Necessary Horror

By Tim Winterstein

Dunkirk should rightfully take its place among the greatest of war films ever made (and I wish I had taken the opportunity to see it in its intended fullness on the big screen). It deserves the awards it has coming. The plot is not as straightforward as it initially seems, combining one week of soldiers trying to escape the beach at Dunkirk, one day of civilian ships rescuing those soldiers, and one hour of air battle. 

There are movies that glorify heroism in war; there are movies that expose the absurdity of war; and there are movies that break the mold of what war movies can be. Dunkirk is that sort of film. If it weren’t for the intensity of Hans Zimmer’s score and the occasional burst of gunfire, the beauty of this film could lull you into reverie. In this way, it is much more The Thin Red Line than Saving Private Ryan. The music builds and falls back, rises and hums, without taking over or being repetitious. I watched it twice, and was more impressed the second time. In fact, it probably requires a second viewing to see—like a good book—everything that Christopher Nolan has seamlessly fit together.

We see both the insanity and the surreality of war. It is surreal to see the lines of soldiers standing on miles of beach, simply waiting; to see the beauty of the seaside hotels and cabins, with explosions in the distance. It is insane to be able only to duck one’s head every time an enemy bomber comes flying in; to be stuck on a thin, fenced pier stretching out into the water, and be unable to evade bombs and gunfire.

Nolan manages to show all manner of heroism: unearned, unheralded, and unwilling. There is both naivete and shell-shocked weariness. And it all flows from the contradiction of war itself. Wars are fought by people who are compelled by every possible motive, from patriotism to familial pressure, but regardless of its form, there is always compulsion. I suppose there are a few who actually revel in the violence, but the majority would be happy to remain at home in peacetime, away from constant, unavoidable, mind- and heart-numbing death. In other words, if war becomes necessary, the actual fighters fight because they want to put an end to war.

Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), piloting his small vessel, tells Cillian Murphy’s character that they can’t avoid the war by remaining safely at home. The rear admiral tells Kenneth Branagh’s commander that it’s necessary to recover as much of the British army as possible (estimating that maybe 30,000-45,000 of the 330,000+ soldiers could be rescued) because behind them lies Britain and then the rest of the world. The fight is required of good people, whether they want it or not.

This is where neither the pacifists nor the hawks can quite encompass the complexity of warfare: its horror and its sometime necessity; its bloody meaninglessness and its honor.

And who is the enemy? Though we know the British and French (mainly) are fighting the Nazis, Nolan neither names them in the introductory text, nor ever shows their faces. The source of the gunfire in the opening scenes is unknown and unseen. Even in the final scene, the faces of those who capture Farrier (Tom Hardy) are blurred.

This gives the specific historical events of Dunkirk a general applicability. Even the excerpts of Churchill’s speech that Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) reads are not about the particulars of Dunkirk (which is most of the speech), but words that expand to fill the space of every struggle against every enemy at every place and time.

For the Christian, the closing words of the film represent an eschatological hope that hasn’t yet been fulfilled or realized: that “we shall never surrender,” and our struggle will be ongoing, “until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Enemies of what is right and good actually exist (requiring that right and good themselves exist); heroism is not a mawkish cliché, but actually possible only within the horror and death of an unsought war; cowardice and heroism occur not only within the same war or within the same battle, but within the same person.

“All I did was survive.”

“That’s enough.”