Brown skin, white sands: Dunkirk is no Path of Glory

Nolan fails to go beyond his military provincialism and a Euro-universalist vision of a World War II battle.

Nolan Hardy premiere pose Dunkirk
Actor Tom Hardy and director Christopher Nolan attend the preview screening of Dunkirk at BFI Southbank in London, England [Dave J Hogan/Getty Images]

How to watch a master stylist filmmaker doing what he does best about a war long-waged, won and lost at a time of wars scarcely chronicled, let alone comprehended in the full magnitude of their calamity?

Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated, and now loudly praised, war film “Dunkirk” (2017) was by serendipity released at a time when the battle of Mosul had just been waged and won with at heavy cost. “The massacre of Mosul,” the headlines were screaming, “40,000 feared dead in battle to take back city from Isis as scale of civilian casualties revealed.”

Film critics and filmgoers in United States, Europe, and indeed around the globe, were queuing to watch a film rendition of the World War II Battle of Dunkirk between the Allies and Nazi Germany, while we were reading the horrid accounts of how in Mosul “many bodies are still buried under the rubble and the level of human suffering is immense”. 

How do we reconcile what we read in our daily headlines with what we watch in a widely celebrated Hollywood production? What’s Hecuba to Nolan, or he to Mosul, Aleppo, or Yemen

Curb your enthusiasm 

“Dunkirk” has been received with rave reviews. “Christopher Nolan’s WWII Epic May Be the Greatest War Film Ever,” Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers put it quite bluntly, “Filmmaker’s recreation of key British battle is stunning, stirring – and a stone-cold masterpiece.” 

This type of sudden overexcitement about a film is, of course, a sign of either complete ignorance of the history of cinema and its towering masters or else a momentary insanity with no enduring consequence. 

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The trouble with such bombastic praise is that the genre of war films is the battlefield of some mighty filmmakers. You cannot just hire Hans Zimmer (however gifted a composer he is) to Bang & Olufsen your head in and shove a film down your throat and then Rolling Stone it “a masterpiece”. 

I intentionally saw the film on the largest screen possible in New York for the full immersion experience of its sound design and music, as it was meant to be seen. That kind of acoustic arrogance and deafening pitch that numb your skull, so you would think what you are watching is a “masterpiece” is pure Trumpian charlatanism worthy of Anthony Scaramucci (aka Joe Pesci) expletives.

Dunkirk actor Harry Styles arrives at the film world premiere in London [Getty]
Dunkirk actor Harry Styles arrives at the film world premiere in London [Getty]

Thirty minutes into Nolan’s “Dunkirk”, I was texting a filmmaker friend sharing my boredom and frustration. By contrast, 60 years after its original making, Stanley Kubrick’s “Path of Glory” (1957) still freezes me staring at my laptop screen when I review any sequence of it before sharing with my students. Obnoxiously loud music and massively oversized screen do not make for a “masterpiece”. Eyeglasses, as we way in Persian, don’t turn you into an intellectual. 

A master stylist in search of a signature 

Nolan, to be sure, is a master stylist now in his top form who has a solid record with enduring films like “Memento” (2000) and his signature take on his Batman trilogy – but he is no Sergey Eisenstein in “Battleship Potemkin” (1925).

Nolan is a self-assured filmmaker with a solid command of his craft – but he is no Stanley Kubrick in “Path of Glory” (1957) or “Full Metal Jacket” (1987). 

Nolan is a gifted storyteller staged confidently here in his “Dunkirk” – but he is no Terrence Malick in “The Thin Red Line” (1998). Nolan stages a judicious sense of drama – but he is no Elem Klimov in “Come and See” (1985). Nolan has a sensual sense of the sea and sand – but he is nowhere near Wolfgang Petersen in “Das Boot” (1981).

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Please, ladies and gentlemen film critics: Nolan has a good pair of eyes for the aesthetic of warfare – but he is no Akira Kurosawa in “Ran” (1985). “The greatest war film ever?” You need to go back to film school if you had any serious education to begin with.

Ultimately, Nolan’s stylistic craftsmanship and the bravura finale of the story of Dunkirk itself saves Nolan’s film so you exit the theatre not entirely disappointed and just with a headache from the unbearably loud music and overbearing sound design. Nolan does indeed perfectly weaves together the parallel story lines to create a mythical saga of the historic incident. But the film never transcends its myopic British nationalism to achieve anything remotely universal in its aspirations. 

