By David Elliott
APPETIZER: Review of Dunkirk
Dunkirk is a French port city just south of the Belgian border. From May 24 to June 4, 1940, it was the center less of a battle than a disaster, one converted by British luck, pluck and propaganda into a national resurrection. Nearly 400,000 men were cornered by German forces, and for obscure reasons Hitler held back his Panzers (probably for later Blitzkrieg-ing in central France). Churchill committed only a fraction of the Royal Navy and RAF, both precious for the coming Battle of Britain. About 338k of the 400,000 were rescued (though many of the French were later repatriated). Their saviors were often small, civilian vessels, voluntarily crossing the Channel. It was like Agincourt minus arrows, but more flags.
Much of the context remains a shade vague in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. First known for clever, conceptual films (Following, Memento, Inception), then the box office champ The Dark Knight, Nolan wrote and directed this somewhat conceptual but also docu-granular war saga. It starts with a lost British soldier joining the forces massed on the beach. First he goes to a dune and squats (must I draw a picture?). His name is Tommy (British troops were called Tommies in WWI). He and the other men are caught in grim suspense, then panic, as German planes strafe and bomb. Most of the movie is about small groups deep in harm’s way. The faces are movingly real, but their identities (even Tom Hardy’s) are oddly generic. Sound effects (and accents) are so potent that much of the speech becomes hard to follow.
Shot with brilliantly sharp film, not digitally, and fully alert to all issues of survival, this is not one of those old war epics jammed with famous stars. Subbing for all the gone Sirs is Sir Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander. Yes, the former Henry V is back in France (his model as Mr. Stiff Upper Lip must be Noel Coward in In Which We Serve). Nolan’s spotlight hero is a doughty yacht captain, played by Mark Rylance as Britain’s Indomitable Spirit. Between action storms we get tense, meditative pauses, and can ponder why the Brits make so many movies about their disasters and ordeals. Like A Bridge Too Far, The Malta Story, Fires Were Started, In Which We Serve, Bridge on the River Kwai, Zulu, The Cruel Sea, Khartoum and The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Though most attentive to fierce desperation, Nolan reaches for some heroics. When the rescue fleet of little boats appears on the horizon, someone asks Branagh what it is. With moist eyes he answers “Home,” and the score surges with the Nimrod theme of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. There is plenty of air combat, as bold RAF pilots shoot down nasty Heinkels (the Germans remain faceless terrors). Most movingly to me, an English pilot is shot down, glides his expiring plane elegantly to the beach, and then sets it on fire – up yours, Adolf!
Dunkirk is often too scary, or just noisy, to be quite exciting or stirring. The big budget appears to skimp on the gallant rescue fleet, with terse and gracious Rylance made to carry too much emblematic weight as the yacht skipper. Nolan achieves moments of nerve-racking realism, yet without challenging film’s great battle episodes (Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron, Klimov’s Come and See, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Branagh's Henry V, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Kurosawa’s Ran and Seven Samurai – each a stylized stunner). Ten years ago we went to this beach with powerful brevity, in the Dunkirk sequence of Joe Wright’s Atonement. Back we go. Keep calm and carry on.
SALAD (A List)
Ace Performances in British WWII Movies:
Laurence Olivier in The 49th Parallel, 1941; Noel Coward in In Which We Serve, 1942; Roger Livesey in The Life and Death of Col. Blimp, 1943; Michael Redgrave in The Captive Heart, 1946; James Mason in Five Fingers (Code Name Cicero), 1952; Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea, 1953; Robert Newton in The Desert Rats, 1953; Gregory Peck in The Purple Plain, 1954; Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957; Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, 1987; Sarah Miles in Hope and Glory, 1987; Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in The English Patient, 1996.
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Often undervalued in shaping Orson Welles as one-man extravaganza is a tradition long preceding radio and movies, that of the “great actor-managers in the twilight of their lifelong tours. (Orson had) been privileged to (see and) shake the hands of more than a few. He devoured books about David Garrick, Henry Irving, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Sir Ben Greet, who did it all: played leads, designed the sets, lighting and costumes, staged and produced … (the teen) was talking about presiding over his own repertory troupe.” And so he did, by 22. (Quote from Patrick McGilligan’s fine Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
A tribute: “In Chicago, war veteran and cheerful cinephile Bruce Trinz (1917-2011) owned and ran the Clark Theater, where I ushered. Each day’s new double-bill lured sunrise pilgrims, tired shoppers, students, buffs, loners, daters, seniors, cruisers, nighthawks. For each picture Bruce wrote a rhymed couplet, like this one for Cagney’s White Heat: ‘A grim human bomb/ Who worshipped his mom.” (Quote from Intro to my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, obtainable from Amazon, Nook, Kindle.)
Even Peter Lorre is stunned, in The Beast With Five Fingers (Warner Bros., 1946; director Robert Florey, cinematographer Wesley Anderson).
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