On Dunkirk & the Nature of Heroism

Prior to reading this piece, I invite you to play the below track from Hans Zimmer’s score for Dunkirk, entitled, “Variation 15.” It’s basically a rearrangement of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” suite from his “Enigma Variations.” It’s beautifully haunting and poignant, and, I think, provides the right atmosphere for the words that follow.

The more time that’s elapsed between me and going to the theater and watching Dunkirk, the more I appreciate it. I am grateful for what this film stands for and for what Nolan accomplished through it. Since 2005’s Batman Begins, I’ve been an ardent Christopher Nolan apologist, as it were, so my perspective on his films is probably a little biased (okay, maybe a lot biased). Keep that in mind as I make the following statement: “Dunkirk is this generation’s finest war film.”

That isn’t meant to disparage the other engaging and powerful films that have sought to introduce regular citizens to the frenzy of war. Many might still say that Steve Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan holds this mantle. Or even the Spielberg-produced mini-series Band of Brothers. Some might even try to argue that 2013’s Lone Survivor, or 2014’s American Sniper, or even 2016’s 13 Hours or Hacksaw Ridge are in that conversation as well. For what it’s worth, each of those are cinematic feats in their own right. But, again, for me, Dunkirk is the best war film of our generation and, perhaps, of all time.

The way in which Dunkirk was shot, constructed, and executed will leave you both in awe of a director in his prime and in awe of the supreme sacrifice young men really made on behalf of people they never knew. Their sacrifice has secured the freedoms that you and I are still enjoying the spoils of today. The bravery of regular men and women is on grand display. The non-linear narrative of Dunkirk, while being somewhat of a Nolan trope, gives substantial weight and insight into the way in which individual combatants perceive the events of a battle. We’re shown how little individuals really are aware of what’s going on in war. How it’s not all neat and tidy, but hectic, and tense, and continually churning forwards. We’re given the rawest form of war, in all its chaos and commotion, without succumbing to showing limbs blown to bits, blood spatters on the screen, and f-words rattled off ad nauseam.

Nolan engages his viewers and expects them to keep up — or be left in the film’s wake. He makes you feel in your gut the awful effects of war. He immerses the viewer in all the chaos, the stress, and the madness of bombs and bullets that drive one to the edge. There’s not a moment in the film where you can breathe, where you can relax. The 106-minute runtime feels like the actual week we see in the film. It’s almost as if it’s never going to end. In a good way. There’s no relent, no reprieve. You’re continually pushed towards the brink. As a film, Dunkirk does this both to its characters and to you, the audience. Through the expert use of pristine cinematography and excellent sound design, Nolan has crafted a film that’s not so much educational, but experiential.

Many Americans are most likely unfamiliar with the events that led up to the Dunkirk evacuation, formally known as Operation Dynamo. Our only other introduction to this moment in history might’ve been 2007’s Atonement (unless you’re a WWII buff). Nolan’s motivation, however, wasn’t so much to give historical context to what you’re seeing or even give you a character-driven narrative that drives home the emotion. He’s less concerned with your awareness of what’s going and more so with you experiencing these events as our characters do, confusion and all. Nolan made sure that nothing and no one ever superseded the moment. The last image that’ll be etched in your memory isn’t a particular person, rather, it’s the event that took place on those beaches. And that’s on purpose. Listen to what Nolan himself says in an interview with The Wrap.

“The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters . . . The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be, or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it?”

For all of Tom Hardy’s bravado, Mark Rylance’s charm, and Harry Styles’ infamy, never once do their performances overshadow the significance of this moment in mankind’s history. Nolan is intentional about limiting the amount of backstory we’re given. We’re never given a scene where we see Hardy’s wife and kids at home praying over their father. We never see Styles kiss his sweetheart goodbye as he boards a train to the frontlines. We never see Kenneth Branagh at home sipping tea before heading to the war room. Yet, as you watch the events of the film unfold and experience them for yourself, you feel the same emotions. You feel the desperation behind every bullet and the devastation of every bomb. You feel the demoralization behind every fatal evacuation attempt. You feel the same agonizing fight for survival. You feel the same ache for home.

In my eyes, Dunkirk is a masterpiece, a cinematic marvel that presents to individuals bent on individualistic expression the anonymity of true heroism. Speaking for myself, I take my freedoms for granted. I don’t consciously think about the terrors and atrocities that countless seventeen-year-old boys endured to secure the liberties I’m enjoying today. What’s more, I don’t believe the true horrors of war can be accurately depicted by Hollywood. For as violent as we can make movies nowadays, the hideousness of war will always be several degrees more fierce than we can ever imagine. Nevertheless, for a few moments, Dunkirk permits us to experience a tiny sampling of this ferocity and frenzy. It places you in the center of the fray. The film provokes an uncanny appreciation for those who served and reminds free people the exorbitant price for such freedom.

And, furthermore, instead of giving us one valiant figure to look up to or a hero to strive to emulate, Dunkirk reminds us that heroism is rarely exhibited by those looking to be heroes. History isn’t made of up individuals who sought to be heroic. It’s made up of normal people answering the call for bravery when it came. The men that lived and died on those beaches didn’t ask to be put in those circumstances — nor did the citizens that risked their lives to aid in the evacuation. Surely, they all wished that they were somewhere else, that these events played out differently. But be that as it may, I think Tolkien’s grey wizard has some sage words that are remarkably appropriate:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (Tolkien, 60)

For these men, that meant fighting on when all faith was shattered. And though their names may be lost to time, history will never forget their valor. Their blood was spilled to safeguard the lives of those who’ll never know their names. Their lives were spent to to save those who’d soon forget them.

For me, this is especially powerful. It reminds me of the type of service God asks of me — service that’s not after man’s acclaim or attention. Rather, it’s service that stoops, service that does its duty in silent faithfulness. It’s action that’s unafraid to do unknown thing for God. Where our idea of greatness is having our names remembered, God’s notion of greatness is chiefly seen in lowly love. In doing right and clinging to the gospel regardless of the visibility or venue.

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this reminds me, once again, of the collective “others” from Hebrews 11. These “others,” though included in the “hall of faith,” have no name attached to their record. (Heb. 11:35–38) They lived and died and suffered persecution, all for the sake of the gospel — all without regard to “making history” or “leaving a legacy.” They weren’t after a name for themselves. Their focus wasn’t on being remembered. They weren’t concerned if their name was written down in the annals of time or not. Their attention was solely on remembering Jesus’s name, and spurring others to join in that remembrance. At the cost of their lives, they pursued the glory of Christ crucified and risen again. And for that, truly “the world was not worthy of them.” (Heb. 11:38)

Dunkirk is a masterwork of cinema that reminds us of the true nature of heroism and the cost of freedom. For the casual viewer, it spawns a greater awareness and keener affection for grandparents who endured such violence and turmoil. For the Christian, though, I think Dunkirk can have even deeper meaning. It reminds us of God’s upside-down economy of greatness — the type that’s not caught up in names for ourselves but in his great name. It reminds us that faithful gospel living entails “service that counts no office mean, no labour great, no sacrifice costly — service that is willing to go down even to the tomb itself in the performance of its offices of love.” (Bonar, 66) It reminds us that we’re living freely as unnamed saints and witnesses, pointing to the true Hero who sacrificed all for us and whose name will be remembered forever. It reminds us that gospel freedom is freedom from the scratching and clawing after man’s applause. Because all the approval you’ll ever need was paid for by God’s own blood.

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