Over the last few decades, war movies have lost their purpose. I personally realized this when I watched Pearl Harbor for the first time. See, war movies aren’t supposed to be about love and caring and kisses underneath the stars. War movies are supposed to be about just that. These films forgot their place in society. They forgot that their purpose isn’t to make us glorify or romanticize war. Their sole purpose is to remember that people died so that we can be where we are today.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are some great war films that have been made in the last two decades. Three Kings, The Men Who Stare At Goats, and Saving Private Ryan are all fantastic films, but for every Saving Private Ryan, there was a Pearl Harbor where Batman and Josh Hartnet fight over a woman, and “oh yeah, we’re also trying to win a war, too.”
That’s why I was skeptical about Dunkirk. Sure, the previews showed no signs of kissy lovey dovey crap. It looked like it was supposed to be an old fashioned war movie. One where people who actually understood what war was like wanted to make you understand what war was like. “But,” I thought, “how could Hollywood make money off an actual war movie? Why would they think the public would be interested in seeing a movie about human beings making slow, bloody progress towards modern civilization?”
Well, it turns out Christopher Nolan has a little bit of pull in Hollywood and was able to convince someone to let him create an actual war movie. A movie that told a story of a horrific event of war. A movie that reminded its viewers that war is hell.
Dunkirk doesn’t follow a group of characters, or even groups of characters. It instead chronicles an event: the evacuation of the French town of Dunkirk in 1940. During the German invasion of France in 1939 and 1940, also known as the blitzkrieg, the French and British troops charged with defending against the attack were pushed back all the way to the English Channel.
Whether it was his officers or Hitler himself who gave the order is beside the point. Someone ordered the Germans to quit advancing on the British and French troops. This gave the British just enough time to leave Dunkirk. Or, this would have given the British troops enough time to leave Dunkirk had the British command decided to send ships. In an effort to maintain their defenses at home, command decided to keep the majority of their planes and ships on the British mainland. This caused quite a bit of trouble for those left in France, and the Royal Navy decided to call upon a large number of civilian vessels to sail over to France and act as troop transports instead.
This is the story that Dunkirk sets out to tell, not a shitty, made up love story. It doesn’t attempt to make you feel something fake. What it does attempt to do is make you feel sad, inspired, hopeful, and anxious all at once. It’s a strange mix of emotions that I hadn’t felt (from a film) in quite some time.
Sad because there is quite a bit of death in Dunkirk. I mean, obviously there is. It’s a war movie. But it’s not quick death. Some scenes are rather gruesome. There is a scene where an entire shipload of soldiers gets stuck in the mess hall while their ship begins to sink after being struck by a torpedo. It’s not a pleasant sight. The howling, the yelling, the screaming all make you feel like you’re witnessing the event take place. It’s terrifying, really, because you know this actually happened. You know there are planes and ships down at the bottom of the English Channel that are the last resting places of men younger than I. There’s another scene where an oil slick sitting on top of the water ignites while soldiers are swimming through it. It’s not fake. This is real shit that actually happened during war, and it makes you feel terrible.
But that’s okay. I’m not a person that actively seeks out feeling like shit from things that should be entertaining, but war movies are different. They make you feel bad because you should feel bad. We’ve become so numb to warfare over the last two decades that we’ve forgotten what it’s actually like. We’ve forgotten that there’s a human toll to war that’s not just felt by the enemy. People die from the decisions our politicians make. A lot of people die. It might look cool or fun when you’re looking back on it 10, 20, or 80 years later, but it’s not. War is hell.
Alright. Enough with my rant. If you couldn’t tell, I thought the story was fantastic. But anyone can make a true story good. It wouldn’t be made into a movie if it wasn’t an interesting story to begin with. Dunkirk was a great movie for so many more reasons than just the subject.
The direction was just breathtaking. Every shot, every angle was well thought out. He didn’t just use the camera to capture people acting. He captured little details that made us realize how shitty it was to be involved in this situation. I think one of the coolest uses of the setting were during a couple of scenes right on the beach. The foam from the ocean was washing up onto the shore, and the wind was blowing it onto the soldier’s uniforms and into their faces. It was such a little touch, such a minute detail, but it really made an impact. The oil slicks in the water, the pilots having to write out their fuel level on their instrument panel, they’re all there to make us remember that being at Dunkirk really, really sucked.
The acting, too, was fantastic. Although many of the actors were lesser-known, and a lot of them didn’t even have very big speaking roles, the fact that they were younger and less experienced added to the movie immensely.
But looking back at Dunkirk, it wasn’t any one thing that made it a fantastic film. The story, the cast, and the writing and direction all worked together so well. I know this review started off as a rant on our modern views on war, but that’s really what spoke to me most about this film. It doesn’t glorify the war. It doesn’t glorify killing. It doesn’t make anybody a hero. It just tells a story from a few, similar viewpoints.
I want to end this review not with a score, because I think you should see the movie regardless of what I score it as, but with a quote from William Tecumseh Sherman, the dude who burned 90% of the South as he marched thousands of troops to Atlanta in 1865; the guy whose picture is next to the phrase ‘total war’ in the dictionary. This is where the ‘War is hell’ quote comes from, but there’s a really important part of the quote that gets left out: ‘[War’s] glory is all moonshine.’
War isn’t pretty when it’s happening. The only time it’s pretty is when you look at it through a different light, through moonlight, and only see the shiny bits you want to. Dunkirk doesn’t show you the battle through moonshine; it shows you every dirty, gritty, nasty bit.
I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.
-William T. Sherman