Christopher Nolan might be one of the most recognisable directors this century, establishing an acclaimed body of work in less than two decades, with strong visions and a good base of collaborators. His Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) allowed DC to reclaim cinematic space with one of most successful blockbusters of all time, reconceiving complex mythology within worlds of noir and crime. Nolan had experienced Dunkirk first-hand, sailing across the channel with wife and producer Emma Thomas and friends, a very difficult crossing; the film was shot on the same beach on its 76th anniversary.
One of Nolan’s most interesting innovations is his dedication to physical film and 15/70mm IMAX. Though often associated with experiential, visual documentaries, IMAX has increasingly become a desirable format, beginning with Disney in the early 2000s but expanding with digital projection with The Dark Knight (2008), expanding the ratio during key sequences: sweeping pans over the corporate city, the bank heist, the Batmobile chase and hospital explosion. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) expanded this further, placing the viewer within the baseball stadium, with Nolan continuing with Interstellar (2014); Nolan notes that both Snyder and Abrams have borrowed the IMAX camera from him. But Dunkirk represents a first with the majority of its sequences shot in IMAX.
Speaking in Little White Lies, Nolan argues reduced costs of digital are a “fallacy”; for Nolan, “[e]very digital format so far devised is just an imitation of film”. Though digital can have many applications in lower budget and documentary cinema, Nolan’s use of 70mm makes a reasonable argument for its use in the blockbuster. Nolan is asking existential questions of upholding the cinematic experience in an age of streaming. But neither box office nor the industry follows simple, predictable logic, the films audiences will seek out for the big screen never set in stone. In part, Nolan is seeking nostalgia, retelling World War II history through a filmic method of filmmaking outside the norm, rather than looking towards the future. But cinema must apply a wide variety of styles to have future.
Dunkirk’s physical film offers a complicated question, presented across multiple mediums from widespread release in digital and IMAX projection but only a handful of major cities offering 35mm or 70mm IMAX projection. Watching in London’s Science Museum, its postage stamp shaped screen the size of a wall. The film leads in with digital adverts, perhaps a contradiction to physical film. A preshow video mocks the staginess of Dunkirk’s own era through the artificiality of monochrome in the style of a Ministry of Information video, detailing entrances and exits. As the film concluded, it felt as though we were back in the film itself, surrounded on a floor of RAF planes.
The IMAX aspect ratio (1.43:1), though not exactly Academy, offers a different cinematic experience to anamorphic widescreen: horizons become the middle of the squarer frame. Seaweed and coral become noticeable upon the shoreline; in the cockpit, we notice small details of markings and switches upon Farrier’s (Tom Hardy) spitfire. His head fills the frame, sitting in the cockpit with him. The voyage home and the setting sun towards the conclusion look incredible. For sequences with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Nolan fills the background of the frame with motion and fluidity. As he says in a conversation with his brother Jonathan in the film’s screenplay, Nolan states he wanted to “go back to the silent films that I love” and the “large images and the mass movement of people”, mentioning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)’s “silent-era mechanics”. As Nolan states in the Little White Lies interview, the wider frame “allows you to hold shots longer” giving audiences “time to scan the image”. Nolan’s limited use of dialogue creates an experience that is largely image based, allowing the viewer to focus upon physical motion. As Max Hastings writes, acting is “reminiscent of the silent movie era”, with its actors “merely required to look staunch, stressed, and indomitable at appropriate moments.”
For some sequences, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema carries the 54-pound camera handheld. Through Nolan’s limited digital effects, Nathan Crowley’s matte paintings to disguise the promenade and Hoytema’s visuals create an incredible experience grounded within the materiality of cinema. Although the expanded ratio is often empty space, offering little information not glimpsed within widescreen presentation, the IMAX presentation remains more immersive. Dunkirk’s aesthetics are a gimmick in the best possible meaning, but narrative will always come first. Through the limitations of IMAX’s size and noise, the granular quality of the noise in the Panavision sequences upon the Moonstone conveys a home movie quality to the intimate and fatherly relationship between Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), Peter (Tom Glynn-McCarney) and George (Barry Keoghan). Hoytema’s night-time shots of the dark blue sky upon the ocean carry a haunted quality; Kristin Thompson parallels these images to James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes, with “shadowy shapes of buildings or ships or distant shorelines” and a “barely distinguishable horizon line”. Though ratio often changes between scenes, this rarely distracts; shifting aspect ratios are often a useful technique beyond IMAX.
