My first thoughts after watching Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk were of a Hyderabadi phrase, which I shall politely shorten to just “kirkiri.” It is a somewhat untranslatable word implying a complication, a mess, a funny business, even. Dunkirk-ki-kirkiri.
I did not want to complain, but after the promise of a powerful and atmospheric start, there was no atmosphere left to speak of but only a random romp through air pockets. On the whole, Dunkirk had neither head nor tail, as we might say, and remained a jarring hodge-podge of night and day and in between thrown together. The technique might have worked (and it has), for memory loss dramas, murder mysteries, and some other stories. But for a war movie, something one thinks of as a stately genre, and one with responsibility to questions about art and reality, the approach wasn’t quite right. Perhaps others, and especially other generations far removed from matinees in Sangeet theater 70 mm, will find it less distracting. But somehow, I felt it would have been a much nicer movie without the style-play.
The War Genre
That leads me to the question. What is a “nice” movie (or any depiction) when it comes to war? Is the mandate of a war movie no different from that of any other movie, or is there something more that we might expect from it, given that there are real lives and deaths that underlie it? There are political statements that often surround war movies. Tora Tora Tora spliced together Japanese and American views on Pearl Harbor. Unlike World War 2 which inspired thrillers and sagas like The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Day in the 1960s and 1970s (or even movies like Saving Private Ryan more recently), the Vietnam war movies seem to largely depict American despair over conscience and defeat (Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July, for example). The question of identity-representation also remains. I can’t help thinking that American war movies tend to demonize Japanese soldiers quite a lot more than Germans, for example. And much criticism has already been directed at Christopher Nolan for “white-washing” the beaches of Dunkirk and ignoring the formidable role played by soldiers from the Indian subcontinent who bled for the British and got little of the fame or glory apparently.
The war movie is one way to think about war, whether as art or entertainment, or even as a war-strategy by cultural means. Media scholars have even coined a phrase like “militainment” to highlight the close collaboration that exists between Hollywood and the defense establishment. War culture is not simply normalized, but also glorified systemically so as to keep the machine running. At the height of the first US-Iraq war in the early 1990s, the complicity of journalists and media was very deep and perhaps for the first time a war was staged as a TV spectacle about smart bombs and righteous entertainment at the expense of any serious discussion of the moral and human (and environmental costs). The cynicism of this era, it might be recalled, was even the subject of a movie about the role of media in inventing a war (Wag the Dog).
Camel’s The Snow Goose
In this context, it is useful to think about Dunkirk in relation to other media works about this event, and to understand why big media seems headed towards indulgence and empty spectacle rather than meaning and experience when it comes to not just war, but about anything human too. There was another Dunkirk, and it was better.
I found the British progressive-rock band Camel’s 1975 album The Snow Goose a few months ago quite by chance. It was a rainy winter in California and a song about migrations and geese seemed appropriate to listen to (I was looking for Camel’s Rain Dances actually, and stumbled on to this treasure). The dramatic highlight of this album, interestingly enough, is called Dunkirk and is an incredible piece of music simulating everything from martial marches to dueling machine gun fire presumably from Spitfires and Stukas. It was only then that I learned of Paul Gallico’s wonderful short novel of the same name (The Snow Goose, A Story of Dunkirk).
Camel’s album is a faithful tribute to the narrative and characters of the novel, and somehow, there is no other story, or musical experience around it, that has moved me with its sheer beauty and presence in recent times.
Unlike the beach of the movie, The Snow Goose begins in a great marsh on the coast of England, where an eccentric and lonely artist named Philip Rhayader has bought some land to use as a sanctuary for migrating birds who are in danger from hunters (Camel guitarist Andrew Latimer’s simulation of Rhayader’s awkward appearance and walk are an incredible and synesthetic piece of artistic interpretation!). The Snow Goose of the title appears in the hands of a young village girl named Fritha who brings it to Rhayader so he can heal it. The story unfolds with a slow and haunting beauty centered on the flight of this amazing bird (the title track is one of the greatest anthems in music I have heard, pouring every sonic chemical you can imagine into one joyous flow). Then, one dark dawn, Rhayader and the villagers set out on their little boats to help in the great rescue at Dunkirk, with the snow goose flying high above him, as if to protect him. I will pause with the story at that and urge readers to hear the album and read the book for themselves.
Why, I wonder, does a work of art centered on a small, non-human life and two simple human beings stand out as a journey into the soul far more than a grand spectacle by arguably one of the best movie makers of our times? I believe that somehow there has been a generational transformation, a dwindling to be precise, in our ability to grasp the life in life itself. Nolan simulates fear and urgency very well indeed, but what is lacking is attention to anyone in a meaningful way . Somehow, the meat-packing culture of military industrial complexes seems to have finally colonized the domain of art and humanity as well. I somehow root more for the voice of the cockney evacuees from Gallico’s novel and his paean to the snow goose a lot more than the young men of Nolan’s movie. It might be a broad criticism to make, so I say this cautiously. But I think that the cultural captains of our times have pushed the idea of the unimportance of life so deeply (buffeted at best in other places by ridiculous identity-political prescriptions and little more) that they don’t quite know what to do or say with their art anymore.
After Nolan’s Dunkirk, I am reminded of a study some of my Audience Research students did some time ago on Game of Thrones. What was cool, some of the participants had said, was that no one is too big to be killed off in the story. Coupled with the continuing normalization of violence by Left and Right in America, I wondered if somehow a false sense of equality had not overpowered what ought to be a natural, if not human, aversion to the enormity of violence. If you are taught that a lifestyle-level professing of identity politics is a substitute for moral engagement, then it is only logical that you end up looking at violence as some sort of a social-justice leveler rather than a grave and questionable act (read more on this in my article after the Ariana Grande concert bombing here).
What a triumph for Enlightenment reason and egalitarian democracy! Coupled with reality show drivel and shallow factory-school codes of cool and uncool conduct, I wonder where the children of tomorrow will get their ideas and ideals from. You cannot pretend to be nonjudgmental against violence, cruelty, and desecration. You cannot be dumb as a carcass on an assembly-line hook when you have the privilege of a life that is not on that line.
Dunkirk, obviously, has annoyed me more deeply than I thought, and seems to have completed Nolan’s determination to progressively evacuate anything like a feel of human life in his recent movies (Inception kept it real, in my view, and then The Dark Knight was half-dead, and Dunkirk, well, the metal-bolt sounds were loud and alive). All the same, Dunkirk has its intense moments and one might watch it out of curiosity. But it is also important I think to recognize other ways of living, and representing life, even in times of war. Devote an evening or two to Gallico and Camel’s The Snow Goose, and think for yourself why the same stupidity that views human beings as meat units who can be stranded helplessly on a beach still exists in the world today.