On the Beach
Dir. Chris Nolan, UK, 2017, 2 hours
Dunkirk makes an epic out of a historical miracle, the rescue of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers from the beaches of northern France in 1940 after Hitler’s blitzkrieg seized all of that country but the sand that the soldiers stood on.
Everyone’s raving about it, and it’s actually doing business, which is not always the case with war films.
The title is Dunkirk, but it’s more like the saving, not of Private Ryan, but of many thousand nameless privates, who could have been taken prisoner by the Nazis, or just as easily slaughtered on the beach.
You cannot thank Winston Churchill for this. It wasn’t his finest hour. The film reminds us that Churchill would not commit major ships to the evacuation, since he thought he’d need them to fight off the German invasion of England that he assumed was inevitable. That’s logical, but chilling in his willingness to sacrifice men. Where would he have gotten the soldiers to defend his country? If you didn’t know that about Churchill, you learned it in the film, but you don’t learn much else.
Dunkirk, directed by Chris Nolan, is a logistical triumph, not just in its aerial dogfights, but in the way it deploys quotations from earlier movies. The long lines of soldiers on the beach seen from above reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia or of Dune, and the dazzling aviation duels were quoting Top Gun by Tony Scott. Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat also came to mind, as did Das Boot, the German maritime or sub-maritime film by Wolfgang Petersen, especially when soldiers were clinging to life in water in the dark, as bullets came through a ship’s hull. But most of the time I thought of The Longest Day, the 1960’s epic made by multiple directors about D-Day, which, like Dunkirk, told not one but a dozen stories, except that The Longest Day told French and German stories, too. Once again, in Dunkirk, we have a film about other movies that you may have seen. And war, like it or not, for most film critics, is what they’ve seen in other war movies.
Still Dunkirk is worth seeing. There’s real emotion in the acting, and in heroism in retreat, and it reminds you that a soldier’s or a sailor’s perspective is anything but the Big Picture. That’s generic war, but we could have used a bit more real Dunkirk.
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