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“Dunkirk” Changes the Game for War Films

How Christopher Nolan turns the genre upside down


Throughout the history of cinema, the plethora of war films to come out usually consist of similar nuts and bolts: characters, though complex, are easily identified as good and evil by which fighting force they align with; a coming-of-age story; a nostalgic or sad sentimentality for the era the film takes place. These three ideas are the basic skeleton of hundreds of war films. Some use these elements effectively and stand the test of time, while others fade away.

Audiences see these ingredients used, especially in the 1990s, with films such as Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, Gettysburg, and Schindler’s List. Films that go back as far as the 1940s also display these tropes. Exceptions exist, usually found in the grittiness of the 1970s, with films such as Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. Though certain exceptions always exist, these films do possess one or two of usual nuts and bolts of the basic construct of a war film.

Dunkirk is a game-changer.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the man behind The Dark Knight series, Interstellar and Inception, Dunkirk showcases the events of the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940 during World War II. (For the sake of the piece, visit this site to get a better understanding of the historic event. I don’t want to bog down everyone with a history lesson). Nolan chooses to tell the Dunkirk story in three parts: by land, by sea and by air. In his usual fashion, Nolan interweaves the stories and plays with our understanding of time. All three take place in different periods of time: one hour, one day and one week. More importantly, though, the writer/director is not interested in showing us a history lesson; he would rather audiences experience history ourselves. That is the major takeaway from Dunkirk: it truly is an experience, not just a film.

There are no main characters in Dunkirk. The film consists of ensemble cast. Nolan’s focus is on the grander human experience rather than an individual’s. We follow certain characters in each story, but the dialogue and connection for the characters is minimal. I found myself rooting for their escape off the shores of Dunkirk because of the human connection of survival. The enemy is 99% of the time off screen, but we know of the immense threat they provide, thanks to Nolan’s direction and his assumption we know tons about war, especially World War II.

Nolan attacks our film senses with the images he shows and audio he uses. The attacking planes, gunfire and soundtrack (by Hans Zimmer) convey the danger these men are in without even showing one human of the other-side. Without any context, the audience experiences this terrifying ordeal through the point-of-view of the men stuck on the beach, ships and planes. There are no generals looking at maps, no home-front and no quiet nights sitting by the campfire exchanging stories. Nolan gives us little to connect with individuals because he wants us to connect with the human story of surviving with the odds stacked you.

This pamphlet, seen at the beginning of the film, is the part of the only context the audience gets (From

This approach is a step away from the conventional thinking of a war film. Usually, the context of the battles are given to us; the back-stories of characters are shown. Choosing that route, usually, ensures an audience connection with the characters and their tasks. In Dunkirk, there are no lofty speeches of home; there are no pre-battle connections. Nolan gambles. He trusts audiences will understand and know the specifics. He wants to understand the bigger picture of the Dunkirk story and see that this film is not about a couple of buddies. Dunkirk shows us that this event affects hundreds of thousands of men.

By not having the focus on certain characters, Nolan throws away the concept of character arcs. In theory, in a grander scope of this film, the ordeal these men (or boys) go through is a coming-of-age encounter. However, Nolan does not explicitly tell audiences that, nor show us. Our only time with the characters is in the context of the escape from Dunkirk. We do get a post-script, of sorts, that shows the characters returning home. With that said, there is not enough information on screen to convey a coming-of-story, a regularity in many war films. War is a maturing event. It takes young boys and molds them into men. These fighters are able to confront evils and inner demons. Sometimes those evils get the best of characters, but some overcome. (An example is Ed Burns’ character in Saving Private Ryan. Loud and rude, Burns’ character learns how to work with others and is humbled by the end.)

In Dunkirk, the characterization is kept to a minimum. The dialogue is kept to discussions about how to get off the beach. The one glimmer of personality comes from Mark Rylance’s character and his sons, who take their fishing boat to Dunkirk to help rescue soldiers. Those scenes, while effective, seem out of place in what Nolan’s overall theme of humanity’s survival. Those scenes are focused on the individual characters, and the audience is meant to emotionally connect with their plight. Those scenes are the only time I ever, emotionally, connected with any of the characters.


Whether taking place in an era where slavery existed or taking us inside a concentration camp, many war films show a side of sentimentality. Audiences experience this filling by how directors showcase the era. In Schindler’s List, director Steven Spielberg chose the film to be seen in black and white. Spielberg is not nostalgically looking back at the horrendous treatment of Jewish people during World War II; he is looking back with a sentiment of sorrow. His ending of Schindler’s List is an incredibly powerful moment of this sentimental opinion. In Glory, with their first major battle just around the corner, the 54th Massachusetts — a regiment of all black soldiers during the American Civil War — come together, sing and pray. The scene is a sentimental rallying cry, with each character relating that they have each other’s back no matter what happens in battle.

Dunkirk displays no major sentimentality feelings until its end, when returning home one of the soldiers reads a speech by Winston Churchill and are greeted with a hero’s welcome. This emotional connection at the end of the film, however, is not tied to World War II specifically. Nolan does not mean to make that sentimental connection to World War II (the complete opposite to Spielberg’s ending), but he does want you to feel happiness that the men got out alive. With his touch of realism, Nolan depicts war as brutal as ever. No kid after seeing Dunkirk would ever dream of “playing” war again.

The film is brutal, cold and an incredible 100 minutes of suspense. Dunkirk’s greatest achievement is its filmmaking. Nolan is a master at making you experience his films. He wants you as close as one can to being inside the film. The sound is frightening; planes have never felt more threatening. The visuals are jaw-dropping — the scope of the beach, the ocean and the sky is immense. Dunkirk is a war film unlike any other, a full tour-de-force.

Christopher Nolan changed the game for comic book films. Can he do it for war films?

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Alex Bauer

Alex Bauer


Just a guy who likes telling great stories, however and whenever I can. Click the Twitter icon to follow or e-mail me at