War drama reflects a ‘romantic ideal’ of conflict: ‘Dunkirk’ director


LONDON — Director and writer Christopher Nolan’s new film is based on events surrounding the British evacuation from the French port of Dunkirk after a surprise German push through Allied lines.

The evacuation left Britain “alone and threatened with invasion,” with its war strategy in ruins, according to historians at the London-based National Army Museum. British forces suffered 68,000 casualties and lost most of their equipment, including 64,000 vehicles.

Many civilians helped in the evacuation, some using their own small boats. This, plus the subsequent rallying of troops and civilians to defend an anticipated German invasion, gave rise to the “Dunkirk spirit” reflected in wartime prime minister Winston Churchill’s famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech.

Nolan, 46, was previously acclaimed for films including “Interstellar” and “Dark Knight.” Many critics have hailed “Dunkirk,” which opens on Friday in Britain and the United States, as his best work.

He spoke to dpa and other media at a round-table in London:

Q: American films usually tell the story of victories but this one is different. Why is is it important to tell this story now?

Nolan: Well, I think Dunkirk, as Churchill put it, represents a victory within a defeat. And I think that, in all honesty, if you look at American film culture, it doesn’t deal primarily with simple victory, it actually — at its best, particularly the American Western — aims at the type of resonance that, I think, very often derives from the Dunkirk story, which is this idea of insurmountable odds and defeat and then victory, somehow, within that.

So if you look at the way [Akira Kurosawa’s 1954] “Seven Samurai” got translated into [John Stuges’ 1960] “The Magnificent Seven” — part of my pitch in the studio was, yes, people in America don’t know the Dunkirk story but there are so many films in Hollywood culture that have their Dunkirk moment, whether it’s Sam Raimi’s first “Spiderman” or “Independence Day” that Roland Emmerich made.

I think the underlying dynamic is actually quite closely related to the sort of romantic ideal of Hollywood cinema, and for that reason it felt confident pitching it to an American studio as a potentially very universal story.

Q: How hard was it to stick to historical accuracy when you had to tell the story in more of an entertainment style?

Nolan: It’s very tricky and a bit of a balance. In the end what I decided to do was create the world of evacuation… and the fictional characters to guide us through it, because I didn’t want to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves any more.

And as a screenwriter I know the degree of artifice that has to be applied to a characterization in order to present truth to the audience.

I never understood what Werner Herzog meant when he talked about ecstatic truth in art. And I do after making this film, because what he’s talking about is, sometimes there’s a line that tells the truth, and sometimes you have to fictionalize things or dramatize things in an artificial way in order that the audience understands the truth behind it.

So in the case of this film, it’s sort of trying to get across the bigger movements of what the evacuation was.

Q: Another tricky one was trying to synchronize actions that were happening during different periods of time. How did you bring it all together?