By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
Mrs. Hawkins was my fifth grade teacher. She wore long skirts and horn-rimmed glasses. In every way, the elementary schoolmarm. I was 10-years old. At this age we form our perceptions of the world and values. When the normally deadpan Mrs. Hawkins spoke of the Battle of Dunkirk she became animated. She orated about the desperation, the fear, the heroism.
I don’t remember anything else from 5th grade or Mrs. Hawkins. I only remember her animated recounting of the Battle of Dunkirk. I was captivated.
For those thin on history, The Battle of Dunkirk was a terrifying turning point when the world began to believe Nazi Germany could not be stopped. Hitler’s army drove the free French and British to the coastal northern border of France. They had no more land to retreat to. They were trapped and likely to be rounded up in a humiliating rout, or annihilated as the Blitzkrieg, Hitler’s “lightning war”, rolled north. The implication was clear: Britain was next.
Boyhood recollections are frail and nuanced things. Would this movie honor my recollections of Mrs. Hawkins’ theatrical oration from way back in 1972 about the horrors and heroism of Dunkirk?
The Battle of Dunkirk is a uniquely British drama. Men were reserved and dignified in stoic heroism. They wore wool uniforms and held tightly to military conventions. Leaders were leaders and foot soldiers were resigned to their often-drudgerious life as ground-pounding order-takers. There were heroes in every rank, every role, but the most gallant flew the Spitfires and Hurricanes above the bloody sacrifice of land battle.
That was how I pictured Dunkirk: a tragic epic on the scale of Greek mythology. I did not want that boyhood impression sullied by some poorly executed, fast-cut, CGI remake of “Saving Private Ryan” that relied on shock and gore to impress.
Director Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk” honored my boyhood impression as though it were a beautiful, lyrical poem recited by a Shakespearean actor in a quiet theater setting.
In every way, “Dunkirk” is perfect.
Tense and deeply stylized, Writer and Director Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” adds a new level of sophistication to the war movie genre and a creative new way to depict the enormity and horror of war.
Beyond its theatrical depiction of the Battle of Dunkirk in grey, somber visual and musical tones, “Dunkirk” also pays homage to the British resolve that saved the nation. Every person in England during WWII could be regarded as a guardian of freedom, unlikely heroes rising to confront the terror of war.
In “Dunkirk”, actor Mark Rylance who plays “Mr. Dawson”, is all of Great Britain. His character, and those of his sons, defines “Keep Calm and Carry On”. He also exemplifies adherence to tradition and dignity that makes Britain great. Rylance’s performance carries a significant amount of the weight in “Dunkirk”.
“Dunkirk” is completely unlike any war film, and perhaps epitomizes an elegant transition in film making to a new visual and audio feel. The film strikes an optimal balance between flow, image, sound and dialogue. The haunting soundtrack of Hans Zimmer, whom you know from the masterful score of “Blackhawk Down” and “Gladiator”, adds additionally sensory experience to the story. Its effect is trance-like and poetic, as I remember my teacher’s glassy-eyed account of the battle. With the measured use of editing the film flows beautifully, no small accomplishment in this era of movie making.
More importantly than just seeing “Dunkirk”, it is worth studying not only as a historically inspired based-on-fact accounting, but also a masterful new direction and flavor of filmmaking.