Audiences are quite understandably going to consider Dunkirk a war film, quite possibly one of the great war films of our age. Christopher Nolan’s tenth picture is possibly an even better survival horror movie, given it takes a well-known piece of 20th century history and pitches the story as a desperate battle for survival against a powerful, largely unseen and intractable foe.
From the very first frame, of isolated and beaten British troops walking down a deserted Dunkirk street as flyers depicting the German advance on their position rain down on them in almost endless supply, a terrifying pallor of dread and ominous doom casts its shadow over Nolan’s picture. This is a war the ‘good guys’ are losing, in terms of France one they have already lost, and all they can do now is run from the darkness that is pursuing and engulfing them. Nolan’s film, on the whole, couldn’t be less jingoistic; the British and their allies are terrified, broken and in a desperate situation.
Though far from being a film which wears any kind of political or social polemic on its sleeve, you’d be hard-pressed to not consider Nolan a pacifist after watching Dunkirk. Not perhaps since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in 1998, and rarely in all of cinema with its legion and entire sub-genre of war movies, has any director portrayed the senseless horror and brutality of World War Two with such visceral, haunting power. Nolan’s world here isn’t one without hope but it’s absolutely a war where good guys are complicated, and heroes don’t necessarily carry guns.