War and conflict unify humanity from man’s emergence; its persistence seems innate. Dunkirk joins a wide canon of films about World War II stretching back to the beginning of the war itself. Working within propaganda, Powell and Pressburger helped define British cinema; as Mark Harris explores in Five Came Back (2014), directors like Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra and Stevens were in combat or filming newsreels and propaganda on American values, pioneering documentary methods through (sometimes fabricated) reports from the frontlines, leaving a profound impact on each man. But as Nolan notes in his Little White Lies interview, newsreels interpose “a camera between the audience and the subject”. Post-war waves like Italian neorealism took film into the ruined streets. War epics of the 50s and 60s, often in Technicolor, presented a specific image of wartime heroism, British kids coming of age in the 60s and 70s exposed to the mythbuilding of comic series like Commando (1961-present) and Battle Picture Weekly (1975-88); American readers had Sgt Fury (1963-81) and Sgt Rock (1952-88). Its same techniques became part of the wartime aesthetic of Star Wars (1977).
Relationship to war was generational, connected to the immediate lives of parents. World War II reshaped values, borders, philosophy and state of being. Unlike conflicts of today, soldiers had been conscripted willingly or unwillingly into battle. But World War II continues to find narratives. With so many, lives and testimonies documenting every story would be impossible. But we should remember these narratives: though 77 years have passed, it is still living history in parents, grandparents and great grandparents, beyond abstract facts and statistics in textbooks outside of their context.
As Lynne Olson writes in Last Hope Island (2017), through the end of May 1940, Allied losses were “escalating” and troops were in “retreat”, with Churchill offering “material assistance” to French troops as the Belgian army took the “brunt” of the Blitzkrieg and surrendered to Germany. The threat was existential. Codenamed Operation Dynamo, the events lasted 9 days, between 27th May and 4th June. As Hastings writes, the film offers no “historical background”, never referencing Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. As he tells in Little White Lies, Nolan drew upon eyewitness testimony to create a sense of immediacy. Speaking about A Bridge Too Far (1977), a multinational anti-war film depicting the defeat and sadness of the 1944 campaign, Nolan argues the representation of German High Command takes him “out of the experience”, creating too wide a scale to geopolitical events. As David Bordwell typifies of genre conventions, “Big Maneuver” films create a sense of “briefing rooms fitted out with maps and models of the terrain”, with a vast cast “played by instantly recognizable stars”. A Bridge Too Far can barely fit its cast onto its poster. Hastings praises Nolan for “declining to include even a token American […] showing the stupid English how battles should be fought”; as he concludes, drawing upon his analysis of Saving Private Ryan (1998), “if any nation wants its part in any conflict glorified, it must make the films for itself.”
Nolan drew upon a well-documented period with conflicting feelings and observations. As Bordwell writes, Nolan’s interest in “subjectivity” follows war fiction, noting the “first-person present tense” of All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) and the “jumbled memories” in Catch-22 (1961). Films like Ivan’s Childhood (1962) focuses the end of the war through the perspective of a young boy, whilst Overlord (1975), drawing upon archival footage, constructs a new narrative within the intimate life of an everyman soldier through training, his relationship with his girlfriend and the D-Day landings. Although Dunkirk is interested in “immediacy”, it remains a testament to scale: Nolan worked with marine and aerial units and 1300 extras, planes, props and Spitfires, working alongside marine construction to create a destroyer. Actors immersed themselves, eating corned beef on set.
