2018 Film Essays

Faith and Survival: Celebrating Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’

“The condition is that you let me live for as long as I can stand against you.”

In the 1957 classic The Seventh Seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman, a disillusioned knight encounters the angel of death on a beach in Sweden during the time of the Black Plague. The knight’s objective is to defeat the grim phantom in a chess match and rid the country of the plague, prolonging the coming of death. Bergman uses the chess allegory in The Seventh Seal as a means to point out the futility of trying to prolong life and avoid death by any means necessary. While there is some pragmatic truth to the director’s perspective, Christopher Nolan takes The Seventh Seal’s philosophy, along with the beach setting, and turns it on its head with his 2017 film Dunkirk. Rather than accepting death as inevitable, Nolan’s characters in Dunkirk, and many of his films, are individuals whom embrace death and propel from the fear of it in order to keep on fighting.

Dunkirk might at first seem an odd choice for a British director seeking to tell a WWII story. In this genre, the audience already knows how the story ends, so keeping them engaged usually requires selecting a tale with a critical victory, a glorious battle, or at least a standout hero. Dunkirk provides none of these. However, as a setting, it also allows Nolan to once again celebrate man’s survival. He does so employing some of his noteworthy artistic themes and techniques. They include the precariousness of limbo, taking a leap of faith and the noble lie. Nolan’s combination of these devices in previous films has led some critics to complain that his cinema is too clocklike. Wrapping viewers in the real setting and events of Dunkirk gives them a potent relevance.

In Nolan’s early films, limbo is a subtext; a mental crisis of the main character battling with the feelings of fear and guilt. They are temporarily immobilized by these self-doubts, unable to break free and overcome their flaws. In Dunkirk, limbo is extended into being a literal, physical place; a beach where the fate of the protagonists as well as the 400,000 other men are left hanging. In The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Nolan experiments with a physical limbo when Bane casts Batman into the prison pit. Bruce Wayne wrestles his demons and escapes only when he vanquishes them. This application, while satisfactory for the superhero genre, is too contrived to inspire an audience toward any introspective analysis. Nolan’s Inception (2010) presents a quasi-mental/physical limbo placed in the dream-world of Cobb. While the action in the dream-world ranges through a variety of settings, the key limbo moment takes place on a beach. This, I contend, is not a coincidence, as it represents the venue with the greatest temptation for Cobb to abandon his team by relinquishing his hold on a painful reality and surrendering to a seductive fantasy life with his dead spouse. With Interstellar (2014), Nolan again attempts a physical limbo with Cooper’s entrance to the multi-verse dimension of the black hole. Yet, except for those with a Ph.D. in astrophysics, this limbo is still a bit too abstract for viewers to embrace.

Dunkirk opens with the first set of protagonists, a group of British soldiers, silently and warily picking their way through the alleys of a deserted town. The chilling wail of a Stuka breaks the silence. Then, instead of bombs, it drops propaganda leaflets which waft their way toward the troops. They proclaim, “WE SURROUND YOU!” The propaganda is meant to divide the men, with the goal of getting each to worry more about him and less about the group. Director Nolan uses expositive text on screen to explain the situation, finishing with the idea that the 400,000 were “Hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.” The soldiers suddenly come under fire from multiple directions, and –in the ensuing chaos — only one survives (Tommy) and manages to reach the “safety” of the beach. The buildings and hedgerows that conceal the enemy are gone. Now Tommy is on a flat wide beach, totally exposed, under a low gray sky which meets the gray water at the horizon. Before him, in perfect pawn-like rows, stand more than 400,000 soldiers awaiting a deliverance miracle. This giant sterile set piece is Nolan’s perfect limbo. Despite the mass of men, the atmosphere is hushed and tense as each contemplates the gravity of the situation. The men can only wait, praying their turn may come, while the wounded gain first entry onto the single ship. Stukas dive-bomb the ship and pier, destroying both. Nolan cleverly frames this and other moments with metal poles on the pier, bounding the left and right sides of the frame, to heighten the sense of imprisonment of the men. Nolan’s invocation of the religious terms foreshadows the limbo image he seeks to create. The troops have to make a leap of faith, in themselves, each other, and their countrymen to escape this limbo.

