'Dunkirk': An Exercise in Restraint and Intensity

Senior Timothy Wagner authors this thoughtful analysis of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.


While many have attempted to capture the visual brutality of World War II, such as Saving Private Ryan (1998), or the psyches of its tactical masterminds, such as Patton (1970), few have captured the terror of a helpless retreat as well as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017). Set during the battle of the same name, Allied forces in France are pinned on all sides with their backs to the treacherous sea, hopelessly outnumbered as they wait for a rescue that will likely never come. Through its use of haunting, palpable silence and terrifying stillness amidst chaos, Dunkirk effortlessly and violently transports its viewers into trembling Allied boots.

As the film opens, a group of British soldiers saunter through an abandoned French village in silence, pamphlets fluttering about in a chilling breeze. Suddenly, a violent crack sends bits of mortar scattering to the ground, and the soldiers sprint for safety, accompanied only by the sound of bullets smacking the ground beside their frantic footsteps. There is no music yet, only halted breaths, the sharp popping of munitions, and the scraping of boots against the worn cobblestone. The sparse, poignant sounds only add to the adrenaline of a frantic, hopeless escape. It is not just gunfire, however, that instills the same soldiers’ fear into our hearts. As the thousands of defeated Allies gather on the beaches of Dunkirk, clutching their rifles in silence, a sound, almost too faint to hear, drones in the distance: a German bomber. Nolan draws out the hum of the plane, which slowly crescendos as it creeps closer, accenting not the horror of the attack itself, but the anticipation of it. Throughout the film, a carefully constructed sound design underwhelms the senses, with extensive use of silence highlighting the foreboding unease generated from the drone of the planes or the cracking of gunfire.

Nolan continually utilizes silence to amplify the horrifying sounds of war just as he uses stillness to heighten anticipation, delivering a war film that instills the terror of inevitable defeat.

Nolan not only deploys silence in his sound design, but chilling stillness in his cinematography. On one of the escaping ships, for instance, a soldier watches as a torpedo slowly glides towards the hull. The camera is likewise slow, gently panning down as the dreadful missile approaches. The patient movement mimics the soldier’s disbelief, unable to register what is happening, calmly watching as doom approaches. In another scene, several soldiers huddle in an abandoned fishing vessel when a bullet strikes the hull. The camera holds on the tiny hole as they realize their cover is being used for target practice, and we are forced to stare at the sunlight peeking through the gap, imparting on us the soldiers’ nervous stillness. Nolan continually utilizes silence to amplify the horrifying sounds of war just as he uses stillness to heighten anticipation, delivering a war film that instills the terror of inevitable defeat.

About the Author: Now in his final year at APU, Timothy Wagner is a Biology major currently applying to PhD programs in order to work in the field of cancer research. Besides his passion for science and God, he loves creative writing and considers storytelling, both on paper and the screen, to be one of his deepest joys.



Dunkirk photos Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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