Nolan’s interest in immersion requires attention to detail: soldiers lined up; a leaked container washing up on shore; Tommy’s base human needs, crouching down to take a shit before burying a body in the sand. In aerial shots, we witness black smoke emanating from the coast. Ships and bodies float in the water, untethered; on the boat, soldiers eat limited supplies of jam and tea. As the vessel sinks, bodies become charred as fire erupts in water. (Hastings notes 6 of the 39 destroyers sunk, with two thirds of men returning home on big ships.) Nolan avoids depicting decaying corpses, spilling blood, split fragments of brains: stretchers and helmets upon the beach say enough. As Nolan tells Little White Lies, Dunkirk is not a war film but a “survival story”, grounded within the present tense. Nolan is interested in human action, depicting routine and process upon the Moonstone: tethering rope, breaking glass windows, moving the wheel, depicting unrelenting tension.
Dunkirk is about defeat, but it is also about resilience. As his plane flies low, Farrier must accept his own death: he sets his plane aflame, captured by Germans; Hastings notes 41,000 British troops were captured. 338,226 soldiers were evacuated, including 193,000 British and over 100,00 French, with 11,000 British and 50,000 French dead. As soldiers are boarded onto trains, blankets offer respite, handed cans of beer through the window and lauded as heroes. But Nolan isn’t interested in cheering crowds. This exchange best summarises the film:
“All we did is survive.”
But the events that follow hide an even greater cost. As Hastings writes, though the film suggests “the British sat down on their island and prepared to resist the Nazis on the beaches”, the British dispatched divisions of British and Canadian troops back to France. France was on the verge of armistice with Germany: as Dominic Tierney writes, a proposal passed parliament on June 16th proposing a Franco-British Union, laying the “seeds of the European integration project”, proposing “joint control of defense, foreign policy, finance, and economic policy” and a united parliament. As Hastings writes, “Churchill himself never saw anything in the least glorious about standing alone”, allying with the USSR and US in 1941. The British army never fully recovered, the “effectively disarmed” by lost equipment and unable to “face a major European battlefield” until American assistance and tanks in 1944.
Nolan contrasts the wider scale of war with his human subjects. Though Nolan has been criticised for his lack of minority troops, we glimpse black soldiers as soldiers line up. In the opening, we follow Tommy running through the streets and climbing over fences, telling forces under fire he’s one of them, although Hastings notes there was “no ground fighting”. Whitehead drew upon stories he’d heard from his granddad serving in Korea and Burma. Nolan is interested in comradeship: Alex (Harry Styles) follows a long line of pop stars like David Bowie and Mick Jagger who transitioned into cinema, but Styles never really acts, unable to offer much for One Direction fans besides his face. Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) faces constant otherising, suspected as a spy and dismissed as “sauerkraut sauce” under a heated moment, threatened with a gun. From the pier, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Captain Winnant (James D’Arcy) embody the film’s representation of authority, lost without clear guidance. (Hastings notes “the mole”, given the title of this section, is an “old term for a pier or jetty”.) As Olson writes, Churchill reacted to events with “shock and confusion”, troops and officers left “dazed”. As she writes, “the Allied command system had virtually ceased to function”, phone and supply lines cut, commanders only able to communicate through “personal visits.”
The section with Dawson, Peter and George plays as a Boy’s Own adventure, everyday people doing their bit, schoolboys enlisted to fight and needing to mature fast. Hastings notes Dawson’s similarity to Charles Lightoller, “a former officer on the Titanic” who saved 120 men on the Sundowner, aged 66, alongside “his son and a friend”. The crew must deal with the war’s personal effects; Peter tells Collins (Jack Lowden) that his brother died in the “third week into the war” flying Hurricanes. As Kristin Thompson writes, Nolan withholds this information, the viewer “inclined to sympathize with people in trouble” without needing “to motivate his decision”. As George’s loss is revealed to a teacher in sorrow, he becomes martyred in the newspaper. As Nolan reveals in his conversation with Jonathan, he drew upon accounts of young people who went to Dunkirk, finding it “very sad” in the way they were “memorialized” as “heroes” when their “life’s been cut short”. Farrier flies in a dogfight with the Luftwaffe in his Spitfire, with a cameo from Michael Caine communicating through the intercom, though Hastings notes aerial conflict happened thousands of feet in the air, “invisible to those on the ground or at sea”.
