I went to see Dunkirk last night. It was every bit as gripping as the trailer. It was not the full story of the drama and significance of Dunkirk, for reasons that critics like John Podhoretz have explained. But it’s more an indictment of our culture and educational system that we are disappointed when a great movie fails to educate the audience about things they already ought to know.
What hit me about halfway through Dunkirk is this: It’s not a war movie, it’s a horror movie. It has all the characteristics of an effective horror film. The enemy is unseen, doesn’t speak, and is barely named; yet it is omnipresent and apparently unstoppable. The protagonists are interchangeable, and secondary to the horror itself, which is the real main character. Danger comes to them from all directions, in many forms, the more menacing because it is unpredictable: bullets, bombs, torpedoes, water, fire, even the men’s own ships and docks. The protagonists turn on each other in their growing paranoia and shock. The scene where men are trapped inside a ship waiting for the tide to come in, for example, is a masterpiece of the horror genre. For my part, the constant threat of drowning that recurred throughout the movie was the most awful horror of all.
The film’s final act is one of deliverance, and in that deliverance, we are brought back to the familiars of the history of Dunkirk: the ordinary Englishmen in their little boats, “the Few” of the Royal Air Force to whom so many owed so much. Their emotional resonance is undimmed by seeing less of the backstory, as the horror of the beach makes them a welcome enough sight. The ending foreshadows the war ahead, in which much glory would be mingled with much horror. Christopher Nolan is careful to treat the fighting of war, even by bewildered and overwhelmed young men of the type who actually fought it, with gravity and respect and realism. But it is perhaps Nolan’s signature achievement that he has made a great movie that reminds the audience that we don’t need to invent fantastical monsters; men who have seen war have seen horror for real.