Submitted by Donovan Wilson.
“Dunkirk” is a slow-paced study on morale in the face of immense challenges and uncertainty. The story is then punctuated with moments of intense individual trials that together help define the British national identity.
I watched this film just after watching “Saving Private Ryan” this past Sunday. I enjoy watching films back to back as a way to highlight differences in tone and storytelling. It’s a great way to help understand what deeper meanings are being conveyed.
“Saving Private Ryan” is different in many ways from “Dunkirk” but one that stood out was the personalities of the soldiers and airmen in battle. The English pilots were cool and nonchalant. The civilian ship’s crew, enlisted to retrieve soldiers, were stoic, monotone, and intelligent. Compare that to the wild range of personalities depicted in “Saving Private Ryan”, our English friends seem subdued and in control of their emotions. This struck me as a kind of wink to a trait the English may value in themselves, a quiet and polite tenacity ever prepared to endure the toughest challenges in service to their people.
“Dunkirk” was a much slower film too. Instead of being placed in the high-intensity urban warfare of “Saving Private Ryan”, we experience the slow dread of waiting to be saved by a far-off unseen Navy. The slowness was confusing at first. War films are normally action-packed. Typically war movies are focused on the intensity and horror of war. From “Dunkirk”, what we experience instead is the long nervous anticipation of impending doom.
Another critical distinction of “Dunkirk’s” plot is the helplessness of the warriors. The warriors are normally the heroes of our war stories. Yet here they are trapped, they are outmaneuvered, they are scared and they are at the mercy of someone else to save them. When our warriors are trapped, who is there to save them? In this film, we see a reversal. The citizens, those who were to be protected and saved in the first place, are now enlisted to cross the English Channel, in a tiny private armada, to save their warriors instead.
Watched and experienced together the facets of this story work like mythology. The film shines a proud light illuminating a tenacious national identity that sees victory beyond defeat and redemption beyond loss. Ever looking forward to a time where they will be victorious in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.
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