Comparing Dunkirk and 1917

Cody Libolt
Jan 17, 2020 · 3 min read
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They make for an interesting comparison.

Both films are reinventing what war films can be by changing the editing direction — and especially the use of time — to create immersion.

Both films are largely about perspective.

Dunkirk makes a meta-commentary by comparing several perspectives with almost no context or character development.

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The big reveal in Dunkirk (spoiler) is that you have been seeing three stories progress from different vantage points at different paces, with timelines being told over a week, a day, and an hour all converging at the film’s climax.

This creates a sensation of zooming in to an exact moment in time when the long awaited rescue takes place.

It invites the viewer to notice how differently people may experience a war, depending on their role in it.

1917 creates an illusion that the film happened in a single take.

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The lack of time jumps, cuts, or perspective jumps pulls the viewer in.

We are locked to the main characters and unable to stop experiencing what they are experiencing.

In normal films, the exact timing and duration of cuts allow the director to tell us what he considers important.

Since there are no apparent cuts in this film, the director uses other means to show us the ebb and flow of what is more and less significant.

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Seeing something like 1917, we realize just what a relief it is to see a cut in a normal film.

Without cuts, we do not have from being placed into a single perspective.

We are forced to consider one perspective at all times and to keep considering it in more depth.

1917 creates the opposite of the effect of the “fast cut” forgetfulness causes by rapid context shifts (for example, consider the nightly news, Sesame Street, or shows that focus on variety).

The payoff in 1917 is a strongly linear story — the opposite of Dunkirk’s timeline creativity. 1917 has the chance to develop its characters more. And it almost treats the camera as a third main character, giving the impression that the viewer were a bird following the main characters.

In following the characters in such a way, 1917 creates a constantly rising tension. Dunkirk creates its similar rise in tension by use of its ever-rising, ever-accelerating soundtrack.

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Both films emphasize camera work, setting, spectacle, and presentation over plot, dialogue, character, or the war’s grand strategy.

Both films strongly downplay CGI elements, making them feel non-existent. This makes the experience as real as can be in both cases.

It seems the goal of both films was to make something that would last for decades and never feel cheesy. Both films succeeded in this.

And both films are delightfully unique. It is as if they were designed not only to be new, but to be impossible ever to match.

What do you think?

Join the discussion here.

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