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Archive for August 2nd, 2017


Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

Friends and readers,

I’ve just read that Dunkirk is this summer’s “big movie.” In his column about it in The Washington Post, Richard Cohen wrote “since July 21 opening, it has taken in more than $100 million in North America and been hailed by ecstatic critics everywhere.” Richard Cohen professes to “admire it even more the second time. It is a stupendous achievement, although more than a little odd. It’s a film for the Trump era. It is deaf to history.” He then goes on to trash it.

My view is more akin to Anthony Lane in the New Yorker — unless I’m misreading him. I wish it were better. It is worth seeing as long as it’s not prefaced by what it was prefaced with in the AMC movie-theater I went to: 20 minutes of trailers for coming film and TV shows, each more horrifyingly violent, fascist,and racist than the one before: advertising a TV film on the Detroit riots which appears to be a Trump vision of cities where the majority of people are African-American as places of wild carnage; two films ratcheting up paranoia over ISIS and terrorist states (of which obviously the US is not one; we are the good guys). Or, one could say, in comparison with these, this is a sane decent truthful film.

What the film-makers do is attempt to make us experience what it was like to be on Dunkirk beach on those few nights. Chistopher Nolan dramatizes what it feels like to be in what MacNamara called “the fog of war.” We experience Dunkirk from the point of view of several individual men trying to escape the beach onto a ship, any ship. Nothing makes sense; there are few boats to rescue them, and the boats that have come are torpedoed by German airplanes. No false explanation, no heroics except for the people on the one small boat we are permitted to experience and the stubbornness and hysteria of those who want to live. It feels like a fragment off another movie the rest of which has been mercifully cut. That’s the point: each person’s experience of war is like a fragment and many young soldiers have no idea what the real quarrel is about or what group of people have incited it.

Cohen complains that we are given no history, no context. He is indignant because he assumes most young people (those who go most to films) will have no idea what this is about. Well, first of all there is an explanation (if brief) at the opening: this is World War Two, the British are caught on this beach, attempting to flee the Germans who are occupying France; they have been beaten back to the channel. Actually his word is “dolts.” No we are not told what happened: that thousands of small British boats (pleasure, yachts, fishing and working boats) crossed the channel and rescued some 300,000 or so off the beach. (The boats were mostly requisitioned.) A huge number of people also died, were badly wounded. The film has a right to set up suspense. Cohen is complaining that Nolan did not make the film he would have made, which appears to be a lecture on the “evil rapacious regime” run by Hitler. Worse, says Cohen, Nolan has done this deliberately since it stands to reason the conversation (if there were some — there is very little) would naturally include references to Germans. “Nolan had an obligation” to make this as well as the Nazi concentration camps and the destruction of the rich European culture of the 1920s clear. Really?

If Cohen were the only person reacting in personal angry ways, I would not be writing this blog, but a number of critics (not all are ecstatic) are indignant. Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street journal wants to know why Churchill’s role is so minimized. This is a dumbed-down film from the maker of Batman. Well, ’nuff said.’ I’ve come across ordinary people’s comments making adverse comments about the film too. The friend I went with, seeing I liked the film, didn’t want to say she didn’t, so simply contented herself with agreeing this was like a fragment (to her ears that was an unfavorable criticism), and saying “I should have read the reviews, my fault [for going].” It wasn’t what she expected.

Dunkirk, this movie, seems to have hit some sore nerve in others, made sorer by having a dangerous (evil? implicitly rapacious) man in the White House. I picked Cohen to summarize because he makes the connection openly: “This [the need to inform] is especially the case in the age of President Trump when it is necessary to appreciate that the ugliness he has exploited could escape its confines and metastasize.” My objection: why is it his age? and what makes Cohen think this ugliness has not already metatasized? Is Cohen not paying attention to the thousands and thousands of deaths in Yemen (hundreds of civilians each week), joined by hundreds killed, imprisoned, starving, in other states whose dictators Trump regularly calls to congratulate?

The ordinary viewer seems to want heroism, something monumental. This movie was apparently made on a small budget. During most of the action, we see only three Spitfire planes, and we see only one small fishing boat crossing the Atlantic. The boat makes it, and is filled to the brim with soldiers, and turns round back to the (of course) white cliffs of Dover. Where else? Two of the spitfires are shot down. All three importantly shoot down as many German airplanes as they can, because the German airplanes during this evacuation, were throwing bombs, firing, doing all they ferociously could to annihilate (one of our War Department head’s favorite words — General Mattis) everyone in sight. The proportion is right. Ridiculously, many people still think the Spitfires were glorious experiences, and in Penelope Fitzgerald’s gem, The Bookshop, never tire of seeking memoirs. There are very few, because something like 80% of the British airplanes (especially the Spitfire) were destroyed, 3 out of 4 (with all on board killed). One of the two very great anti-war BBC mini-series of the 1970s shows this viscerally; most of the characters in Piece of Cake are dead before the series ends.


Mark Rylance as the father/captain of the small boat

The small fishing boat is central. It is in this boat we experience what is best and what are the flaws in this film. Rylance embodies not so much (as Lane has it) the “gallantly narrow squeak through”, “the makeshift,” and is not just your stoic Englishman “wearing throughout the ordeal, a white shirt, a tie, and a sweater, as if he were doing a bit of Sunday gardening rather than hauling a shoal of his countrymen, drenched in oil” from death by drowning in that dark blue cold sea or bombs, fire, shots. He makes it a patriotic British film. He loses a son while crossing — killed by accident by the first numb and shuddering man they rescue, who under PTSD, becomes frantic when he realizes the boat is headed back for France and attempts to try to force Rylance to turn round. He is revealed as Cillian Murphy and knocks Rylance’s son down to the hold where he receives a fatal concussion.

