The war film is a dying genre. I do not intend a pun, and I didn’t want to dislike Dunkirk, the latest effort to memorialize a famous World War II battle. But unfortunately, I didn’t like Dunkirk, or rather, I didn’t love Dunkirk which, given my expectations going into the theater, was tantamount to hating it.
War films have a special place in my life. In theory, this is because James Daniels, my grandfather, was a veteran of World War II, and more specifically, a veteran of the Dunkirk evacuation that rescued around 340,000 British soldiers in May 1940 and thus girded Britain’s survival through the early years of the war. You might think I’d have heard the odd tale or two from my grandfather about the brave efforts that brought him home. I’m afraid not. Granddad said little, if anything that I recall about the battle or its aftermath. Occasionally, he’d utter tongue-in-cheek comments, barely chuckling as I asked if he’d “killed any Germans”; instead replying that he was too busy running away. As I conjure the memory of his dignified medals, sitting within a framed, sepia certificate of recognition, and hanging on a wall in his home in North Wales, I don’t recall hearing of the shame supposedly anticipated by escaping soldiers, as the film suggests happened. After his passing, I learned that James’ experience must have been more horrific than I’d ever imagined. He couldn’t swim, and according to my father, retreated from gunfire into the English channel, not so much escaping as choosing how to die. James was spared because a daring sergeant grabbed him by the scruff and pulled him into a boat. James spent his later war years in places like Iceland, the Orkney islands, waiting upon further assignments, and meeting a nurse that would be my grandmother. He fought at the D-day landing in 44′. He didn’t talk much about that. Iceland, he complained, smelled of fish.
To hear what I thought were proper, exciting war stories, I had to watch movies when I was a kid. From the fifties through the seventies, the best war films featured largely British casts fronted by American stars: The Bridge On The River Kwai, with William Holden (though Alec Guinness, later Obi Wan, won a best actor oscar); The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen stealing scenes with a motorbike; and The Dirty Dozen, with Lee Marvin kicking ass and being cool and snarky. Even the obviously bad films were guilty pleasures: The Longest Day depicted the D-day landing with a technical prowess that was admirable in 1962, but despite an all-star cast, the acting scenes were embarrassingly awful, and the anecdotal tidbits between battle sequences seemed hopelessly contrived. A Bridge Too Far (1977) followed a similar formula, was similarly bad, yet was also oddly enjoyable (like The LD, BTF was based upon a Cornelius Ryan novel). And it, too, relied upon an American star—Robert Redford—to front a largely British cast and thus cameo the film to financial success.
After that, for a while anyway, the most important war flicks were all about Vietnam: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket. Stars featured in the first two, not so much Platoon. In FMJ, the man behind the camera—Stanley Kubrick—was the star. In 1998, WWII made a comeback in the form of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which was nothing less than an assaultive viewing experience—the most traumatizing of all war films. That same year, Terrance Malick revived the war-time poetry of James Jones with The Thin Red Line, perhaps my favorite war film ever, and the only film amongst these to achieve a coherent story and theme with an all-star cast. By the way, I think of Schindler’s List differently: a holocaust story, not a war film in the traditional sense. The Hurt Locker is perhaps the best film from the desert war era. What it has to say about PTSD is incomparable.
The closest thing Dunkirk has to Robert Redford is a guy from a boy-band called One Direction. Otherwise, it has Kenneth Branagh, best known as Hamlet, playing a commander who spends the evacuation stuck on a pier, staring out to sea and making decisions. Then there’s Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar last year for Bridge of Spies, playing a civilian rescuing soldiers on a private boat (apparently one of many at Dunkirk). Star-power isn’t the selling point of Dunkirk. I’d imagined or hoped that it might rival Saving Private Ryan for spectacle, or maybe The Thin Red Line as an artful effort. But it matches neither standard, unfortunately. Behind-the-scenes stuff is regrettably eschewed. The true story of Churchill’s demand that boats return to collect the French is omitted, as is Hitler’s famous halt order to his troops, which allowed British, Belgian, and Dutch soldiers to collect on beaches and climb atop boats.
Instead, a series of Luftwaffe attacks that sunk ships and doused British morale are depicted prior to a triumphant finale. Meanwhile, the story follows three young soldiers who jump queues (lines), stowaway on doomed escape boats, bicker over a French interloper, but eventually make it home to Dover. The biggest hero is a pilot of a Spitfire who seems to take on the Luftwaffe all by himself while running out of fuel. His singular heroics redeem a British air force that is otherwise absent, and his surrendering glide over Dunkirk’s beaches is an eloquent tribute to the operation. These mini-plots all contain their share of suspense and thrills, and are indeed moving. But somehow, the finished product underwhelms. What I’d expected was an expansion of the experience I’d had reading Atonement, Ian McEwan’s war-time novel (later a good film, also), which features harrowing descriptions of the Dunkirk evacuation as a subplot. Watching Dunkirk, I was waiting upon a coup de grace, a war film to end them all. I was ready for a cathartic event, one that would bring me to tears as I thought of my grandfather, James.
I’m not gonna find this in movies.