in Art, Bombs and rockets, Films and movies, History

I saw the 70mm film version of “Dunkirk” last night and found much to appreciate about it. The production values are excellent, and it generally seems an unusually realistic depiction of history and combat, with less of the spectacle and fewer of the implausible dramatic storylines that often dominate the genre. The non-linear storytelling adds to the sense of chaos, and perhaps adds a bit more dramatic tension to a story where — for anyone who has taken high school history — the broad outlines of the ending are known in advance.

The film is unusual in part because almost no characters have names which are mentioned or emphasized. Rather, most of the storytelling is visual and told in overlapping vignettes: sinking ships and air combat, and repeated portrayals of the men of the British Expeditionary Force waiting on the beach for its evacuation.

In some ways, I felt the film consciously subverted some of the tropes of spectacular high budget war films like the notorious “Pearl Harbor“, and even the more unified and neatly structured storytelling of classics like “Saving Private Ryan“. For instance, a successfully tense scene centres around whether an oil slick from a sinking ship would catch fire; in a “Pearl Harbor” type film, the leaking ship probably would have exploded in the shot when it was first shown. Only two moments struck me as transparently unrealistic: when the senior officer on the beach somehow knew exactly how many people had been rescued just as the last boats were leaving, and an odd scene in which men trapped in a sinking ship somehow believe that throwing a man or two overboard will address the problem of bullet holes below the waterline in the hull.

All told, the film was evocative and memorable, as well as generally non-moralizing (though the heroic Winston Churchill quotation in the closing minutes might have been usefully tempered with some reference to his disastrous involvement in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16). The absence of well-known actors (though I certainly recognized Mark Rylance from the excellent “Bridge of Spies“) added to the sense of watching a plausible historical reenactment more than a standard Hollywood drama.

Recommended for those with an interest in history, real-world sets in place of heavy CGI, and perhaps seeing very expensive ship sets being rotated and submerged. I’m curious about whether some genuine WWII aircraft were used in the air combat scenes that linked together the disparate bits of the plot.

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. January 27, 2018 at 2:09 pm

“These reactions suggest an England congratulating itself on its past – an idealised past, shorn of inconvenient fact. The films, especially Dunkirk, are sometimes brilliant cinematically, and yet utterly conventional in their patriotism and presentation of character. A film such as The Cruel Sea, made 65 years ago, gave my generation of children just as shocking an idea of what war meant, but refrained from a patriotic Elgar pastiche on the soundtrack (to which Dunkirk unfolds). Still, Dunkirk’s untruths are mainly distortion rather than invention. The British army’s escape from the beaches, for example, was enabled much more by the Royal Navy and an evacuation fleet that included 39 destroyers than by the gallant “little ships” from the rivers and harbours of southern England; and enabled most of all, of course, by a German army that didn’t press on to the coast.”

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