So many ways to die

I thought I might see DUNKIRK (Christopher Nolan, 2017), although war films are the only genre I don’t really like, probably because there aren’t many women in them. It looked OK from the minimalist trailer I’d seen (ps don’t see the other trailers – they tell too much), and figured I could always walk out if I got bored. My friend John really dug it, and it clocks in at under 2 hours, so I organized myself and went to the theatre when my friend was showing it, and sat in my fave spot in the balcony.

I’m lucky to live in a movie theatre town. There are many cinemas available to me, although I only have two real faves, some I avoid, and one is dead to me. My friend and former co-worker Adrianne is projecting DUNKIRK in 70mm at the excellent and historic Somerville Theatre this month. She and I worked together for years at the Coolidge in Brookline, projecting on dual 35mm/70mm Norelco projectors, the Cadillacs of the projector world, the same projectors they have in the big house at the Somerville.

IMG_0711.jpgWe ran some 70mm at the Coolidge back in the day (1990s) – LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, KISS ME KATE, SOUND OF MUSIC etc. LAWRENCE became my fave 70mm epic, although on paper it didn’t sound so appealing and despite my dad calling it a camel opera. I showed it a number of times, so I had to watch it. Also, my projectionist mentor loved it, so I gave it a chance. I always think of Lawrence singing “I’m the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.” Also, Omar Sharif ♥♥!

Running Lawrence in 70mm was particularly great because it has intro music over black film, which we played with the lights up and the curtains closed. As the intro music ended, we opened the curtains and dimmed the lights to reveal the opener of the film. At intermission, there was closing music, so we closed the curtains, raised the lights, and stopped for intermission. When we started up again, we also had the intro music over the closed curtain, opening and dimming lights on the picture. It was great showmanship, the kind of thing made for cinemas with dedicated projectionists and curtains and whatnot. DUNKIRK, of course, doesn’t have these things, but I was still happy to see it in 70mm!

I was familiar with the story of Dunkirk, and was surprised later to hear that many audience members were not. I watch a lot of British television, which helps with my UK history, I suppose. I think there’s a Foyle’s War episode related to Dunkirk, and I’d read about it in a historic sci-fi book as well. Last year I saw a film called THEIR FINEST, which is in large part about Dunkirk. It makes a nice companion piece to DUNKIRK, so see it!

DUNKIRK dives right into the story, which I guess could be mildly confusing to people who aren’t familiar with the plot. Hundreds of thousands of British (and French and Dutch) soldiers are trapped in Dunkirk, a French town on the Strait of Dover, only about 40 nautical miles from the English coast. The Nazis are closing in and it looks grim for the Allies. The evacuation order is given, always demoralizing, and made worse by the lack of ships and the destruction of the pier by the Luftwaffe. Knowing the evacuation will be difficult due to pier problems and the wide beaches of Dunkirk, the UK puts out the word that small, non-military craft are needed to help with the evacuation.


The evacuation of Dunkirk by the ordinary citizens of England, fishermen and sportsmen, is recognized by the English as a story of everyday heroism, how every bit counts. It’s like a kids’ storybook tale, perhaps a version of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, the underdogs, the amateurs, stepping up and bravely pitching in, saving the day! It’s one of the most mythic stories of WWII, and it’s pretty incredible that it’s not more well-known in America, although perhaps it doesn’t square with our usual vision of heroism, which would never involve retreat.

Nolan’s story is split into three bits – the men on the beaches, nervously awaiting an evacuation that may never come, feeling like sitting ducks; the men who answer the government’s call and head across the channel with their modest watercraft; and the pilots of the RAF, fighting to protect the sitting ducks on the beach.

Our man (boy) on the beach keeps trying to get the hell out of there. He tries to get out in various ways rather than sit around waiting to get rescued. It looks like the 400,000 men on the beach may be left for dead, and he’s not just going to sit back and wait. He is foiled again and again.

Our man in the water has answered the call and is piloting a small pleasure craft full of lifejackets to the French beach. He rescues a few desperate men along the way.

Our man in the skies is one of my (and Nolan’s, apparently) fave modern actors, Tom Hardy (BRONSON), and this is yet another film in which he acts with only his eyes (see also THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD)

Not everyone who dies in war dies from an enemy bullet, of course. We witness how easily one can drown, water caving into a sinking ship, the psychological problems the survivors experience, and the bloodless and technical warfare of the air – like a pitiless video game.

As my projectionist friend John remarked to me, all fat has been cut from this film. There’s no exposition, little frivolous character development, no sentimentality. War, in all its confusion, is ON. It’s non-stop dread and suspense, even in the parts where nothing seems to be happening. I mean, we know (or some of us do, anyway) how it all turns out, but what will happen to these particular characters? The music is a little much, in my opinion, but it’s not bad. It echoes the terrible sound of a ship collapsing, the groaning of steel, the sound of doom. The colors are muted, battlefield colors, and the sky is a bit overcast. Most of the dialogue is practically unnecessary – my going-deaf dad will be able to enjoy it even if he misses half of what the characters say.

DUNKIRK doesn’t wallow in patriotism, even though many Brits look back at those events with a heartfelt patriotic nostalgia. When Churchill voices his famous speech about fighting on the beaches, we aren’t left with a rah rah rah sentiment like we would be in an American film, or at least I wasn’t, rather a puzzled, why do we keep doing this? sort of feeling. At the end I felt the way I always do, that war is futile, and there will be no “war to end all wars” unless it ends all male human life. Because honestly, women do not start these things. Smash the patriarchy! But this really isn’t a political film. It’s just a very dramatic attempt to portray a very dramatic event.

Short story – go see it, and see it in 70mm film if you can!



2 thoughts on “So many ways to die”

  1. Mimi and I seldom go out to movies now because we are old and we live in the country where the popular theaters serve beer and food and it smells bad. But there is one old theater left in Front Royal, Virginia that has been there since my teen years in the 1950s. We saw Dunkirk and hugged each other during the scary, tense scenes and there were lots of these. I enjoyed the sound track and the music which mixed real sounds (sound effects) with music. We were inspired by the film and the self sacrifice revealed in it. Thanks for this good review!

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