Breaking the Mold: Dunkirk and Movie Violence
When I walk into a movie, I want to see something of quality. I don’t want the movie I am watching to treat me as if I have no common sense and try to explain everything. Sometimes, the best parts of a movie are the parts that go unsaid—the inferences and connections that I have to make for myself as an audience member. That is exactly what Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk did.
The historical events portrayed in Dunkirk are an amazing setup for a movie, and the story hasn’t been overplayed by Hollywood. Dunkirk tells the story of French and British soldiers surrounded by the Axis powers at Dunkirk, France—across the channel from England. The movie starts with a bang, and keeps you in suspense until it ends. Nolan brilliantly breaks the story down into three acts, tying them together in the end.
The first striking indication of the show-don’t-tell philosophy: many scenes omit dialogue. Nolan shows the action instead of filling entire scenes with expository dialogue. The lack of words, however, also contributes to a lack of character motivation. Despite this, when it came to the end of the movie, I still felt as though I knew them as characters. The actors clearly conveyed what their characters felt, rather than saying what was going on in their heads. This is more realistic for both battle scenes and quieter moments throughout the film. This, coupled with the dynamic, ever-present soundtrack, makes it all the more dramatic and enticing.
Dunkirk also left out another key staple of war movies: excess violence and gore. Soldiers still die. This is World War II after all. However, I believe Dunkirk, unlike many other movies, implied rather than dwelt on violence. From the first scene, the Axis powers have clearly surrounded the Allied forces, but you only see an actual Nazi soldier in one short glimpse. Axis planes repeatedly bomb the beach, leaving an overtone of anxiety—you don’t know when the next attack will come. Because these bombings continue for over a week, the film implies that thousands were killed on the beach. The focus, however, is not on the explosions themselves, but their aftermath. Shots of countless wounded men, bodies floating in the water, and craters of impact, take the place of outright violence. Nolan shows the toll of these events, rather than the events themselves, telling a powerful story.
In Dunkirk, there’s no grand battle to make a last stand. Instead, Nolan tells a lifelike, slow-paced epic of a few heroic men who stood up to the Axis powers, their superiors, or even their friends, proving that not every war tale has to show gratuitous loss of life in order to tell a compelling story. As a student, this movie inspired me to stand up for what I know is right, even in the face of hardships. Every main character had to fight the odds to overcome the obstacles they faced. Honestly, that’s one of the best messages the movie could have shown.