Oscars Double Feature: Dunkirk & Saving Private Ryan
“War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing
It’s ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker
Friend only to the undertaker”
War by Edwin Starr
Looking over human history, war is a constant. It happens in every era, on every continent, and has involved every major nation. Given its ubiquity, it makes sense for it to be a focus of much of our culture. One of the most critically acclaimed war movies is Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, garnering eleven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, winning the last two. This year, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is making an argument to be considered alongside Saving Private Ryan at the top of the genre. The two films both look at World War II, taking place only two hundred miles away from each other. While these movies have very similar settings, they have obvious differences: vastly different structures, contrasting tones, and discrete time periods in the war. The place they diverge the most, though, is their view of the army and how the Army views its soldiers.
The heroes of Dunkirk aren’t those who follow orders. They’re the ones who take their fate into their own hands: they fly towards Dunkirk while the rest of the air force stays home, they sail their own ship towards the beach instead of letting it get requisitioned, they jump into any ship that looks like it might be a way home. At first it feels like it’s every man fighting for his own life, each individual hoping for their own happy ending. By the end, these individuals come together to show that their purpose has been the same all along. Everyone wants the people on the beach to get home safely.
Nolan’s structure mirrors this idea: three different stories with different timelines that seem like they might never line up. As time moves forward, you see how these pieces are interacting. Those in the sky are shooting down the bombers that aim at the ships and soldiers on land. Those on the sea are saving the pilots that crash and slowly moving towards land to bring the boys back home. Meanwhile those on the beach are bored, distraught, and slowly growing desperate.
Tommy, the soldier we follow on the ground, overhears the pier-master discussing the fact that the army doesn’t even plan on getting half of those on the beach safely to British shores. The Army views those on the ground solely as a statistic. A faceless number whose lives don’t matter at the end of the day. They need to come home so that they can be used for defense later. The audience isn’t told much about these soldiers either. There isn’t much dialogue between them, one of the most prominent doesn’t speak at all until near the end. They wait tensely, perhaps thinking of their homes but never talking about where they’re from or what they would be doing if it weren’t for the war.
Saving Private Ryan is much quicker to remind the audience that the soldiers risking their lives have a home to go back to. It’s what drives the story. The mission centers on finding Private Ryan and bringing him home safely so that his mother wouldn’t lose all four of her sons to the war. Spielberg’s depiction of the Army is one that is concerned with the lives of its soldiers. Or, at the very least, wants to appear concerned.
The soldiers on the team retrieving Ryan also have more depth than their counterparts in Dunkirk. They have ethical arguments, questioning whether to kill or release a captured German soldier. They have relationships with each other and with those around them, risking their lives to save a child. They also have histories, jobs and families back home that they talk about. These aren’t just soldiers trying to complete a mission. They’re humans with goals and opinions of their own. They follow their orders, because they’re soldiers. But also question them because they’re human.
These are soldiers at the beginning of a war. They had experienced the most brutal beach assault the world had ever seen at Normandy, but they came out on top and retaking France seemed incredibly possible, although not easy. They all know that there’s a reasonable chance of getting back home to their families and they hold on to that hope.
On the beaches of Dunkirk, the mood isn’t nearly as optimistic. The British army had been forced out of France and are now sitting ducks for bombers as they wait for boats to take them home. Everyone involved knows they have little to no chance of surviving long enough to see their family again.
That’s what makes Mr. Dawson’s decision to take his boat across the channel so surprising and meaningful. He knows that he’s putting himself in harm’s way, but he also knows that the lives of the men on the beach are worth saving. The two boys that come with him aren’t quite as aware of what they’re getting themselves into. One is loyally joining his father, and the other just wants his life to have some purpose to it. These civilians are given more backstory and development than any of the soldiers. If Nolan sees the Army as being apathetic to the lives of individual soldiers, he sees true heroism in the civilians who are willing to risk their lives without even being asked.
Spielberg made Saving Private Ryan in 1997, six years after the Gulf War ended and four years before the tragedy at the World Trade Centers drew America back into battle. On the other hand, Dunkirk was released in 2017, in the midst of one of the longest wars in history which has no end in sight. It only makes sense that perception of war is different in peace and in turmoil. In a time of peace, it’s easy to glamorize the Army as a force that cares for its own as it drives away the evil forces. In a time of seemingly endless war though, it’s Nolan’s perception resonates a bit more. We shouldn’t be relying on the Army to take care of its soldiers. Instead we must remember that individuals are the ones who have the duty to look after each other.