this.

Did I hate the film? No. There were particular action points I enjoyed (especially the explosions) which put the characters in peril in ways that only dramatized war at sea could. The fate of the marooned infantrymen grew with suspense every time the failed to make it off that beach as you must remember that only 6,000 of the over 300,000 stranded escaped on what were known as the Little Boats of Dunkirk. In saying that Nolan gives credit where credit is due to the civilians risking it all and the forgotten airmen as he makes them the centerpiece of his blockbuster. He scored some death defying camera action while keeping it more sensible than a Michael Bay take on Pearl Harbour. The nitpicks I made before didn’t ruin the film but took it below the expectation awarded to his previous films and films of the same genre in such a way that he had complicated the narrative enough to not have it delivered to the audience in the way he wanted. Go watch it because even if you do feel as I do after seeing it, at least you can feel cultured and know what its like to have your eardrums burst by Stukka offensives.


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