But does Rylance flinch? well, maybe, but he carries on quietly, regardless. Later Murphy is seen pulling others into the boat, leg, body, arms over. All are doing their duty by this time — when they see they have a chance to live. Rylance is clearly a shining example to his second son with him on the boat. When we get back to shore, we learn a third son has been previously killed. But there he sits at the kitchen table, now drinking his tea, reading the paper while an overvoice of Churchill calling out the famous exhortation, “We will fight them on the beach …,” defending their island to their last breath.

Nolan punts at the film’s close; he gives it a close. The one Spitfire that survives is seen floating down out of gas and the man is able to throw off the glass top and Tom Hardy emerges. Elgar’s music is heard softly and then swells up. As the men arrive, the people on shore are waiting for them, blankets, more tea, biscuits, sandwiches in hand. Like some chorus in a play. Late in the film Jack Lowden (perfect as Nicholas Rostov in Davies’s TV War and Peace) is seen busy doing effective things. From afar in the train soldiers glimpse British people at work on the railways, undaunted. Kenneth Branagh is the other famous box-office pull older actor in the film: he is the grimly cheerful man, facing up to this colossal catastrophe, who stands at the head of whatever it is, binoculars in hand.


That’s James D’Arcy with him

His faith is rewarded when he sees (as we do) the flotilla of small boats speeding in, and pulling people one by one, aboard. It is moving. I don’t say it’s not. But the emotion worked up to this point didn’t need Elgar. Nolan cut one of Churchill’s often forgotten lines: we do not win wars by magnificent evacuations (words to this effect). I admit the sentence is seen in the newspaper print but I who have poor eyesight was able to read it. And until near this conventional movie ending, Noland attempts to be as true to experience as his limited budget will allows.

The film begins with a soldier running frantically through the streets of a French village (seemingly empty) leaping over a wall, to find himself on the beach, where he sees long lines, crowds of soldiers waiting at its edge. Hitherto the films I’ve seen which included Dunkirk, made it look like a party (almost); not here. If I’m not mis-remembering we see a horse killed (again just one — very economical, we can call it epitomizing). This Frenchman does manage to grab someone on a stretcher and together with another man (stranger to him) they push their way onto a boat. Later he is almost murdered by the British on that boat when they discover he is not English; at first they think him “the enemy” (not German, the word is not use); when they find he speaks French, that seems just as bad.

Attention is paid to making us experience what it is to be in a war zone directly attacked by ferocious weapons determined to destroy you (me, the individual). This reminded me of a play written in 1929 which Jim and I saw in a London theater the last time we were in England: R. C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End. the audience was made to feel through noise and lights that bombs were raining down on us – as they would have the men in the play. That’s why we are not told the names of the individual stories we glimpse. What happens is and slowly he begins to talk and act to help others. Of course he helps others.

There are no women with real roles. We see them in the teams of people down in a hole in the boat, on shore, serving food, handing out blankets. This is kept up and is a conscious choice for when Rylance and son get home, there is no wife/mother at the table. See Meherer Bonner’s well-taken complaint about having no women; on story lines they are over-rated and impose meaning. This film displayed the meaninglessness of death; it held no briefcase for justified “good” wars. On this watch Howard Zinn’s lecture on three “justified” or good wars: the US revolutionary, the US civil war, and World War Two.

But in our time where what is shown to us in films is cruelty, inhumanity and torture almost as a norm, deep distrust and far from social behavior, individual ruthlessness, this is tonic. It is good. No it’s not a true expose, like Danger USB (the other great mini-series of the 1970s, about a bomb disposal unit), not searingly anti-war so that you not soothed, cannot be mistaken, like Kilo Two Bravo. Kilo Two Bravo was not distributed in the US (though it was in the UK under the name of the place where the British troops came upon a landmine, Kajaki). Dunkirk is reaching a huge audience.

I wonder how it would compare with the 1958 Dunkirk with Richard Attenborough and John Mills. The reviews declare this older film to have been one of the best war films ever made (!): the wikipedia article shows this earlier Dunkirk was presented with a historical context.


Richard Attenborough, John Mills (Platon Karatayev in the 195 War and Peace), Bernard Lee

Quite a number of people on my Trollope19thCStudies listserv at Yahoo have been moved to tell of parents, grandparents and if they are old enough, their own memories or experience of Dunkirk. It is not that long ago. I had a friend who was on the listserv for a few years (not a Trollopeian, she gave it up), who would tell me of what it was like at age 6 to hear the German airplanes come over the channel nightly. It’s only 90 miles. Nowadays if a soldier carries some form of iphone, he may be kept informed – though not of the larger picture or politics. I had an uncle “missing, believed killed”in World War Two who it turned out was not killed; he hid out on an Asian island. When he returned home, he acted differently than most people: he would not go to parties or large gatherings of people; he’d break off suddenly in response to others, but would not say what had bothered him. He was a fruit and vegetable peddler in New York City for a while, and then was given a job (compensation) at the post office. He slept in a separate room away from from my aunt. There were no children. I feel my aunt led a sad lonely life. They had been married before he went away to war.

Ellen

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