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We Shall Fight on the Beaches

I haven't read too much about the source material for Christopher Nolan's seat-rattling bones of war epic Dunkirk, which I finally experienced (and that's the right word) in a late-night Imax showing that severely aggravated my already bothersome Trump Era insomnia. But I was certain that one scene in The Longest Day, the massive 1962 Zanuck production packed with more stars per square inch than Eisenhower's jacket, must have influenced Nolan - whose beautifully and precisely drawn landscapes are vital to the film's success. There's a moment in the Zanuck flick where actor Hans Christian Blech, playing a German major in a bunker at Normandy, witnesses the size of the Allied invasion fleet for the first time as the mist lifts along the French coast. 

  Longest day

That look was mirrored by one of the best characters in Nolan's war story: Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton, the Royal Navy pier-master during the evacuation. Like Blech's Wermacht officer, Branagh's Commander executes that classic cinematic head-turn of shocked surprise toward the camera (think Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life or Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men). Both are senior military officers serving on the front lines; both are fighting on the defensive, and both will be on the battle's losing side. Yet we know, of course, that one side will win - and so Blech's look is one of horror, the shadow of death over a regime that will fall in bloody combat. But Branagh's expression carries hopefulness and pride. The small navy of private British yachts and steamers has emerged from the Channel fog to rescue 300,000 soldiers who will fight another day - some of them, on the longest day. Either few second of film that can stand in as a visual tweet for the entire narrative of both pictures.


Branagh's turn in Dunkirk - like so many others - is understated. Nolan has created an amazing visual architecture of violence and movement and time (his one big "trick" of an asynchronous but precise timelines was a bit too tricky for me). The dialogue is generally pretty sparse; the actors convey so much through expression and movement. In some ways, it's one of the greatest ensemble portrayals of human fear that I've ever seen. Tom Hardy, playing RAF fighter pilot Farrier, does more with a single eye than many actors do with full anatomy. The sound is demanding and punishing for the viewer, and it sure as hell lit up the fight or flight instinct in my seat (I closed my eyes and covered my ears several times); it was much scarier than any Hollywood horror film. Yet Dunkirk holds down the gore factor in favor of the random nature of warfare - and survival.

Throughout the film, we barely glimpse the enemy. I suspect this is close the experience of actual foot soldiers and sailors under attack submarines. Yet there's a simple message of heroism in Dunkirk that goes well beyond the Churchillian speeches - that of being able to stifle fear and get on with it. Shall we call it resisting fear? I think we should. We need heroes these days, just as we need to find the courage to resist.

The moral rock at the center of Dunkirk is, of course, veteran British actor Mark Rylance, who plays Mr. Dawson, a pleasure boat owner who steers for Dunkirk and danger. He's a middle class character, superbly crafted (the yacht itself is also a star) and accompanied by his son and a local boy. The closeness of existential danger - of the murderous battle itself - to his home and family is deeply etched in the lines on Rylance's face. His lines are few but powerful, and they cover sacrifice and choice: "There’s no hiding from this, son. We have a job to do."


Dunkirk is a technical and visual marvel, one of the greatest action films ever made, certainly one of the best English language war films ever. I suspect it will not be as popular with critics over the long-term (and the awards judges) because of the lack of a cohesive human narrative, or that big star turn, or an explicit social message. The sea and sand and the ships and planes and costumes and sound are the stars. But they do tell a story. And frankly, it's a story that's as right for 2017 as it was for 1940. 


Strongly recommended reading: 

The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo by Walter Lord. Many of the stories portrayed in the Nolan film clearly came from this 2012 history. 

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