I grew up in the 70s and early 80s on a healthy diet of fish fingers, baked beans, grazed knees, The Big Match on a Sunday afternoon, brightly coloured clothes and flared trousers, bowl style haircuts, BMXing, running everywhere and war. Especially war. There were still a ton of people around, not much older than I am now, with war stories. My grandad was my preferred go-to-source for an epic war tale. The Second World War was still fresh-ish back then. Rudolph Hess was still in prison, the ongoing Cold War was almost a continuation of WW2, school teachers still referred to the Germans as ‘dastardly Hun’, Basil Fawlty educated the nation how we should forgive and forget and every weekend there would be a great, swashbuckling WW2 movie on the television. At least one, maybe more. We might have had only a fraction of the number of telly channels back then, but there was twice the WW2 content.*
I would watch war and I would play war. Mother wasn’t keen on me having toy guns. Indeed, she banned them for a while. Banning things is more often than not a pointless activity. Within two minutes of entering the woods, my brother and I would be running around with sticks that we had fashioned as substitute guns, shooting and perfecting dramatic death spirals that would have Torvill and Dean green with envy. The ban didn’t last and guns made their way into my toy collection. Along with armies of little plastic green soldiers, my Action Man and his jeep. As far as I was concerned, war was just one of the most fun things imaginable. Over the years, I’ve had a bit of a change of heart on this subject. But I still love a good war movie. Be it a gingoistic, heroic classic from the 50s to 70s, one from the extensive library of 80s Vietnam films or a modern big budget masterpiece full of grit and gore. Which brings me to the point – this is an awfully long introduction to what is a fairly brief review of Dunkirk.
Almost every review I’ve read has been a rave review. It is a good film. Perhaps even a very good film. There was a lot I liked about it. The cinematography was epic. The three stories – air, sea and land – were threaded together across different timeframes very cleverly. I want to watch the film again just so that I can fully get to grips with how that worked. The acting was excellent, although no one person had a particularly challenging role to play. I liked how the script told the collective human story rather than focussing on individual daring-do. There was constant tension, with a couple of moments that had me jump. I noticed Mrs P had her eyes wide open and her hand over her mouth throughout. And from a little bit of personal bias, I enjoyed the scenes filmed at Weymouth – I worked there last summer when they came to town.
All good so far. But there are some negatives. Firstly, scale. Dunkirk is the story of 400,000 plus soldiers and the film really did not deliver on recreating the scale of the event. Not by a long shot.The action scenes, whilst full of drama in their own right, are a little sparce, highlighting a limited number of attacks and dogfights rather than fully recreate the desperate battle that took place. Blood and gore was set to ‘Family Friendly’, presumably to get the 12 rating and more bums in cinema seats. There was little to no blood and what dead bodies there were tended to be fairly intact. War isn’t ‘family friendly’. War films that compromise on the grim reality of war in order to cater for that market, in my opinion, sell the genre short. Suffice it to say that there was no attempt to compete with the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.
But my biggest gripe was the film score. The Beeb’s Mark Kermode found it to be a brilliant tool to ratchet up the tension and keep it there from beginning to end. I found it to be overpowering, drowning out the natural sounds of battle and eventually it became tiresome. I do wonder if the latest, greatest Dolby Atmos sound system installed in the cinema I visited was to blame. I do not know. Still, there’s been worse. The otherwise brilliant Killing Fields springs to mind.
But for all that, the film is still eminently watchable. Yes, you should see it. Is it the greatest war film ever? No. Is it even in the Top 10? Well, I gave that some thought. Any top ten list is going to be a bit subjective. But, perhaps with a degree of generosity – the film is fresh in my mind and beautifully shot – I’ll allow it to sneak into my Top 10 list. What are the other nine films ahead of it, I hear you ask? Like I said, I gave it some thought. Although I might think differently tomorrow. But today, it looks like this: Downfall, Schindlers List, Full Metal Jacket, Letters from Iwo Jima, Saving Private Ryan, A Bridge Too Far, Battle for Midway, Das Boot, Come and See and Dunkirk.
* This probably isn’t true. I don’t care.