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Further conversation over "Dunkirk"

Conversation about Dunkirk (at NewYorker Facebook group)

Patrick McEvoy-Halston
With "Dunkirk" we have another film where young men do things we could only trepidatiously imagine having the "balls" to do ourselves, making it yet another film which has a generation that went about slaughtering themselves, as somehow nevertheless superior, greater, than our mostly peaceful one. They make war out to be our chance to be real men again, which is a problem.

Can anyone think of any films where overtly soldiers are mocked as an inferior, as a regressive, species -- and I don't mean just the officers, nor simply high command, which is all over the place, but the soldiers themselves... as well as the people back home who believe they're honourable for thinking soldiers as brave and brave only, rather than a particularly sadistic and crazily self-sacrificial brand of human being. This needn't be what the whole film is concerned with, but just aspects within a film. I just saw "Hard Days Night," and it's in there... as I believe the whole spirit of what I'm saying is in "Daisies." But as a whole film, "Casualties of War" comes to mind, without an immediate follow-up.

Nial Buford
I'm going to disagree with the idea that Dunkirk is a film about wartime heroism or any sort of jingoistic tendency to greatness. To my own surprise, especially after seeing it a 2nd time, I think it's possibly the only successful contemporary anti-war film we have, at least in the last decade (which I would never have expected from Nolan). The movie's narrative structure is one where war is consistently the obstacle to the character's - such as they are - goal: to get out alive. War only impedes them. It offers no opportunity for success other than survival, and no real mission, no victory condition. If fact, the primary faces we follow would, in another century, be called cowards: they use a soldier's body as a ticket out of the war, they hide and run and try to leave by themselves before anyone else makes it out. Tom Hardy's Fletcher is the exception, but his heroism is treated with such quiet and reflective eye that it's almost incidental to the rest of the movie. Despite Nolan's tendency to sentimentalize, which almost ruins it, the revelation at the end of the film is that the best you can ask for in wartime is that your loved ones come home, and that that is the only real success to be had. (An aside: I don't love the movie).

Patrick McEvoy-Halston
Interesting. I thought you had a real sense that England was a land of patriots and that Germany was an implacably dangerous enemy, that owing to this misstep -- which owed nothing to the willing soldiers themselves -- might rape the homeland. These men were ready to do their part... and stood out existentially vulnerable for a moment for this, but learned that all of England was behind them. My impression of them was as mostly orderly, if understandably unsettled... it was the frenchman who seemed a little more unscrupulous. I felt the sequel to this film at the finish... which was Britain redoubling its efforts, all doubts conquered, after this pitiful and pathetic start, to doom even the great German monster. Success is in having committed yourself sacrificially for your mates, and knowing you handled yourself well in terribly frightening situations... which again I thought all of them did -- though a few, particularly well -- in a situation where overt heroism wasn't an option for them.

I love your line, "his heroism is treated with such quiet and reflective eye that it's almost incidental to the rest of the movie." There is some kind of truth in this that it made me pause. But I found him the exception that would very soon prove the rule, however.

Nial Buford
I think that this assessment might be predicated on an idea that Germany is a central figure in the movie, which it purposefully isn't. The word Nazi is never uttered; even in the explanatory title cards at the opening of the film they are referred to only as "The Enemy," which is obviously a very conscious decision on Nolan's part, done in the knowledge that any mention of the opposing army's Nazi banner would immediately give Britain's forces a noble edge. The "German Monster" is treated as a broad, almost allegorical threat, not an existential one: they might as well be Death, incarnate, coming from the continent to steal Britain's sons.

The only concrete account of a "noble war" or even a "noble defense" that the movie seems to deliver is the death of George, whose sacrifice is treated as banal and accidental. The only reason he's even treated as a hero is that the older boy comes back and tells his story to the local paper, who hails him as a "hero at Dunkirk," though we saw his journey as almost meaningless, really, and needlessly tragic. The stamp of courage here is almost seen as just a means of consolation for the grief of the homeland and its families, I think.

Patrick McEvoy-Halston
I don't think we ever forget they're fighting Nazis, even if they might remind us more of a horde, more how Germans saw the Polish and Russian peoples, for our never seeing their banner. Though you do get me thinking, perhaps like some other thread suggested, it also doubles as an anti-immigration movie, a Brexit movie.

Patrick McEvoy-Halston
I didn't realize that George was the one the papers called a local hero; when I saw the film, I swear I saw Tommy. Good to know. George doesn't do much, but he did commit himself to a brave action when it wasn't necessitated of him. There's fidelity in that with the others who accomplished more. So tragic, but that's a fate only for those of acquired heroism. I felt fealty, not mockery in this endnote. Imagine if the film had shown two boys, one who made the leap and another who didn't. That fellow, the one who stayed back, wouldn't have earned the right to start getting jumpy, which everyone else in the movie, very much had. They were all way past the point of conceivable forebearance, and as I saw it, were still holding up fairly well.

Patrick McEvoy-Halston
There are three acts of demonstrative bravery in this film... a brave stance, where a reasoned backing down could be done without shame. One was done by Tom Hardy's pilot, when he decided to press on even though it meant no fuel to make the return back, the other by Commander Bolton, as he decided to remain until all the French had their chance to escape as well, and the third by George, a civilian who took a willing leap to a participant in war, when his age made him exempt. Tom Hardy and Bolton do well... as we would expect them to do. Young George gets the short end of the stick, as we might fear could well occur to him. But even though I think there may be room for audience members to want to pretend they wouldn't be like him, I think there's a larger sense we may be looking at essentially the same man, perhaps in three different stages of life.

You made challenging points. Thank you. I would like to post this conversation to my blog. Do you mind if I do so?


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