Wednesday 2 August 2017

The Current Cinema - Max Berghouse casts a forensic eye over DUNKIRK (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

This most recent film, Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan has been generally reviewed in most adulatory terms by numbers of critics who are justifiably well-regarded. Following these reviews came rather more negative reviews from reviewers who seem to come from a background of "guns and ammo". They point to the factual inaccuracies or perhaps exaggerations or perhaps minimisations in the film compared to history and mark it down accordingly. These reviews were largely concerned with questions of accuracy rather than "emotional power" and "narrative" together with "production values" which are the stock in trade of most reviewers.

Some weeks prior to the eight days of the actual evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (the British Army), the C-in C, Lord Gort ordered the evacuation of the army to the area around Dunkirk with the proposal to evacuate the army back to England. The British Army, which had gone to France very quickly after the commencement of hostilities, numbered almost 450,000 men, together with all the provisions and kit and armaments for such a large force. So the British Navy and Merchant Marine had very considerable capacity to move men and material. Ultimately evacuated were about 340,000 British/Imperial personnel with the army having lost about 68,000 men.

So when this army converged on Dunkirk, there was a vast morass of men, and probably hundreds of senior officers – colonels and upwards. The beach was jam-packed with men, far more than the 4000 apparently employed on the film, and officers were constantly employed keeping the men disciplined. Apart from the senior naval officer played by Kenneth Branagh and the senior army officer played by James D'Arcy, officers are simply not present in this film. But the greatest criticism of the "guns and ammo" crew is how very neat and orderly the beach is portrayed to be, in the film. Apart from the abandoned equipment which could not be evacuated, just consider the amount of SHIT an army produces on a daily basis, much less over a week. This "neatness" is quite continuous and reflects restrained editing styles of years past. Soldiers know that the tide is coming in because it brings back dead bodies. In Dunkirk the bodies float peacefully face down without the slightest sign of blood nor disgorged entrails et cetera. A useful comparison would be with Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1998) which is much more accurate in this regard.

This is not to say that the film is not good. The reverse is the case; it's very good, but it is no masterpiece. I myself, although interested in history, did not think that the subject matter would be compelling to a worldwide audience. That has been proven wrong. Whatever the production cost of the film, some say $100 million and others $150 million was recovered in the first week. And yet this is a film which is completely at odds with the almost rusted on compelling narrative of "hero's journey".

There are essentially three groups of characters, none especially well developed and limited in their development by a very severe and sparse script, often drowned out by sound effects and the musical score by Hans Zimmer. This emotional vacuum plays strongly against the technical brilliance of the whole production.

Harry Styles, Dunkirk
In terms of marketing a film one can never be entirely sure whether information as conveyed by the producers is accurate. Christopher Nolan said that he was not aware that Harry Styles, at his audition, had been a member of the boy band One Direction. In an interview Mr Nolan made clear that he,  Styles, gave a very good performance, and so he did. One can't help but feel that the name was dropped in as a beckoning card to a wider perhaps adolescent audience. In another review I read that "a plane" had been purchased for £5 million and destroyed, rather than use CGI. The only plane destroyed in the film is the Spitfire piloted by Tom Hardy. I would guess that there are no more than six airworthy Spitfires in the world, and I think the buy price would be more than £5 million and I don't think the authorities would permit such a plane to be destroyed. So in my view, together with the quite spectacular staged shots, there is a subtle and very professional use of CGI and stage props.

In my view the film would have benefited from a greater use of CGI and the staged set pieces limited or excluded. That's so even though some of the staged shots of ships sinking will remain indelibly in my mind.

During the Second World War itself, Britain became a "command economy" to a far higher level than any other country. The entire nation was geared to the war effort and everyone understood the nature of what soldiers, sailors and airmen did and how they behaved. Most of the films about the Second World War made in Britain in the 1950’s can be seen as a justification for the enormous sacrifice of the nation during the war itself. Much the same argument applies to the plethora of Russian films made for several generations after the "Great Patriotic War". Now much of that ingrained knowledge has been lost. Some of the following remarks may seem petty but they amplify the way in which real understanding of the way the men acted, has been lost.

Kenneth Branagh, Dunkirk
Royal Navy officers wore two types of forage hat: a white topped one (summer) and a black one (winter). Mr Branagh wears a black one whereas I think it would probably have been summer issue at the time. I think he wears the appropriate braiding on his visor. The army forage hat of Mr D'Arcy is bereft of the red felt around the base which is the mark of a Colonel  and upwards. At one point he addresses a Lance Corporal who is building in effect a bridge of trucks down into the water and the Lance Corporal salutes without wearing a hat. This is not permitted in the British Army. He stands at attention only.

