Why Dunkirk is probably one of my favorite war movie ever

Please be aware that this story contains minor (or major) spoilers, and that depending on your sensitivity to this matter, you might want to skip this story if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

I might be a bit late to the party, but I actually saw Dunkirk a few days ago. Though some might argue that it might lack a deeper scenario, and that it might be a bit repetitive, I felt like Dunkirk had this very peculiar flavor of movies that are here to stay. I must admit, it’s probably one of my favorite war movie ever, and one of my favorite Nolan movies, alongside Memento, Inception and The Dark Knight.

I’ll try to briefly list a few reasons why, according to me, Dunkirk is much more than your average war movie.

The personal aspect

First of all, over the course of the past few years, Dunkirk is probably one of the movies I could relate the most to . Indeed, I was born and raised in Calais - city also mentioned in the movie - least than 50km away from the actual city of Dunkirk (Dunkerque in French). The landscapes, as well as the short peeks at the city you see in the movie are very typical of north of France, and remain very similar today. Nolan also made a fantastic job at recreating the very cold and bleak atmosphere you could experience in north of France during the winter season. There was definitely a feeling of Déjà-vu involved.

A great example of this cold and bleak atmosphere you find throughout the movie.

However, the most personal connection I have with Dunkirk is to be found in the stories my 93-year-old grandmother would tell us about the war. She grew up working in the family farm, not far from Calais. The story that struck me the most is probably the following : The farm was trapped, more often than not, between German bombs from one side, and British bombs from the other side as it was situated very close to the coastline. She recalls that, when bombs hit the fields, the impact was so strong that cows disappeared below the great amount of soil that was projected into the air.

As sad and daunting as these stories are inherently, I felt like Dunkirk brought to my eyes scenes that I could only try to imagine before. It also transcribes very well something that civilians like my grandmother must have felt during the war. This sensation that life has to go on, and this impression that the time kind of stops when, once again, the threat of death comes back around. You can definitely feel this in Dunkirk - though with soldiers - when the sound of German aircrafts shatter the silence once again, leaving British soldiers paralyzed on the shore.

Therefore, even though your personal background might be very different from mine, Dunkirk manages to strike a very personal chord on its audience. It sends us back to universally shared feelings (fear of death, existential dread) and situations (time running out, loss of hope).

This leads me directly to my second point, Dunkirk doesn’t feel like your average war movie, namely because it breaks with the codes were are used to.

Dunkirk is not your average war movie

Dunkirk is probably one of my favorite war movie, and this namely because it’s not a war movie. To me, it’s halfway between a war documentary and a survival movie with a war setting.

The documentary aspect probably comes from the different timelines introduced in the movie to document the Battle of Dunkirk, as well as from the raw aspect of the movie. Dialogs are limited to the strict minimum, and most of the time, it feels like being by the soldiers’ side, sharing their fear and despair. It’s also due to the fact that there’s no real hero in this movie. Nolan just reminds us continuously that soldiers’ life on the battlefield just hang by a thread. You won’t find your usual bulletproof war hero in Dunkirk. Actually, even identifying a main character is not that easy. Every time the characters gain a tiny glimpse of hope, the harsh reality of war catches up. Dunkirk is definitely more about despair and hopelessness that it is about heroism, or about a glorious feat of arms.

Ultimately, Dunkirk is about survival. Nolan manages perfectly to create a very claustrophobic ambience throughout the whole movie, which is very interesting because most scenes take place in a very open setting. Even on the beach on Dunkirk, with a clear horizon, the tension is tangible. Soldiers know they are trapped and that time is running out, as the enemy keeps moving forward, and as the defenses become weaker and weaker. This idea of being trapped is omnipresent in the movie, even the huge destroyers that are supposed to provide shelter and protection happen to be once again a gigantic trap for soldiers that end up locked in as the ship sinks. This survival aspect is very deliberate, as Nolan strives to show us that the threat is ubiquitous (air, land and sea) and that only the strongest and luckiest might get a chance to make it alive. Once again, every time a character finds a way out of the danger, a new life-threatening situation pops up out of nowhere, which participates in this very oppressive atmosphere (especially by accumulation), typical of survival movies (Think about The Road (2009) for reference).

The Road (2009), typical example of the survival genre.

One last point, as it is mentioned at least twice in the movie, you can almost see the cliffs of England from Dunkirk. This participates greatly to this oppressive atmosphere. You understand that, for the soldiers, their home, their chance of survival is literally within sight, yet totally unreachable. This is probably one of the most frustrating feeling possible. This particular feeling, I would say, is almost necessary to create a context of survival. If there’s still the slightest chance for a positive outcome, the tiniest glimpse of hope, then survival becomes a possibility, because the outcome makes it worth the fight. Once again, The road is a great example of this very concept. Even though the world is devastated, the idea that all forms of life might not be extinct is exactly what drives the main character and his son to go on this very risky journey towards the south, instead of just waiting patiently for death to strike.

Therefore, Dunkirk is not your average war movie. One can even argue that it’s actually more of a survival movie, taking place in a war setting (as opposed to the overplayed post-apocalyptic one). In particular, the sea plays a very important, and almost metaphysical role in this survival aspect and in the movie as a whole.

A certain metaphysical approach to the sea

Nolan definitely has a very metaphysical approach in the way he writes and films his movies. On this regard, Inception is probably the easiest example to understand, raising topics such as lucid Dreaming, conception of reality and even the Cartesian doubt.

To me, Dunkirk is not exempt from this. In particular, the sea plays a very interesting role in this movie as it always has a very ambiguous nature the entire time. Think about it, you always have 2 ways of considering the sea at each time : either the way out or the trap, what connects or what isolates, the problem or the solution, the path to life or the one that promises you a certain death.

A great example of the ambiguous nature of the sea, that both isolates and connects.

Think about it, at several occasions when someone is momentarily saved by the sea (or sees it as a possible solution) the sea turns into an even bigger threat. The young boy sees his sea voyage to Dunkirk as a way to finally do something meaningful with his life, but only encounters death (brought to him by the sea in the shape of the rescued British soldier). The very same British soldier is both saved and brought back to the atrocities of war by the sea itself. Lastly, when the highlanders spot the stranded boat, they see it as an opportunity to flee by sea when the tide rises, but the sea is also what finally lead them to death, as it makes them sink.

Somehow, by its ambiguous nature, the sea in Dunkirk reminds me a lot of the role played by Loki in the Norse Mythology. Loki is unpredictable, and can be both a asset or a liability for the gods, as he both help them or put them in the most awkward and complicated situations. Therefore, the sea might have been used by Nolan as a metaphor for the things in life (or in war) that dwarf humans, as they are unable to understand them properly or to control . In a way, I also see it as a way for Nolan to represent life (and war) itself, as they are not chosen by men (or soldiers) and yet we have to face it without being able to forecast the real outcome of our actions.

All in all, Dunkirk is a great movie that is definitely more leaning towards the survival genre, and that I wouldn’t consider as a war movie per se. Also, Nolan’s influence is definitely tangible whether it’s on the way it approaches the various topic he raises and on the very well mastered cinematography. Some scenes are definitely breathtaking, and Dunkirk benefits from a great amount of work in terms of aesthetics. For all this, and because it manages to avoid many clichés from war movies, Dunkirk is probably one of my favorite movies about war.

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Adrien.