Ultimately, Nolan’s stylistic craftsmanship and the bravura finale of the story of Dunkirk itself saves Nolan’s film, writes Dabashi [Getty]
Ultimately, Nolan’s stylistic craftsmanship and the bravura finale of the story of Dunkirk itself saves Nolan’s film, writes Dabashi [Getty]

Consider Nolan’s choice of ending his film with Churchill’s unabashed praise for British imperialism (put in the voice of one of his young soldiers) as the salvation of the world in his famous “we shall not flag or fail” speech. 

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans … we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” 

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And compare it (for a minute) with that miraculous central sequence of Trance Malick’s “Thin Red Line” and its poetic implosion in the voice of one of his soldiers: 

“This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steals into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?”

Nolan is simply not in the same league. One sequence in Kurosawa’s “Ran” – the violent siege in which Hidetora and his samurai are attacked by his sons Taro and Jiro’s combined forces – has forever in the history of cinema defined what it means to do a war scene. That sequence uplifts the Shakespearean tragedy and medieval Japanese dynastic feuds into the stage of archetypal truth. Nolan is no Kurosawa. “Dunkirk” is not “Ran”.

So no, “Dunkirk” is most certainly not “the greatest war film ever”, nor indeed is it the worst. It is the best Nolan has been capable so far to do as he desperately tries to find his cinematic signature, which here is somewhere near Spielberg’s equally hyped, but vacuous, “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).

There is no place for him yet in the pantheon of master visionaries like Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Lean, Kubrick, Malick, and a few others.

Brown skins, white sands

But how do we tell the difference between a Kubrick, a Kurosawa, a Malick, on one side, and a Nolan or a Spielberg on the other?

Kubrick, Kurosawa, or Malick were not antiquarian. They did not make a film about World War I, or set a Shakespearean tragedy in medieval Japan, or turned their attention to the Vietnam War to entertain people’s historical fantasies. They went searching for the quintessence of war and turned it against itself. Their war movies were without exception antiwar movies. Directing their films, they were always fully conscious and responsive to the perilous time they lived in and the wars raging in their own times.

At the time when Nolan has turned all his cinematic wherewithal to a now obscure incident during World War II, the world is being ripped apart by other gut-wrenching wars. Who will tell the Afghan, the Iraqi, the Libyan, the Syrian, or the Yemeni stories, their battlefields and slaughterhouses? 

People in war-torn areas today need not necessarily produce a Kurosawa, a Kubrick, a Malick, or an Eisenstein to tell their stories. There is a universality to what master filmmakers have achieved that is far beyond their own historical particularities. 

Dunkirk actors James D'Arcy, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan and Mark Rylance attend the films New York premiere [Getty]
Dunkirk actors James D’Arcy, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan and Mark Rylance attend the films New York premiere [Getty]

Master artists did not muster their cinematic gifts to canvass their particular provincialism for a global audience. They did precisely the opposite. They collected their courage and staged their imagination to see the hidden universal truth in the particulars of their biographical incident.

You watch Kurosawa or Malick or Kubrick and you can see Mosul, Kandahar, and Aleppo in them. You watch Nolan and you see nothing but a bunch of decidedly white Europeans shooting at each other before they pause, collect their wits, and start shooting at Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians, or Somalis. 

It is not accidental that in his rush to cite Churchill that his “Empire” will come to their aid if the Germans were to defeat them in England, Mr Nolan altogether forgot that, in fact, there were Indian soldiers (and “mainly Muslims from areas of British India that later became Pakistan”) at Dunkirk defending England. But their brown skin would have presumably not quite matched the white sands of those long shots at the beach and confused his aesthetics.

By opting to cite Churchill’s boldly imperialist speech at the end and by failing to raise his Euro-universalist vision beyond Dunkirk, Nolan has made a highly profitable film about an episode in his country’s war history. But by seeing through the terror of one particular war that very imperialism had brought to Vietnam, Kubrick or Malick had uplifted their unrivalled artistry to a vision of the horrors of war anywhere else in the world.

Nolan is a great Anglo-American filmmaker – and all the power to his military provincialism. But the claim to “the greatest war film ever” has long since been made by filmmakers watching over this art from a heaven too far to reach and too close to ignore. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.