With “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. have achieved the unachievable. Yes, the film drew massive numbers at the box office, and all manner of wild, partly deserved critical hurrahs. But that’s nothing compared to way the film reshaped the historical memory, cementing the Allied evacuation of the beaches of Dunkirk on the French/Belgian border during World War II not as tragedy or ignoble retreat, but as a coup — if not a military victory than certainly a triumph of the human spirit.
It wasn’t always so. In the immediate aftermath of the evacuation, Churchill himself declared Dunkirk a harrowing defeat. He made the address in a radio broadcast sampled in Nolan’s movie, muted by all the reverent, stiff-upper-lip English triumphalism. “We must be very careful,” Churchill warned, “not to assign to this the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
In the Axis camp, the terms were (predictably) much starker. “For us Germans,” read an editorial in the magazine Der Adler, dated 5 June 1940, “Dunkirchen will stand for all time for victory in the greatest battle of annihilation in history. But, for the British and French who were there, it will remind them for the rest other lives of a defeat that was heavier than any army had ever suffered before.” The hyperbole was matched only by Hitler himself, who called the fall of Dunkirk “the greatest battle in world history,” a comment that speaks as much to the Nazis’ notorious knack for propaganda as their fish-in-a-barrel notions of greatness and conquest.
Nolan’s “Dunkirk” effectively topsy-turvied the propagandistic prognostications of Nazi newspaper writers. It depicts the evacuation as being, indeed, perhaps “the greatest battle in world history.” Albeit one won (or “won”) not by the conquering Germans but the resilient English (and some French), whose resilience and mettle were tested in the chilly waters of the English Channel in May 1940. A feat of Hollywood propaganda all its own, perhaps. But the success of “Dunkirk” is as much attributed to its grand-scale, technically accomplished myth (re)making as the enduring popularity of WWII films. Beyond the gigantic scale of the conflict (i.e., as a world war) offering plenty of cinematic fodder, the war’s grander themes provide a certain comfort.
In the Nazis, Western history (and cinema, in turn) found perhaps its perfect foil. From their genocidal schemes, to the totalitarian control of government and society, to the blinding speeds and efficiency of their blitzkriegs that accelerated the pace and carnage of 20th century warfare, Nazi Germany seemed uniquely rotten. They were consummately evil: a regime so amoral and blatantly, unabashedly iniquitous that that they willingly adorned their uniforms with skulls. The threat they posed was not just political or martial but existential, constituting a fundamental threat to the lives of millions targeted by their mass extermination campaigns, and to the core danger of Western liberal democracy. They posed a threat so total, and so broadly understood, that a film like “Dunkirk” doesn’t even have to depict their soldiers, or their uniforms, or their swastikas.
This familiarity itself grants a degree of reassurance. It cleaves clear-cut lines between the good guys and the bad. The Nazis were so bad that everyone who was against the Nazis becomes automatically good, despite their own galling failures of ethics and virtue (the dropping of an A-bomb on civilian populations, the monstrous rape-and-pillage campaigns of the Soviet Red Army). World War II — or at least most fiction about World War II — provides a kind of moral clarity that, in our present moment, proves comforting. Too comforting.
Early in Peter Weir’s 1981 Great War epic “Gallipoli,” underage army enlistee Archy (Mark Lee) comes across an old man in the blasted-out Australian outback. When the naive solider beams about being sent off to Turkey, the old man seems confused, almost incredulous. “Turkey?” he asks, “Why’s that?” Archy explains that Turkey is allied with Germany, who is at fault for starting the war. Perplexed, the old man harrumphs, half-wistfully, “Well, you learn something new every day.”
“Gallipoli” is a doubly marginalized war film. For one, it’s a film about the First World War, not the Second. (A 2014 estimate concluded that films about WWII outnumber those about WWI by a factor of 10.) For another, it’s a film that moves beyond the trenches of northwestern Europe, where French, British, American and Canadian allies went toe to muddy toe with the Imperial German enemy, looking the kaiser’s spiky-helmeted soldiers square in the monocle as they drove them through with bayonets. Instead, as its title explicates, “Gallipoli” locates its bloody third act action in a Turkish peninsula, where battalions from Australia and New Zealand battled Turks in the name of the far-off British Empire.
In a scene midway through the film, another young solider (played by Mel Gibson, whose character ignores the protestations of his Brit-hating Irish father and joins up in order to impress girls) pauses during a rugby game outside his Cairo training camp to stare at the ancient Sphinx overlooking the troops. As Weir’s camera lingers on weathered ancient face of the monument, his film’s central question seems to snap into focus: What in God’s name is an Australian kid doing in Cairo, training to battle the Turkish? What in the world could this war between dueling continental European empires have do with him?
These are the sort of bafflements that define the best WWI films. They reflect a moral complexity, as well as a more generalized perplexity, that’s so often absent from stock WWII films, of which “Dunkirk,” for all its technical brilliance and modest formal innovation, is one.
There are, of course, great WWII films: those that use the conflict as a pretense for prodding deeper questions about the nature of power (Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” Peckinpah’s “Cross of Iron”), the harsh realities of heroism (Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood”) or of the character of existence itself (Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” Aldritch’s “The Dirty Dozen”).
