Christopher Nolan’s new film, to be released in 2017, is set around the Dunkirk evacuation of Allied soldiers during the Second World War. One wonders what led Nolan to seek inspiration in a 70-year-old war when fresh conflicts litter our unruly geopolitics. Appropriately titled Dunkirk, the film, from its short trailer released earlier this month, immediately brings to mind scenes from the classic war films of an earlier era.
The angry, unending ocean and the soldiers packed like sardines as they await rescue are reminiscent of the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Stretch that analogy, and the obvious question arises: Is Nolan, the director of some of the best films of our times, out to make a statement? More generally, is a war film the quintessential arrow in a great director’s quiver for him to enter “epic” territory?
Evidence would suggest so. Nearly every major director in Hollywood has felt the urge to have a war film in his oeuvre. Francis Ford Coppola had to do nothing beyond making the Godfather trilogy for his name to be enshrined in Hollywood. With the first two of those films, released in 1972 and 1974, he had already proved that he was a master of film craft. But in 1979, Coppola made Apocalypse Now, a harrowing look inside the American misadventure in Vietnam.
In Stanley Kubrick’s case, the war film happened before he achieved all-round success. Before there was The Shining, The Clockwork Orange or 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick had made Paths of Glory in 1957. Starring Kirk Douglas as a French commander whose troops refuse to undertake a suicide mission during the First World War, Paths of Glory established Kubrick’s unique stamp of technical finesses superimposed on an ultimately grim vision.
There are several other examples: Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan), Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down), Clint Eastwood (Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima), Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), and Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds). Tarantino, to be sure, does not really belong in this club, because his stylised account of an anti-Nazi plot was more fictional than the others. Yet, the narrative undeniably drew its thrust from the historical truth of the Nazis’ villainy.
Apart from Tarantino, Malick too seems out of place on this list, given that most of his films are sprawling disquisitions on philosophy (Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life). That said, the director retained this preoccupation in The Thin Red Line which, like Eastwood’s Iwo Jima, focused on the moral terrors unleashed by war. In showcasing the ravages of armed conflict as also the possibility to steal transitory moments of companionship and honour, these films establish as well as question the limits of human endurance.
It is perhaps this aspect of the war film – the ability to distil universal truths in a grave setting – that attracts the best directing talent to have a go. American directors are fortunate to have continual access to fresh material to translate to the screen, given their country’s history of serial conflicts. Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War trilogy – Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth – proved to be the precursor to the director’s lasting fascination with themes that have resonated with the American audience, including financial malice and iconic presidencies. If earlier directors sourced their material from Vietnam and the Gulf War, today’s crop is focused on Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terror. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to earn a directing Oscar for her 2008 Iraq drama, The Hurt Locker. Eastwood tackled that war in American Sniper.
But the preponderance of the war film should not blind us to the dangers of generalisation about what counts as “epic”. Martin Scorsese, say, has never made a war film, but can anyone deny that he is “epic”? His accounts of the moral hazards inherent in a life of crime – from Goodfellas to The Wolf of Wall Street – are the most accomplished master classes in human frailty you will find in any medium, let alone film.
Consider the Coen brothers. Wasn’t No Country for Old Men a war film? The battle ground may have been the desolate outposts of Texas and the armies were the drug gangs operating with impunity, but if war is about fate and circumstance and, most pertinently, bleakness, then few films make the cut with as much clear-eyed mercilessness as No Country for Old Men. This stays true for the director duo’s other films exploring crime and vengeance, such as Fargo and True Grit.
What about directors like Woody Allen and Richard Linklater? Neither of them has made a war film, nor are they likely to. But are their films any less “epic” than those listed above? In films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, Allen introduced us ever so gently to the shenanigans of modern urban residents as they compete for affection in a world with ever-shifting shapes and textures of love.
Likewise, in his Before trilogy, Linklater took us deep into the dynamics of a late-flowering relationship with such honesty and tenderness that we laughed and cried, often at the same time. His creations, like those of Allen, captured their respective cultural moments on film, preserving for posterity knowledge of how we lived and loved through the ages. With Boyhood, Linklater took this enterprise literally, shooting the same cast over 11 years to bestow a strangely alluring veracity to that much-abused narrative device: the passage of time.
Perhaps, then, the war film is more a sensibility than a genre – a coiling mass of plot complexity and narrative hijinks that can be invoked in films that are not necessarily about fighting armies. Both The Seven Samurai and Ran by Akira Kurosawa are not, strictly speaking, war films, yet they tick all the boxes that make up the genre: communal honour, chaos and turmoil, the pull of duty, and the threat of annihilation.
Finally, let’s return to Nolan himself. In his Dark Knight trilogy, the director opened our eyes to the possibilities for moral complexity within the comic book universe. With Inception and Interstellar, he redefined science fiction by situating the search for the unknown in stridently human yearnings. Nolan’s work has already rejigged accepted genre conventions, a more epic contribution that a war film can ever hope to be.