Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’: A Miracle of Deliverance, Within a Miracle of Delivery

Written by Tim Pelan. Photographed by Melinda Sue Gordon © Syncopy, Warner Bros.

By Tim Pelan

When Christopher Nolan first announced Dunkirk as the title and subject of his next film after the grandiose yet intimate epic Interstellar, heads were scratched. Why this tale? Why now? “As a filmmaker, you’re always looking for a gap in pop-culture,” the writer-director told Total Film, who have selected Dunkirk as their top film of 2017. “You’re looking for something that hasn’t really been addressed in movies.” At least, not in the Nolan way. As I mentioned in my piece on A Bridge Too Far, British war cinema is seemingly preoccupied with defeat—the last time the snatching of victory from defeat at Dunkirk was addressed on screen, apart from the virtuoso oner tracking shot from Atonement, was in Leslie Norman’s self-same entitled film in 1958. Now Christopher Nolan has taken on that WWII “miracle of deliverance” to deliver a quite stunning, revolutionary ticking-clock adrenalized thriller with the most moving and uplifting of postscripts to leave you both exhausted and grateful—grateful you weren’t there, and grateful for what was achieved in Britain’s “darkest hour.” Nolan has made an epic (albeit at 1hr 47 mins), but it is the tightest, most screwed-down and perfectly crafted exercise in tension, desperation and longing, with little dialogue or exposition, and three distinct timelines that overlap, flip back and forth, ultimately converging to leave nary a dry eye in the house. There’s not a wasted second of screen time. The audience is thrust immediately and elegantly into the desperate situation, as the screen opens on a handful of Tommies making their way through the deserted streets of Dunkirk. German propaganda leaflets tumble around them, proclaiming the hopelessness of their situation. As shots ring out one squaddie (Fionn Whitehead, Tommy) makes it away by the skin of his teeth, and stumbles onto the beach, from where he hooks up with a silent co-conspirator (Aneurin Barnard, Gibson) in their attempt to leapfrog the endless queues (that most British of pursuits!) onto a medical ship, carrying a stretcher.

So far, so straightforward. Actually, the action is easy to follow, if you pay attention to the minimalist on-screen headings. There are three distinct timelines, as stated earlier—The Mole (relating both to the breakwater used as a dock to load troops from onto destroyers, stretching out to sea like a finger beckoning towards home, but also relating to the beach setting, the events upon which occur over one week); The Sea, relating to the “little ships,” civilian pleasure craft and such with shallow drafts that were commandeered to get men off the beach and onto the larger vessels over the course of one day; and The Air, where Spitfire pilots Tom Hardy (Farrier) and Collins (Jack Lowden) with one hour of fuel attempt to protect both ships making it back to Blighty, and stave off German Stuka dive bombers over Dunkirk. These timelines eventually collide to quite astonishing effect.

Apart from minimal exposition delivered sparingly between Kenneth Branagh’s Royal Navy Commander Bolton, masterminding the evacuation from The Mole, and James D’Arcy’s Colonel Winnant, the senior British Officer seen on screen, the rest of the film is sparsely subjective—we are thrust into the participant’s immediate, visceral viewpoint. Nolan has called the film “experiential” and also likens it to “Virtual Reality without the goggles.” By using large format film for dialogue scenes and IMAX for the rest of the action, there is no discernable flipping between formats to jar the viewer—every tortured decision and effort is magnified in glorious high-res detail in the eyes and visages of our allied avatars. Just watch Hardy’s eyes dart above a mask (yet again!) as he debates whether to hobble back to land with a damaged fuel gauge, or engage a bomber approaching men in the water below.

Tommy and Gibson hook up with Harry Styles’ Alex (only Gibson is named, ambiguously), making various desperate attempts to get home. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s lens loves their haunted, pinched, and most of all, young, faces—the whites of Gibson’s eyes bulging in the flame illuminated dusk, as big as the moon as he wearily waits on deck, not yet believing that he’s safe. Or Style’s desperation as he’s pulled away from a ship’s sinking hull, closing on the Mole’s structure.

