According to Christopher Nolan, his latest film Dunkirk is “not a war film”. On the face of it, that’s patently untrue. Dunkirk takes place smack bang in the middle of World War II, centring on the English effort to rescue their troops from German-occupied France. It’s a film about war. It’s a war film.
Watching the film, though, it only takes a couple of minutes to understand what Nolan’s getting at. The wordless opening scene follows a small squad of English soldiers through the abandoned streets of Dunkirk. Within seconds, they’re slaughtered by gunfire from unseen combatants. The sole survivor, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), manages to scramble into the Allied perimeter, and down to the beach for evacuation home.
What does he find at the beach? You know that moment in horror films when the characters realise the gravity of their situation? That they’re trapped — in a remote camp by Crystal Lake, in an alien-infested facility, in a neo-Nazi green room — and surrounded by something malicious that only wants them dead? Moments like these are seared into my brain. They’re terrifying in an existential way, recalling those abject moments of dread when we remember our own mortality.
That’s what Tommy finds on the beaches of Dunkirk. Lines of soldiers – tens, hundreds of thousands of men – sprawled across an empty expanse. Hoping for home. Awaiting ships that will be sunk in the channel by lurking U-Boats. Pressing themselves desperately into queues across a ramshackle pier, awaiting the inevitable attention of the German bombers that swoop out of sombre skies. Awaiting death.
This is Dunkirk. It is, as Nolan describes it, “a survival story and first and foremost a suspense film”. But it’s also the final act of a horror film, possessed of the same heart-pounding tension and the same disregard for the sanctity of human life. It’s not as gory as the typical horror movie, or even the typical war movie — the film notably received a PG-13 rating in the US, which precludes much in term of blood and guts. Regardless, this is a harrowing film: an intense, experiential evocation of war.