The difference is that the best movies about the First World War are all about these questions, typically casting the historical conflict itself so far on the distant horizon that it seems incidental, if not altogether meaningless. Instead of narrowing toward simplicity, they complicate toward intricacy. And in this way, they tend to speak more frankly to the intricacies of geopolitics and global conflict, as well as the howling abyss at the center of modern warfare.
It is at least a flub of verbiage, if not an out-and-out idiocy, for texts from the past to be deemed, somehow, “relevant.” A film from 1957 can no more come to bear directly upon the here and now than a lesson learned from the annals ancient history. (It is, likewise, a stock cliché of journalism that old things produced well outside the socio-historical context of the present are somehow precisely what “we need right now.”) “History,” the historian Antony Beevor has said, “is not a predictive mechanism.” And fictionalized, streamlined accounts of history are even less useful, sometimes dangerously so. Such texts can, however, ring out across the long channel of history, echoing into the present, and manage to speak to the contemporary moment.
Such is the case with the WWI movie, the ethical complexities of which approach universalism. Instead of comforting moral clarity, they offer only confusion. Stanley Kubrick’s early-career masterpiece “Paths of Glory” (1957) sketches this confusion across the class boundaries of the French military. Taking its title from a 1917 oil painting depicting two British soldiers down in the brown muck of the Western Front (the work was subsequently censored and admonished by French and British officials), which itself takes it title from a Thomas Gray elegy (“the paths of glory lead but to the grave”), Kubrick’s film sees a French colonel (Kirk Douglas) fully confronted with the grisly horrors of modern warfare and the preposterousness of wartime bureaucracy. When a trio of French soldiers face court martial for not rushing toward certain death, Douglas’ colonel takes up their defense in a farcical trial, defending them from the executioner’s block and a “desperate, sadistic” officer class composed of empurpled aristocrats and those aspiring to join their ranks.
Like Jean Renoir’s earlier film, 1937’s “The Grand Illusion,” “Paths of Glory,” depicts the last gasp of a fading bourgeoisie desperately clutching at power. Where both reveal war itself as utterly pointless — waged at the macro level between nations with more in common than not, and at the micro level by soldiers alienated from the interests of their state’s ruling class — Kubrick’s bitter cynicism has always struck me as truer than Renoir’s hard-won humanism (though perhaps this reveals more about me than it does Renoir, or even Kubrick).
With its depiction of countrymen divided by class, and then further subdivided by rank and ruthless ambition, “Paths of Glory” doesn’t just reveal war to be obscene; it depicts the entire military apparatus as an absurdity. As in Joseph Losey’s “King and Country,” another film that deals with a compassionate solider being tried for cowardice (or, technically, desertion), “Paths of Glory” explores the fundamental rift between the nationalistic, imperialistic idea of war and its more bracing, brutal realities. In so doing, such films encourage us to question the very nature of reality itself.
This — the questioning of the very nature of reality itself — is not meant to connote some airy, metaphysical inquiry. Simply, stories about the Great War see official histories undermined, where World War II stories tend to see them endorsed. (In the latter case, see: “Dunkirk,” which for all its immersive violence and sheer noisiness, nonetheless consolidates the dignity of the battling British spirit.) They give the lie to ideology — those taken-for-granted arbitrary values like nationalism, imperialism and the redemptive, trial-by-fire power of military derring-do that present themselves as totally natural. They tend to present good people fed through the pitiless meat grinder of modern warfare, or awhirl in a cauldron set to boil by forces beyond their comprehension. It is no coincidence that the best First World War movies tend to be antiwar movies, almost by default.
Like the entangled empires of the early 20th century, our contemporary world seems ever-more defined by such perplexities, incomprehensibilities and quasi-Kafkaesque absurdities. The disconnect between the real world and the world of official Western political power feels cavernous. The Canadian prime minister smiles for Rolling Stone while selling arms to repressive foreign regimes. While the Pentagon claims that America has slumped into an era of decadence and “post-supremacy,” senior White House aides trump up the nation not as a superpower but a “hyper-power.” The president issues assurances to Guam that tourism will increase under threat of nuclear decimation. And all-out nuclear war — which reawakens fears of mutually assured destruction dormant since the Cold War — is unfolding not between America and some other burly global behemoth, but with a far-off hermit kingdom.
It’s a state so confused that politicians and other power-brokers have to bother to clarify that Nazis are bad, while others can’t even be bothered to do that. Russia. North Korea. America. Guam. It’s like some madman took the World section of a newspaper and folded it into an oversized origami bicorn admiral’s hat, the seemingly random abutment of nations determining unlikely geopolitical alliances and even more awkward enmities.
Where an aspiringly arty blockbuster like “Dunkirk” trades as much in technical razzle-dazzle as it does moral lucidity, WWI films like “Gallipoli,” “Paths of Glory,” The Grand Illusion,” “King and Country,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Westfront 1918” and “The Road Home” trade in complexity and more onerous ethical robustness. They dispel the absurd ideological machinations of global conflict like a searchlight piercing the fog of war. And in this way they don’t just depict an obvious, patent, clear-cut morality. They are moral. They offer hardy lessons and laments that reverberate into the present moment not by virtue of their gimcrack claims to “relevancy” but their evocation of an eternal truism: that the world is often ruled by desperate sadists, and that paths of glory lead but to the grave.