In The Moonstone, Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson sets sail himself rather than have the navy take over his little boat, accompanied by his 19-year-old son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and last second unplanned addition 17-year-old friend George (Barry Keoghan), determined to make his mark in an otherwise unremarkable life. In many ways, he is the beating heart of the film. The motley crew pick up a shell-shocked officer, Cillian Murphy, along the way, whose panic has fateful repercussions. We later (earlier) see him in full control of his faculties, giving a fresh insight into how war can affect those caught up in it. “He may never be the same again,” the stoically dutiful Mr. Dawson tells the boys.

With its Dutch angles as ships tilt and capsize, and actors in real Spitfire cockpits (and mockups) thrown around by G-forces as they bank and dive after marauding Messerschmitts, the audience is thrust thrillingly into the middle of the melee, filmed unusually on the very beaches where the real action took place, Nolan’s crew even restoring and extending the Mole. Quieter moments of reflection also impact, as a soldier silently walks into the foamy brine, believing perhaps he can just walk home. We never see “the enemy”—they are referenced as just that. Producer Emma Thomas states, “You don’t need to see them. It’s such a simple notion, what these people were going through—tanks and soldiers over there, planes above, submarines and mines below—that’s all you need to know really. When you think about Jaws, you don’t need to see the shark to understand the threat of it.”

Nolan held off making what has transpired to be a long-held dream project until he had sufficient large-scale filmmaking experience under his belt. “Dunkirk is in the DNA of my fellow Britons,” Nolan told DGA Quarterly. “It’s in our bones. Like all English people, I was raised on this story.” His inventiveness applied from the get-go, crafting the script “according to musical principals,” as he told Business Insider. “There’s an audio illusion, if you will, in music called a ‘Shepard tone’ and with my composer David Julyan on The Prestige we explored that and based a lot of the score around that. And it’s an illusion where there’s a continuing ascension of tone. It’s a corkscrew effect. It’s always going up and up and up but it never goes outside of its range. And I wrote the script according to that principle. I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there’s a continual feeling of intensity. Increasing intensity. So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principals. Very early on I sent Hans [Zimmer] a recording that I made of a watch that I own with a particularly insistent ticking and we started to build the track out of that sound and then working from that sound we built the music as we built the picture cut. So there’s a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we’ve never been able to achieve before.”

Perhaps one of the most challenging and enthralling aspects of the film is the aerial footage—one feels one’s stomach lurch as planes, filmed from the pilot’s eye view within the cockpit, via special “snorkel lenses” leading from the IMAX camera bolted to the wing, give us that “experiential” sensation of being there. A period-appropriate Romanian Yak single engine, two-seater plane stood in for the Spitfires in these shots. Many of the plane’s instruments were moved to the rear seat to enable it to be flown from there, while Hans Bjerno, the aerial unit DoP sat in the front, with its Spitfire mock-up instruments and modified Spitfire-like nose partially visible through the canopy. Actor Jack Lowden was also filmed in the Yak cockpit, pretending to fly, apart from using some key controls, guided by rear real pilot Craig Hosking on the radio. “He [Lowden] had all the physical sensations, the potential for getting airsick… the G-forces of climbing and descending… he could incorporate that into his performance.”

Real ships stood in period vessels—a 1950s French destroyer, the Maillé-Brézé, was dressed to look like a 1940s British destroyer, whilst actual “little ships” from the flotilla that maintains the original motley collection of civilian boats that aided the evacuation were also used where possible in tribute. The French vessel, no longer capable of operating under her own power, had to be tugged into position each day. Smaller vessels were mocked up as destroyers to be filmed at a further, angled distance, to fool the eye and fill the frame. During the week that the flotilla of “little ships” was filmed, the crew had up to fifty craft in the water at any one time. Nolan and Thomas invited their friend Ivan Cornell, on whose own boat they’d all sailed to Dunkirk many years ago in a journey that turned out to be far more difficult than they’d imagined, to be an extra as a thank-you for that inspirational stepping off point.