Through his multiplicity of voices, Nolan wanted to create a “constant reminder” that there is a “story that we’re not getting to hear”, embodying a representative experience through individual, physical and geographical dilemmas. Dunkirk’s effectiveness is elevated by its techniques, Hans Zimmer’s score elevating the sense of tension. Without using World War II-era music, Nolan creates a deeper sense of the immediate beyond cliché, utilising the illusive clocklike sound of a Shepard tone to place the viewer within the moment, aided by Richard King’s sound design. In his conversation with Jonathan, Nolan recalls the “relentless” synchronised sound of All Quiet on the Western Front, with its “shelling scene” going on “much longer than you can take.” War films like Saving Private Ryan equally use sound to great effect, bullets hitting American soldiers upon the beaches of Normandy, recreated with a sense of minute-by-minute precision. Hastings draws a parallel between Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan, “wrapped in a Union flag instead of the Stars and Stripes.”
Nolan’s manipulation of narrative structure is a hallmark, Following (1998) and Memento (2000) inverting its sequence whilst maintaining a linear structure. The Prestige (2006)’s focus on an alternative perspective to how we look at things is only an extension, whilst Inception questions the narratives embodied within dreams. Dunkirk makes its structure obvious, anchoring text for each section between air, land and sea, and intercutting between each. Though Bordwell notes each section “could have been presented as separate blocks”, Nolan creates “parallels” and “convergence” without utilising an “onscreen calendar or clock” or “explicit markers”. Nolan drew upon the impressionism and poetry of The Thin Red Line (1998), pointing to its nihilism. Nolan found author James Jones’ essay in Criterion’s booklet “quite sobering” as he wrote the script, outlining the “story models” of the war film and “shred[ding] them all” in contrast to personal experience beyond supposed virtuosity. The triptych structure bears comparison to the episodic delineation of Moonlight, each section given its own unique yet connecting identity. Though presented in a new way, it is far from radical, manipulating the confines of cinema but without anything substantial or innovative in its place. Nolan’s structure is an exercise in simplicity striving to create complexity.
The film’s immediacy allows a unique relationship with temporality, both to strength and detriment. In From Here to Eternity (1953), set against the onset of Pearl Harbour, each soldier’s life is driven by their relationship with women; Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) places Steve’s wartime sacrifice within the context of Peggy’s loss. Abstract values of freedom and democracy become embodied within human heroes. Films like Hacksaw Ridge issue a reckoning with belief in God and pacifism, carrying forward in war through faith through the life of Desmond Doss. But the characters of Dunkirk have no desires nor dreams to focus audience interest. Though rooting for survival, lack of deeper character makes it difficult to understand where these characters came from, or where these characters are going. Context is understood in fragments: a flyer falling from the sky; a commander and captain without routes of communication; Churchill’s iconic speech is presented not as radio broadcast but in press the following day. As Tommy melancholy reads aloud from the paper upon the train home, cut across montages of each arc, we sense how truly in the dark our characters are. As the train passes, the opportunity to gain knowledge could disappear in seconds.
Perceptions of war relied upon information available, filtered through propaganda and what the Ministry of Information was willing to reveal. At home, the war had become seen as the ‘Phoney War’. Before the Holocaust, wider purposes could not be fully grasped with, though visible in pieces. But Nolan never offers an alternative perspective, Germans an unseen spectre haunting from the fringes, more imagined than real. Though Nolan’s influences are anti-war, Dunkirk’s lack of deeper character and context creates a film entirely neutral. Although Nolan acknowledges loss, the film is malleable, shaped for what its viewers seek to see within. For Nigel Farage, the film becomes a plea for the young generation. As Hastings writes, the film “feeds the myth that has brought Churchill’s nation to the cliff edge of departure from the European Union”; he “half-expected Foreign Secretary [Boris] Johnson” to “hurl back the Hunnish hordes led by Angela Merkel”. Dunkirk might not be a film about Churchill’s imperialism and genocide, but its neutrality places us within war and nowhere else.