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How Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk Finds New Ways to Subvert the Tropes of the War Film

Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk.
Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk.

Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC.

Is Dunkirk an antiwar film? The obvious answer here is “no.” Christopher Nolan’s much-praised World War II epic is not a criticism of war in general. Instead, it’s a celebration of British resolve and heroism at one of the darkest points of World War II. It’s steeped in British nationalism and patriotism, as soldiers at Dunkirk look across the channel, longing to see the White Cliffs of Dover.

Even though the film is not against war, though, Dunkirk does subvert many of the tropes that define the war movie. In doing so, it shows how war movies justify wars less justifiable than World War II. It also, perhaps, suggests ways in which Hollywood might make more critical war films in the future. If it’s often true that, as Truffaut said, “every film about war ends up being pro-war,” Dunkirk offers some novel ideas for how to circumvent this problem.

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Dunkirk is an unusual war movie in part because the Dunkirk evacuation is, by the standards of Hollywood, an unusual event to depict. War movies generally focus on the dynamic action of soldiers. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan opens with a 20-plus–minute recreation of the Normandy landing—a grimly spectacular vision of a dramatic advance. Last year’s Hacksaw Ridge similarly showed American soldiers fighting for a ridge at the Battle of Okinawa. Though its hero is a pacifist, the movie is about clawing forward to seize territory. Even Stanley Kubrick’s resolutely cynical Full Metal Jacket shows American soldiers capturing a few city blocks, however pointless that victory might be. War movies show movement. Soldiers may or may not be heroic, but in Hollywood, they at least go forward.

That’s not the case in Dunkirk. The film picks up around May 24, after the Allied forces have been defeated and forced to retreat to the beach at Dunkirk. There are no exciting attacks and counterattacks. The entire “action” of the film involves the British army haplessly trying to get soldiers off the beach and into transports as German bombers and U-boats pick them off.

The main character, the everyman named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) never even seems to fire his gun. In the first scene of the movie, he is looking for a place to go to the bathroom, when he is interrupted by German fire in the streets and forced to ignominiously flee. War, for Tommy, is helplessness, indignity, and humiliation.

For all its gunfire and heavy artillery, Dunkirk shows that war can also mean impotence. There are multiple scenes in which soldiers are trapped inside boats as water comes in. The imagery of men confined and drowning is claustrophobic and intensely disempowering. There is nothing remotely heroic in these scenes. The soldiers are simply victims.

Turning soldiers into victims makes them virtually indistinguishable from civilians. This undermines another important trope of most Hollywood war movies: the idea that the division between solider and civilian is fundamental.

This is glaringly obvious in a movie like First Blood (now remembered as the first Rambo movie, though it’s more thoughtful than the sequels that followed), which is about civilian contempt for Vietnam veterans,and imagines Sylvester Stallone wreaking violent revenge on the weak, worthless noncombatants who dare to despise him. But the division is also important in something like David O. Russell’s Three Kings, in which disreputable American soldiers become admirable moral actors by choosing to protect endangered Iraqi civilians. And the soldier/civilian binary even structures Full Metal Jacket, in which the soft, boring noncombatants of the first half are turned into the tough, cynical, and/or traumatized marines of the second, who have unlimited access to civilian Vietnamese sex workers. In each of these movies, war sets men apart from the boys. When you go to war, you become the star of the story, while civilians just get bit parts.

Dunkirk upends that dynamic. In this film, civilians rescue soldiers, rather than the other way around. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a fearless, determined civilian headed for Dunkirk to save the troops, is about the most heroic figure in the movie. One of the people he pulls from the water on the way across the channel is a shellshocked soldier who can barely speak. This character, identified in the credits only as “Shivering Soldier” (Cillian Murphy) actually becomes violent when he realizes the ship is headed back to Dunkirk to pick up other soldiers and seriously wounds a 17-year-old who has volunteered to aid in the rescue attempts. Dawson says the Shivering Soldier is “not himself”—which is to say, war has made the soldier lose his courage and his civilian hardihood. Other soldiers on screen scheme to get around army bureaucracy so they, rather than their confederates, can escape. Still others fight each other over scraps of shelter. War makes men cowardly and weak. In Dunkirk, soldiers aren’t larger than life. They’re smaller.

This isn’t true across the board, admittedly. The fighter pilots in Dunkirk, soaring above their companions cowering and scrambling on the beach, get to perform exciting feats of daring in a manner more typical of war movies. Nor, again, is the misery, weakness, and disempowerment of soldiers meant to be a critique of war as a whole. World War II was as just a war as there has probably ever been, and the misery of the soldiers is in no way meant to undermine the cause or prompt viewers to question it. The massive-sounding soundtrack, so deafening it frequently drowns out the dialogue, is a constant, insistent reminder that the struggles on screen take place in the context of a greater struggle, for Britain and for virtue. Dunkirk shows that the lot of the soldier is not glamorous, but in the context of World War II, it was necessary.

But while World War II may have been necessary, many of the wars we’ve fought since have not been. Hollywood nonetheless consistently presents Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other conflicts as exciting, meaningful, and/or dramatic. In war movies, men get to fire guns, try their courage, and do memorable things. That’s appealing even if war itself is portrayed as terrifying or deadly or nightmarish. Everyone wants to be the driver of the plot. Everyone wants to be part of a special club, separate from those boring civilians.

In Dunkirk, in contrast, soldiers don’t make the plot go, and they aren’t special. Instead, they are mostly anonymous and ineffectual, and they don’t get to do much except cower, run, and long to get off that stupid beach. That’s a vision of war that’s unlikely to appeal to anyone. Dunkirk doesn’t make the case against fighting, but if more films were like Dunkirk, maybe we’d be less eager to seek out a fight.

Read more in Slate about Dunkirk: