Thursday, August 3, 2017

Of War, Movie-Making and Boxes

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Last Saturday, after a bookfair/signing at a local library, The Husband treated me to a trip to the IMAX theatre to see DUNKIRK. Being an amateur WWII historian (his reference books cover one entire wall in our newest library) as well as being a Navy Captain retired after 32 years’ service, he was so excited about this film. As a veteran of the film and TV industry myself, I must admit a certain curiosity about it as well, if only to see if all the hype was justified.

It was.

DUNKIRK is a masterpiece of filmmaking, but it is not what we would think of as a ‘movie.’ It’s too big for that.  We were sitting in padded seats in a comfortable theatre, but otherwise I imagine it was as close to being in an actual battle as possible. There are a few continuing characters, but they have no or minimal backstory, and we have no idea of what happens to them after the movie ends.  Everything is immediate and in the moment. There is no overarching ‘documentary’ or ‘instructional’ feel. Each moment is as if seen through one person’s eyes, but using lots of different people. The action is sometimes out of sequence – or seems to be, I could never figure that out – but is very evocative of what I think it must have been like for someone actually being there. Without, of course, the hideous awareness of an immediate and possibly very messy death.

Some of the sequences were far too long – in my seldom-humble opinion – such as the running with a stretcher scene, but are understandable in the context of ‘one person’s eyes.’

The scope of the film is gigantic, gargantuan, enormous – just a list of the stuntmen alone is like the population roster of a small town. The number of extras (most of whom just stood in neat lines waiting to be rescued or falling down from the German strafing) was even greater, though they received no screen credit. What was mind-boggling to me was that these hordes of men shown on screen are a mere pittance compared to the numbers who were involved in the actuality. Overwhelming!

Even though I am something of a movie buff and worked in the motion picture/TV business for over a decade, I only recognized two actors – Sir Kenneth Branagh and Sir Mark Rylance, both extravagantly talented Englishmen – and both were so submerged into their roles it took a while for me to do that! If I have a quibble with the casting, it is that with only two or three exceptions, every man in the movie was dark haired and dark eyed, and as they were all unfamiliar to me that made them almost impossible to tell them apart. Thank heavens one of the main ones had a mole on his chin, so at least I could recognize him.  But – perhaps that was a deliberate choice of the director to show the interchangeability of soldiers in wartime?

One of the main selling points about IMAX is that it makes you ‘feel as if you’re part of the action.’ I must beg to disagree. First of all, it’s hard to feel part of the action when you’re reclining in a chair with your neck uncomfortably bent so you can look upward. That I could live with, though, but what loses me to IMAX is the distortion caused by the fish-eye of the dome. I do want to see DUNKIRK again, but in a flat screen format. I think it will be a lot more emotionally grabbing if the wings of a Spitfire fighter don’t curve up like a bird’s. Also – a word of warning. If you have a fear of water be prepared to spend a fair amount of time with your hands in front of your face. I am and I did.

So – to drag this post kicking and screaming back to somewhere approximating writing, I would say that DUNKIRK is a valuable lesson in stepping/thinking/creating outside the box. Far too often people and publishers talk about wanting ‘something the same as _____(insert bestseller or writer’s name here)…  but different.’ As writers we should dare to step out of the box occasionally. DUNKIRK did, and while it is most definitely different, it is gloriously spectacular. It deserves to win just about every Oscar going.


  1. You've convinced me: I must see Dunkirk. I appreciate and enjoy a movie or book which dares to do something different and make it work.

  2. It does sound like a special film. I think it does inspire our creativity when we read or see something unique in other genres.

  3. Your review of the film is stunning, Susan.
    Even my employer has recommended Dunkirk to me but his taste has been dubious in the past... however, I sense the film is more than another war-film but an innovative achievement.
    Regarding publishers, agents etc., they are in business to make money-making money means pleasing the market. Authors who step outside the box are refreshing, but risky business.
    On a personal note, being a Cymrophile, the failure of the Dunkirk film makers to mention the many Welsh battalions but make a fuss over the few Dutch soldiers leaves a mark. :)

  4. I very rarely watch war movies. They tend to overwhelm me. I don't even read many books set in war-time. I know it exists and my imagination is all-too-good at conjuring up the horrors.