ByOliver S. Douglas, writer at
History student at King's College London. Technology and gaming fanatic. Feed me geek things! Twitter @GentlemanOrc
Oliver S. Douglas

Whenever a new Second World War film comes along, I tend to get very excited. I'm a huge history geek (I do study it at university, after all), so anything that brings the past alive creates an incredible opportunity. Since I am so interested in the period, any popular history that seeks to recreate it needs to be pretty good.

was a huge, traumatizing and heroic moment for the British forces in the war, and its symbolism in popular memory and popular discourse is very important. In many ways, the legend of Dunkirk is as well known as the reality. What this means is that any representation of the events has to meet certain standard. Of course, this applies to history in general, but representing an iconic sequence of events like those of Dunkirk brings with it a huge responsibility. If Nolan pulls it off, it could be an incredible film, but what challenges does he face?

Events Like These Can't Be Sensationalized

Telling the history of the Second World War can be difficult. It was the biggest military conflict in human history, and peoples' lives were affected on a scale never seen before. The war wasn't just a sequence of events, it was a story of millions upon millions of people. Many are still alive today, as are their children. This not only means Nolan has to be faithful to the history, but he has to be respectful of the fact that this actually happened.

Sensationalism is a typical crutch of the film industry when it comes to history. A lot of history was boring and slow; it was a lot of men talking in rooms. Dunkirk involved a lot of sailing and a lot of waiting. The evacuation took days. It was also a defeat — a fact we fail to admit at times. The British Expeditionary Force was a skeleton crew by the time it returned to England. Thousands had died and a vast amount of equipment was lost. If these facts are ignored — if Dunkirk is turned in to a heroic adventure — then it will be a shameful misrepresentation.

Audiences Deserve Emotional Weight

Lord Gort (gesturing, at center) was the commander of the British Expeditionary Force.
Lord Gort (gesturing, at center) was the commander of the British Expeditionary Force.

Sensationalism aside, this film needs to make us cry. If we spend the whole two hours or so grinning, cheering or looking a bit bored, this won't be a good war film. War is horrible, and Nolan needs to remember this.

Nolan is a good director, as shown by masterpieces such as The Dark Knight. However, he needs to pull this same feat off with a very different genre. Zimmer has been enlisted as the film's composer, so we shall get his trademark electronic orchestras, and it will probably be quite forgettable. The music can still be used to great effect to enhance what looks to be some excellent cinematography.

I want to feel like cheering and crying at the same time as fishing boats rescue drowning soldiers. I need to weep as I see young men die on a beach far from home. I don't want to forget that these actors represent real soldiers. In the same way that Saving Private Ryan felt like a small story in a huge conflict, audiences need to feel that the characters portrayed in Dunkirk were really on those beaches, and are a small part of a far bigger picture. It all needs to be plausible.

Yet The Trailer Was Promising

Helmets left by evacuated French soldiers.
Helmets left by evacuated French soldiers.

Despite this criticism, I am encouraged by the footage we've seen so far. There appears to be a focus on the courage of the civilian sailors, as well as the fear experienced by the soldiers in the face of an unstoppable German force. They key is for Nolan to find the nuance in here, and shape the film in to both an epic war film, but also an emotional story of heroism and loss.

If you consider yourself a history buff, or just really like war films, this is definitely one to go and see. Nolan directs good films, and creating a film about Dunkirk as opposed to D-Day or concrete Allied victories is refreshing. Too frequently, the film industry uses war films to glorify the Allied armies, so it will be nice to see a change of pace.

Will Dunkirk be a colossal mess, or is Nolan going to hit this one out of the park? Sound off in the comments below.

Dunkirk hits theaters July 21.


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