After the bombing, one unfortunate British soldier screams, “Where’s the bloody Air Force?” ushering in a second story line. Above this hopeless situation, Nolan adds another dimension to this limbo with a pair of protagonist Spitfire pilots whose Sisyphean task is to try to protect the men on the beach and the escape ships from the Luftwaffe. Their small consolation is they might survive to fly away, but the empathy they feel for those trapped below is obviously enormous. The life of one of the pilots, Farrier, becomes further complicated when his fuel gauge is damaged and he must rely on mere estimation of his remaining fuel reserves. Nolan’s third set of protagonists come in the form of a small boat manned by a civilian crew of an older man, Mr. Dawson, his teenage son, Peter, and his friend George. They are responding to the British government’s call for aid in evacuation of the trapped troops. Unlike the military figures, they make a voluntary choice to enter this limbo purely out of a sense of duty. Unlike most, Dawson takes a leap of faith even prior to leaving. He puts his spiritual faith into the idea that his son, a deceased air force pilot will watch over them. This blind faith serves as the core of his sense of duty and keeps him assured at all times.

Nolan highlights the importance of this lesson of discipline, unity and faith by using the rule of three, trial and error, narrative structure. During two failed attempts to leave the beach and sneak aboard rescue boats, first, Tommy saves the Highlander solider, Alex, and then Gibson saves Tommy and Alex. On the third attempt, Alex discovers Gibson is French and tries to force him at gunpoint off the leaky boat to lighten it. Tommy makes a leap of faith realizing that they all must stand united in the attempt to escape this limbo, and he defends Gibson’s right to remain.

Symbolic and literal leaps of faith appear in several earlier Nolan films as well. In The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Bruce Wayne makes an impossible leap onto a stone ledge when climbing out of a pit. Cooper pilots his spacecraft into the black hole in Interstellar (2014), hoping somehow for the best. In Inception (2010), Saito keeps telling Cobb he needs to take a leap of faith to put faith in others. In these cases, the heroes remain calm and refuse to panic, channeling their fear as a motivator. They do what they can and leave their fate in the hands of a higher power. As much as they wish, there is nothing the men on the beach at Dunkirk can do to physically affect their fate.  Viewers can visually see Tommy’s mind race as fear and the survival instinct take hold of him. He is driven solely by the urge to save himself. Any sense of unity, discipline and mission disappear. The idea Nolan seeks to communicate is that the predicament of the men on the beach is what galvanized the British nation’s will overnight and made them confront and fight the evil that was growing stronger every day. The men had to be rescued in the fashion they were to make everyone understand, as Mr. Dawson does, that war is coming, like it or not. Until this occurrence, the men have to wait.

Dunkirk’s noble lie for the men on the beach is that help will come. This is the epitome of taking a leap of faith. In other Nolan scenarios, the heroes had skill sets which could help put the odds in their favor. Commander Bolton, in Dunkirk, however, has no idea, as to whether or not ships will be able to reach the troops in time. Bolton is lying to his men, providing them unsubstantiated hope to keep their primal fears in check. He knows more men will survive if the group remains unified. Early on, he tells subordinates that Churchill publicly maintains the illusion that Britain and France are brothers in arms to preserve unity as long as possible to get the troops home and plan for Britain’s own defense. For the pilots in the air, the noble lie is similar; continue the mission, focus on it — not your own survival — and you will make a material difference to the men on the ground. Nolan adds to the noble lie on the civilian boat when Peter informs the shell shocked solider that George is doing alright and will recover when George is dead. Mr. Dawson approves of this lie knowing that the shell shocked solider needs it to have any hope of regaining his mental health. Later in the film, Peter delivers a school photo of George to the local paper used for the headlines, “LOCAL BOY GEORGE MILLS JUST 17, HERO AT DUNKIRK.” This heroic noble lie works because people see it as a realistic and practical example to follow of someone doing the best possible job he could. Nolan is taking his Dark Knight Rises idea of the any man hero and applying it in a more realistic and more practical effective setting. Most importantly, it builds the public’s sense of unity needed to defeat this enemy and not give into panic. People think that if this nobody can make a difference, then so can I, rather than hide in fear.

In Dunkirk’s final moments, the audience hears the famous quote “The New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue in the liberation of the old.” This quote perfectly embodies the idea of faith. We may not always know when help will come, but it is our infinite ability as a species to put faith in others that gives us the edge. Even when that hope is based on a lie, it has proven to be a powerful tool, capable of getting us through the worst of times. I contend that not only has Nolan grown as an auteur, but that he has perfectly captured a universal truth to which all may relate and celebrate.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.