Survival Isn’t Fair: Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

Oh, my dear, dear followers of The Hand of Count Petofi, time has slipped away from us once again! Yet what is six months when you are a vampire or a werewolf or a severed right hand of a powerful warlock damned from here to eternity? Not long at all, I’d imagine. I was a little busy these past few months planning a wedding and getting married, but that is a novel or two thousand in itself. Returning to reality includes re-committing to writing and this blog, so let’s–in the words of the immortal, wonderful George Michael–GET BACK, HANDS OFF, GO FOR IT!

So I finally saw Dunkirk this week and, to be succinct, I loved it. Absolutely loved it. Yet, my movie-going partner, my new husband, had a lukewarm reaction to the film: he would rather watch Wonder Woman a thousand and one times before watching Dunkirk again. (Oh, Wonder Woman is beautiful, he says, but nowhere near as beautiful as you! Oh, yeah, sure.) No worries, my friends, this is not the first fissure in our brief marriage, and his reaction does not mute mine. What is disconcerting, though, is that there are others like him out there that share this opinion. The main criticism of the film is that it is devoid of palpable emotion and strong, developed characters to which the audience can attach themselves. And this, I believe, is missing the point entirely. For Dunkirk is not about that inexplicable bond found only in combat as in Band of Brothers or the journey of self-discovery each man undergoes while Saving Private RyanDunkirk is, quite simply, about survival. The will to survive is your main character, your driving action, your gripping emotion. Toward the end of the film, two evacuated soldiers are thanked for their service. “All we did was survive,” one of them snipes. “That’s enough,” the man replies.

Dunkirk tells the miraculous story of the evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, where the enemy had forced the troops to retreat. Christopher Nolan tells the story from three different perspectives in a non-linear fashion: one week on land, one day at sea, and one hour in the air. (The confusion this method caused was actually my husband’s chief complaint. He’s, like, so linear. Kinda like a Zebra.) In each story, there is little dialogue, yet there is that will to survive (or, in some instances, the determination to help others survive) and the gnawing suspense: will they make it?

Nolan does not give the characters much to say, much less a background fluffed with reasons why they are fighting or what they are longing to return to back home, and I honestly can’t remember any of their names without looking up the cast list on IMDB (and even then, I have to see the photo in the context of the film unless the actor’s name happens to be Tom Hardy, then I just have to see the photo–for research purposes, of course). Yet the miraculous thing is, to me, it did not matter. I was captivated, from Tommy running to escape a German ambush in the opening scene to Farrier setting his plane on fire and raising his hands in the air, resigned to his fate. I was on the edge of my seat (literally, which my husband found equal parts amusing and adorable), anxious about each character’s fate. I wanted these men to survive. And I didn’t need to know anything about them to feel that way.

Because, as I see it, those men–boys, really–all had a similar story, albeit a different history: none of them really wanted to fight. (“Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?”) Of course they wanted to go home. But they were fighting because they had to. Stephen Ambrose has a great line in one of his books about this exceptional generation of men–how they would have rather been at home, holding a baseball bat instead of a Browning Automatic Rifle, dating, and going to college, but they fought the war, not purely by choice, and they did so with dignity and honor. (I would quote him exactly, but getting married also included moving to a space that does not currently have a separate west wing for all my books, so they remain nine minutes away from my current location.) They did it, and how indelibly grateful the world should be for that.

Dunkirk expresses that without saturating the film with sap: there is heroism in the film, there is fear, there is the reality and complexity of war and you are right there with these boys in the thick of it–yet, it should be noted and applauded, the film refrains from an excessively violent and vulgar portrayal of war. I think I could watch this film a thousand and one times and still be stunned by its technical brilliance, its carefully crafted story, the finest acting, and its riveting and, yes, palpable emotion. And I would still want every man to survive. I, too, would stay. For the French.
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“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. And even if this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”   

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