Christopher Nolan’s Brilliant, Un-Romanticized, “Dunkirk”

Deal W. Hudson
July 23, 2017

The achievement of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is his unromanticized portrayal of a lost battle where over 300,000 lives were saved by a flotilla of over 800 small boats. Nolan’s British soldier’s don’t laugh off their plight with a chorus of “jolly good,” they’re tested to the edge of their humanity by the clash between the instinct to survive with common decency.

Some are seen to fail that test and the remainder of their lives will be lived under a far darker shadow than the rest. But none of these battered soldiers have anything to say during their moments of rest from Nazi onslaught.  No one attempts to cheer up the troops, after the first few minutes of the film all the soldiers begin to wear the look of hunted animals.

Nolan breaks all that molds of the British war movie. I can understand if the viewer leaves the theater feeling good but without elation. The film evokes deep respect but not the kind of elation that takes the war into the realm of fantasy. Take, for example, the music of Hans Zimmerman which never reaches a tonic chord until the armada of small ships is seen on the horizon but culminates with a direct quote from Elgar’s Nimrod at the end in salute to a heroic RAF pilot, played by Tom Hardy.

Nolan’s trimmed-down approach is signaled from the start when a young soldier Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead, barely escapes death in the town from Nazi fire and finds himself on a broad expanse of beach with thousands of soldiers, as far as he can see in both directions, standing in long lines facing the ocean, waiting.  We’re going to experience Dunkirk from the viewpoint of those among the ordinary and unnamed men who experienced it. The focus of the film is on two soldiers, two pilots, a professional boatsman, played with understated brilliance by Mark Rylance.

As Commander Bolton, Kenneth Branagh is given no “St. Crispin’s Day” speech, but rather he plays a minor role serving as a pivot point for each act of the drama. Nolan’s determination to avoid the standard heroics is very noticeable in one of the final scenes when Commander Bolton chooses to stay with the French soldiers still waiting on the beach. When he informs the other departing officers of his decision, the camera pulls back with the boat away from the figure of the Commander standing at the end of the pier. Why glamorize the act of one officer when so many have died, and so many have risked their lives to save thousands? Nolan, in my opinion, made a film that will resonate with veterans themselves who, when they speak at all, speak with great humility of their war experience.

The heart of the film is the story that transpires in the boat carrying Mr. Dawson (Rylance) and his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan). Neither really understands the fervent patriotism of Mr. Dawson as they head out to sea under Nazi fighters and bombers, and to make matters worse they pick up a shell-shocked soldier, Cillian Murphy, who doesn’t want to be taken back to beaches of Dunkirk. The soldier’s growing agitation leads to a tragedy that tests the moral resolve of Dawson to complete his voyage.  Without giving anything away, I can say that the scene in which the father nods in agreement with Peter was one of the moving and meaningful of the film. Compassion has survived utter brutality. 

Winston Churchill, indeed, gets his due in the final scene when the young soldier who wondered on the beach at the beginning of the film reads Churchill’s famous House of Commons speech to a mostly uninterested fellow survivor (Harry Styles). His “fight them on the beaches” rings even truer coming from a soldier we’ve watched pass through a gauntlet of the bombing, gunfire, churning water, burning oil, and murderous panic.

Viewers will not return to Nolan’s Dunkirk for heroic uplift, but for those who do return it will be to delve deeper into the moral subtleties of one group of men acting on the instinct to survive and the other, on a sense of duty to their country and comrades.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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