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'Dunkirk' and the West's myopia about World War II

August 07,2017 17:17

Had they not escaped, the saga of World War II may have had a far more abrupt ending. For obvious reasons, the drama and heroism of the evacuation lives long in the British imagination. The rescue was followed by a stirring oration from Winston ...

I must confess I’m not a great one for war films, especially of the Bollywood variety — I would much rather watch a personal/social/political narrative over a guns-and-bombs blitzkrieg propped up by nationalism. But Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is something else altogether — a jaw-dropping cinematic experience unlike anything that’s come out in the name of the war film before.
The movie, based on a World War II operation in which over 300,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated by naval ships and civilian boats from Dunkirk in France, opens with pamphlets raining down on the cornered men, warning them to surrender or die. A young British soldier, escaping enemy gunfire, makes it to the beach to wait for the ships that have been pressed into rescue operations. From here, the film depicts the battle on land, sea and air in three breathtaking intercut timelines.
In the thick of battle
Years ago at a film festival, I’d watched a British war film that began and ended in the trenches, a plethora of relentless combat unleavened by life outside. (At least it seemed like that at the time; I remember being bored to death by it.) Dunkirk , as far as surface similarity goes, is like that, with the viewer being plunged into the thick of battle right from the opening frame to almost the last one, without the outside world impinging on it. But within this framework lies not a monotonous bore — far from it — but a masterpiece that’s been deliberately constructed this way for viewers to experience the very act of war. It’s visceral in that sense though there’s also a deeper truth embedded in it.
But forget the philosophy for a moment (though viewers have been debating whether the film glorifies/condemns/is neutral about war); it is Dunkirk ’s form that makes it extraordinary. Nolan’s stunning directorial vision and his deliberate choices – the grittiness of film stock over digital smoothness, minimal CGI, a background score of ever-ascending tension instead of the grand operatic music of most war movies, and, of course, the Imax screen — create a truly experiential piece of cinema. Ditto for the writing. Every crutch of the war film genre and, indeed, screenplay writing is demolished; there’s no set-up (we’re plunged into the story mid-action), no back stories of characters to build empathy, practically no dialogue, very little archetypal heroism, no political context and no enemy presence except in the closing scene where the two German soldiers who haul off a fighter pilot are kept deliberately unclear. In fact, Germany isn’t even mentioned by name — it’s referred to as ‘the enemy’ throughout the film.
Experiencing combat
Why Nolan opts for this treatment stems from where he’s coming from. In his interviews, the director made it clear that his primary aim was to recreate a scenario where viewers could live through the actual experience of war – the all-pervading presence of death, the soldiers’ fear, their seesaw between hope and despair. However, and this is an important ‘however’, Nolan’s aim was never to make an archetypal ‘war movie’ — which is why he chose to film not a famous combat but a real-life military retreat, a “survival story” in his own words. (That in itself makes Dunkirk unique in the war film genre.) It also explains Nolan’s cinematic treatment – the movie is shot like a suspense thriller rather than a gore-and-guts-spilling war epic. There’s very little blood and no flying limbs and mangled bodies, inviting criticisms from some quarters of it being too sterile and clinical for a war film.
Nolan turns his back on other conventions as well. One of these is the hero, a war picture mainstay that the director gives an interesting twist to if not overturns completely — his soldiers are not macho men but callow, frightened youth with human frailties, capable of turning against fellow soldiers when pushed to the brink. Dunkirk ’s heroism (apart from that displayed by its fighter pilots) comes in the quiet courage of older men like the British pier master who waits on for the French troops, and the collective courage of civilians who ran hundreds of little boats to help in the rescue operations. One of these, an elderly man, when castigated by a traumatised soldier for heading to Dunkirk, quietly replies, “Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?” (For those who believe that Dunkirk is devoid of subtext, here’s a hugely political and anti-war statement.)
New templates
Hollywood has made some great war films, a combination of pyrotechnics and psychological perspective (one of my favourites is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket , which depicts the gradual dehumanisation of a soldier’s mind). The Hindi war film, on the other hand, still largely follows a stereotypical template of bristling nationalism, valour and weepy emotion (soldiers leaving family and new brides to go to the war front). It worked 50, maybe even 35, years ago, but Bollywood needs to disengage from such tropes and move on to newer perspectives.
Here’s an idea: among the soldiers who fought at Dunkirk were Indian troops that served under the colonial British army, a historical fact that Nolan has been castigated for leaving out of his film. The British press even had a specific story of a British officer who was asked to abandon his Indian soldiers — he refused and saw them safely through the evacuation, for which act he was later court-martialled. It’s a many-shaded story that would make for a great film, and I, for one, would love to see a director with depth and vision take it up.
Dunkirk ’s heroism (apart from that displayed by its fighter pilots) comes in the quiet courage of older men

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