Some films open with a slow fade-in of a breathtaking landscape, and some with a shot of our hero – our protagonist. Director Christopher Nolan, however, opens "Dunkirk" with a simple yet meaningful shot, filmed on 70mm film, of five British soldiers wandering down an eerily quiet street, scavenging any items they can. With this opening, we’re thrown right into the situation – we’re with the soldiers.

Advertisement
Advertisement

(Note: This article contains minor spoilers for "Dunkirk")

It is only a matter of seconds before shots are fired. The soldiers are in severe danger, and the sound of the gunshots remind us they are not just loud bangs, but deafening sounds that will stay with a solider for the rest of their life. "Dunkirk"’s sound design is, well, designed to make the audience feel as though they’re on the ground, in the air and in the sea with these incredibly vulnerable soldiers.

Advertisement

It’s not just the sound design that gives the audience a first-person experience, but also the up close and personal cinematography. There are barely any sweeping shots of landscape or ironically magnificent shots of enormous explosions, like those found in "Apocalypse Now." In "Dunkirk" you will find handheld IMAX cinematography where you are always with the characters, and that is the point of the film.

Nolan wants to show you, the audience, the bravery, and struggle of these young lads who just want to get home – a home that is so close you can almost see it.

The first-person experience that the film is going for, and brilliantly achieves, is driven home with zero scenes of officers and commanders discussing the tactics of war in a warm and cozy office, away from the terror. There are no scenes of news broadcasts or civilian life.

From start to finish, we are with the soldiers.

Some criticisms of the film have been that it doesn’t take the time to develop the characters. "Dunkirk" presumes that the audience will instantly sympathize with the young men (you may even call them boys) who are clearly terrified and are painfully desperate to get across the English Channel and back to their homeland. It’s as if some people’s default position is not to care about these characters, a sentiment made worse by the fact that the film is closely based on real, horrific events.

Advertisement

By the end of the film, if you don’t feel sympathy for these characters, it might just be that you’re evil!

"Dunkirk," despite its 12A (PG-13 in the US) rating, does not shy away from the traumatic and devastating events of the Dunkirk evacuation, also named the Miracle of Dunkirk. I must admit, I was slightly disappointed when it was revealed that the film was not given a rating of 15. Then, I remembered what Nolan has done with previous films.

Advertisement

I remembered how Nolan uses time, sound, music, and cinematography to create tension.

After seeing the film, I was reminded that war is not just about the blood and gore, and although that is absolutely a part of man’s darkest hour, war is also about time. When a soldier isn’t being shot at, they are constantly waiting. In "Dunkirk," the soldiers are waiting for the next German plane to fly over their heads and drop bombs all over the beach they are stuck on.

They are waiting for the next boat to arrive and take them home. They are waiting for a British plane to come and rule the air above. They are waiting for the Germans to push through their border and reach the beach on the ground. Time is a running theme with Nolan’s filmography, and it certainly doesn’t stop ticking with "Dunkirk."

Christopher Nolan did not set out to make a philosophical film, nor has he asserted his opinion of the war, or war in general. As a filmmaker – and artist – Nolan set out to put the audience in the shoes of these soldiers as best a filmmaker can. Using incredibly loud and atmospheric sound and handheld cinematography, and with a focus on time, Nolan has achieved something very special. "Dunkirk" is a film that will be praised for its realistic, intense, non-melodramatic portrayal or war for years to come.

War films like 'Dunkirk'

"The Battle of Britain" (1969) – Sticking with the British theme, "The Battle of Britain" serves as a sort of sequel. It’s essentially the story of what happens after the events of "Dunkirk."

Although the film has its cliches, the air battles are excellent for the time and are certainly worth a watch.

"The Thin Red Line" (1998) – While "Dunkirk" doesn’t attempt to explore the philosophy or war, you can leave it to auteur Terrence Malick to do just that.

So why is this film similar to "Dunkirk"? "The Thin Red Line" is painfully realistic, portraying the soldiers similarly to "Dunkirk," in that they aren’t all perfect killing machines and they just want to get home.

With one of the best casts ever assembled, this unique, fantastical yet realistic painting of war is endlessly interesting, and Hans Zimmer’s score is one of his best.

"Fury" (2014) – Before David Ayer made "Suicide Squad" – a film that I couldn’t wait to see and left the cinema wondering what it was I had just seen – he made "Fury."

"Fury," similarly to "Dunkirk," is a very personal story. We are always with the soldiers on their violent journey, in particular, a very young man played by Logan Lerman who goes from vulnerable pushover to vengeful killer.

The film isn’t without its cliches, but it is one of the most violent portrayals of war and flew slightly under the radar, so it’s worth a watch if you didn’t catch it back in 2014 or since.

"Lifeboat" (1944) – You know that scene in "Dunkirk" where the soldiers are being shot at in the boat and begin to argue amongst themselves? Well, if you want more of that, Hitchcock’s "Lifeboat" is the film for you!

It’s intense, dialogue-heavy and interesting. The tension comes from the willingness and apprehension amongst soldiers from more than one side, who are all stuck on a small lifeboat.

Don't miss our page on Facebook!
Click to read more