Dunkirk: Not a War Movie

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I went to see Dunkirk this weekend with an economist friend who is into German and Russian World War II everything – you know an average girls afternoon out! I was interested to see the film (despite all the hype,) since I teach Christopher Nolan’s film Momento in my Early Modern Philosophy class and I have had a huge crushers on Kenneth Branaugh since Dead Again and Henry V.  (He did not disappoint!) And then there is the war movie angle, especially since I regularly teach courses on ethics, violence and war.

Before going, I ran across Matt Gault’s review on War is Boring.

Ouchie! It was, I thought, a harsh review whose point seemed to be that the film was boring, lacking the traditional blood and grit of a war movie. I respect Gault, so I was intrigued by this reaction which seemed decidedly a minority view, even among the military and national security crowd I follow on social media. Having now seen the film, I can see his point. If you expect a conventional war film, this ain’t it. This is not a war movie at all.

Bear with me. Yes, I know that Dunkirk was part of World War II. Yes, I know there are soldiers, sailors and airmen and things exploding. Yes, there is some combat in the film which results in death and harm. That said, this is not a conventional war movie, at least not as Americans would expect, because it is not really about war as Americans see war. This film does a great job of conveying the experience of the historical event which takes place after a major defeat, and is the prelude to the next phase of the war. So Dunkirk is an intermission of sorts. And an intermission is a time for pause, for reflection and for preparing for the next act. And that is precisely what this film is: an existential reflection on survival, defeat and moral and existential meaning amidst all that.  It is a reflection upon the pain of war when it does not go well, when there is no decisive winning battle, when there seems no place for individual heroism, when courage seems to be about enduring and surviving.

So what do I mean: This is not a war movie? This film is about the scale and horizon of the event, with little (except intermittently) focus on characters or the enemy.  We do not have a chance to really get emotionally involved with any one character, and the enemy is only referred to in the beginning as The Enemy. The Germans are not named, they are not seen and are only felt in the harm they are inflicting upon the Dunkirk survivors. I expect that this is quite intentional. Why? I don’t actually think the Germans are The Enemy.  If this is a film about survival and endurance, then the true enemy at Dunkirk is Time; this is a race against time, against losses that will compromise the next battle. They must survive to fight another day and every minute is a life lost.

When I think of a war movie, I think of Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, Patton, Enemy at the Gates, The Longest Day. The classical formula is that it is largely army especially infantry centric (though not always) with the focus on a small group of characters (the band of brothers) that we get to know and follow through the film.  There is often gritty, intense combat portrayed showing the harm and carnage of war (blood and other war porn elements) and we are invited to identify with the heroes/protagonists and feel enmity towards the enemy who are portrayed as evil, wrong, mean, cruel and all things to be despised. War movies are often intimate in this way – it is the duel or clash of two sided writ large. Good versus evil with a decisive battle or event as part of a clear narrative arch that results in redemption, victory and resolution.  Sometimes this arch is about the band of brothers, sometimes about the warring leaders (Patton and Rommel for instance) or about warring nations, but the essential conflict is the same regardless of scale.

This film has none of that. Oh there is combat, but there is little blood – although still a great deal of grit, messiness and destruction. The major scenes are the scale of the evacuation on the beaches, naval sequences and classic style air battles. There are a few moments of heroism, but they come mostly at the hands of civilians rescuing soldier, which of course upends the traditional war movie trope of civilians as victims. There are also nods to British heroism, with a bit of Shakespearean sensibility brought by Branagh as he remains behind to help evacuate the French.  There is also the matter of heroic homecoming for the soldiers of Dunkirk (who really are perplexed and so not feeling it), which is fascinating in terms of the military/civilian culture gap and the problem of defeat and military failure – for the society and their warriors.

This is not a war movie. At least not in any kind of conventional sense and so Gault is right. And his review is really interesting in that it highlights this really interesting question about what a war movie is and what it is supposed to do.  Clearly he had a particular vision of this, which he thinks the film fails spectacularly at.  However, I wonder if we need to think more deeply about what a war movie ought to be and what it ought to do?  Should it follow the standard hero/action film formula with a clear and unambiguous moral message and arc?  What level of blood and carnage (and of what kind – individual versus collective) should be present and seen? And what do these expectations say about how we want to think about war? How do these expectations then shape how we think about and experience (for those who fight) actual wars?

Dunkirk reminded me of a particular sensibility about war. It reminded me of Tim O’Brien’s writings on Vietnam, but also the great World War I poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen. It reminds me of J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors in which he uses philosophical reflection to try and make sense of his World War II experience decades later. It reminds me of Sebastian Junger’s writing on war and its impacts on those who fight and those for whom they fight. This film is a search for meaning when the standard meanings and narrative frames have utterly failed.  How do we find meaning when we are one speck on a beach just trying to get out alive, when our rescuers are attacked for trying to help us and there seems little that any individual can do to change the course of events? Even Branagh as a high ranking naval officer seems bound and stuck, just as much as the grunt.

The reading (by one of the returning soldiers) at the end of the film of Churchill’s famous speech feels mocking and stirring at the same time.  It offers up a kind of hope of the final decisive battle (or battles) in which they will prevail, but also makes clear that it will not be easy or pretty. The soldier who reads the speech has just escaped with his life and returned home to acclaim, dirty, perhaps traumatized and exhausted.  Normally that is the victorious end. But here it is only the beginning. Sisyphus must roll the rock back up the hill. Again.

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