Crowds on the beach were bulked up by both in-camera trickery and very occasional CG. Andrew Jackson, VFX Supervisor, Double Negative: “The art department built thousands of painted cut-out soldiers in groups of ten. These ‘fences’ were arranged in rows behind the 1,000 plus foreground extras. We did add a few moving soldier elements to disguise the static fences in some of the ground-level shots looking along the beach. The main use of CG crowds was in the high wide aerial shots that showed hundreds of thousands of soldiers stretching far into the distance. For these shots we used a full crowd simulation built using photogrammetry from on-set stills of the extras.”

This is masterful film-making, formats be damned—Nolan has made a film daringly radical, almost retrograde silent-era in parts (and a lot less gimmicky than silent experiment The Artist)—he always intended to approach the film through the strength of its visual storytelling, with a minimum of dialogue and exposition beyond the immediacy of the moment—a very tense “present tense” experience. “There’s dialogue in the film, but we really tried to approach the storytelling very much from a visual point of view, and an action-and-suspense point of view… It’s something I value in films and film history; I’m an incredible lover of silent films,” Nolan told Fandango. “The challenge of taking on what I call a present-tense narrative—that is to say, we don’t learn a lot about the people we’re experiencing this with. We really just try to live in the moment and experience it with them, and look through their eyes.”

To that end, YouTuber Tom van der Linden has crafted an eight-minute reimagining of Dunkirk as a silent film in black and white, with authentic period touches such as dissolves, irising, and subtitles, to showcase such strengths as Nolan favored. His condensed version (scored to Holst’s “Mars” and Elgar’s “Nimrod”) illustrates the film’s themes without hopefully incurring copyright violation—an initial thought of treating the whole film this way was quickly and wisely discarded. “I was amazed at how well it translated and how well it highlighted Nolan’s use of camera angles, body language, facial expressions and staging in Dunkirk’s storytelling; a great use of visuals both in portraying minor conflicts as well as in telling the story as a whole,” Tom states in comments below his video. “I tried as much as possible to maintain the essence of Dunkirk, but I also wanted it to stand on its own which meant I had to pay a lot of attention to its internal logic and do some creative editing.”

Dunkirk is pure cinema, an across the board art house and popcorn muncher crowd pleaser. In these turbulent times, Dunkirk also addresses everything to everyone—from self-serving Brexiteers, to, more hopefully, remainers who point to Europe pulling together in the face of fascism: when the job is done, Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton remains behind to oversee what French forces he can also spirit away. A few creative divergences aside, the film hews closely to historical accuracy, but then again, this isn’t a history lesson, it’s a movie, and a moving one at that—by maybe overemphasizing the myth of the little ships deliverance, Nolan brings all (?) his boys home in one elegiac, Elgar score-referencing tour de force finale that simply left me breathless, intercut as it is with a weary Tommy reading Churchill’s historic Commons address from a newspaper. Nolan had originally scripted the film as ending on the image of Farrier’s beached Spitfire in flames, but pulled back from that idea, viewing it as “apocalyptic,” symbolic of the struggle to come. Instead, he cuts back to Tommy who finishes reading and the screen fades to black on his face and the paper he lays down, reflecting on what has been achieved. To quote Samuel Fuller’s autobiographical and unsentimental wartime memoir, The Big Red One, “The real glory of war is surviving.”

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

Screenwriter must-read: Christopher Nolan’s screenplay for Dunkirk [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Christopher Nolan talks playing to your strengths and balancing pragmatism with creativity.

Sean Fennessey and Chris Ryan are joined by writer-director Quentin Tarantino to rewatch the first movie in a three-part Rewatchables series handpicked by Tarantino. To begin the series, they set out for the coast of France to retrieve their men to rewatch Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, and Kenneth Branagh. Where does it rank on Quentin’s best movies of the decade list?

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Photographed by Melinda Sue Gordon © Syncopy, Warner Bros. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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