British Spitfires, Dunkirk
Given that there are only a very, very limited number of Spitfires still in existence, probably the three on display in the film are the only ones airworthy. I'm not at all sure that they are the appropriate versions for this part of the war. The Spitfire was manufactured throughout the war in 20 odd different versions. It is not true as stated in the film that the Royal Air Force withdrew support for the evacuation in preparation for the Battle of Britain. In fact the RAF committed 16 squadrons or about 180 planes. It's not true that the evacuation was hindered by the occasional attack by Heinkel 111 bombers (the film shows two). The attacks were incessant by very large numbers of planes.

Perhaps we should recall the 1969 film, Battle of Britain (Guy Hamilton, UK). There were not in reality flyable British planes (Spitfires) greater in number than as shown in the present film but very effective mockups were made. The Spanish Air Force then still flew significant numbers of Heinkel bombers and Messerschmitt Bf 109's. They were used to superb effect and indeed many subsequent films covering the same subject matter used footage that dropped to the floor from the editing of Battle of Britain.

The Royal Navy did not effectively abandon the troops. They committed a high number of small warships like destroyers which could get relatively close to the shoreline. So all in all, there is a real perversion of history going on in this film which is not ameliorated by the technical facility nor any sense of emotional commitment, as previously stated. There are a number of large British warships which seem to me to be modern and lack the silhouette of naval ships of the period. If the director gained the cooperation of the Royal Navy, good luck to him.

After the evacuation troops are sent by train to new destinations in England the scenes substantially involving the characters played by Harry Styles and Ffion Whitehead. They are clearly the interiors of modern trains and given the love the English have for old steam trains, there must have been dozens of available period appropriate carriages. Incidentally both these young men, and indeed all the youngish actors are a bit too pretty by half. The long flipped back straight hair, also featured by Cillian Murphy, is not army regulation.

So all in all I found where the money was spent rather disappointing.

Mr Nolan is very much an actor's director and gets extremely good performances from his entire troupe.

My guess is that the director encouraged his actors to create a back story for each of them and they have played out this back story, even though what the back story is for each of them, is not entirely clear to us as viewers. The rather odd inwardness, perhaps  depression of Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) may be partly explained by the information that he lost his Hurricane pilot son in the first weeks of the war. There are numbers of situations like this and I think it would have been far better if these could have been amplified. With such limited dialogue there is also a certain amount of didacticism (telling not showing). As two Spitfires buzz Mr Dawson's yacht, he explains that the Spitfire is the best plane in the world and its Merlin engine, the best engine in the world. In effect at that moment in the war, but not later, relatively few people knew anything about the latest weapons of the Air Force. So for me, being such a stickler for accuracy, I couldn't rely upon the undoubted spectacle to overcome the lack of emotional connection.

Could one say there is any sign of possible emotional connection in relation to this historical event? To give one example: a senior British officer, a general, one of the last to leave, Alan Brooke, broke down into tears as he was on the pier before embarkation. It was not fear, but total frustration. He never again commanded troops in the field but immediately thereafter became the professional head of the British Army. He came from a long line of Northern Irish military people so his behavior, which seems uncharacteristic, must reflect the enormity of what was going on. But I guess the travails of generals is not of much use to the average punter. 

Lastly I would like to touch upon something which may seem obscure. There is a famous painting by the Spanish court painter Velazquez, "Las Meninas". While nominally a portrait of the Spanish Royal family, it is a play on perspectives and creation of depth on a flat surface. This technical problem in painting of perspective and depth had intrigued painters up until that time and this portrait is considered the resolution of the issue. It is justifiably famous as well as being beautiful. There is a similar sort of issue in the film in that it does not show "time" at all accurately. No film does. As viewers, we cannot tell WHEN a scene happens, but we just assume that one scene follows another in temporal order. In this current film, time is played with in an unusual and creative way from three perspectives. “One week” involves the land, “one day” involves the sea and “one hour’, the air. They are finally interwoven, obviously in a non-linear way. While I don't think this works perfectly, I think it is a wonderful experiment in narration and I think that in time, it will be the reason the film is best remembered.

The film is very subtly enhanced by the extremely professional use of IMAX cameras.

Velazquez, Las Meninas

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