Refighting World War II

‘Dunkirk' and 'Darkest Hour' bring back Churchill, Fortress Britain and big movie themes.

By - Jan 12th, 2018 03:46 pm
A vision from "Dunkirk."

A vision from “Dunkirk.”

We can’t call it nostalgia for WWII. That implies affection and a desire to bring it back, which would be horrible. But in these weird political times, the US does seem to have warmth for that WWII clarity of good and bad, right and wrong, as long as grownup sentiment and real cost (“blood, toil, tears and sweat”) are applied to our re-creation of history.

In these times we seem to desperately need the familiar themes: the fight against evil, the reliance on the spirit of the common man and something we really do lack nowadays – the power of words to motivate and even do combat.

Whatever the reasons, WWII was all over the screens of 2017. Even “Wonder Woman” was on the Allies’ side. Two current films in different genres – one a battlefield epic, the other a biography – look at British greatness and grief in 1940, before America dared enter the fray. These are overlapping examples, similar phrases from different angles with both films using some of Winston Churchill’s most famous words as a mutual crescendo.

“Dunkirk” is about the human desperation of 300,000 trapped soldiers clawing for survival, which came in the form of the average Briton — platoons of civilian ships that crossed the choppy channel to their rescue. But many died along the way, and we are never allowed to forget that.

“Darkest Hour” is a more typically structured movie biography about Churchill in his greatest moments of challenge and despair.

From a cinematic and technical standpoint, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is the more explorative work, while strangely enough “Darkest Hour” is the more emotionally influential.

Nolan recognizes the need to tell the story of war through people — a fleeing soldier desperate to survive, a ditched pilot struggling not to drown, a lad running toward war on his father’s private craft, a calm civilian helmsman whose resolve never bends even in the face of tragedy, a mission-fixated veteran pilot (actor Tom Hardy, his face hidden behind oxygen mask for much of the film) whose dogfights serve as codas for the story.

The scale of many of the Dunkirk sequences is admirable, only sometimes dragged down by the usual pyrotechnics of movie battle scenes and claustrophobic underwater tanks. Nolan doesn’t quite break the mold despite the nonlinear storytelling that has become his signature (scene flips back and forth despite daylight or time expectations). It’s a good method, though sometimes a trap for show more than purpose. His men are gripped in fear or isolation, soaked in sea water, oil and flames — so we feel the same.

But the best score of 2017 comes from composer Hans Zimmer. He mixes orchestral themes with a background of percussion and surf-like waves that even substitute for the sounds of war.

Nolan was smart to turn to two masters of stoic stage directness, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance, to deliver the most pointed heroic lines in his minimalist screenplay.

“Dunkirk” sails its cameras along the sand, in the sky and in the water, “Darkest Hour” in moments of tension drops in close on an event and then climbs to a bird’s eye view in the same shot. Yet despite such theatrics, director Joe Wright keeps the acting most prominent.

Gary Oldman in "The Darkest Hour."

Gary Oldman in “The Darkest Hour.”

This film carries oomph because of the performance of Gary Oldman. Credit the makeup all you want on the guy most people remember as the sneering terrorist Harrison Ford threw off “Air Force One,” but the actor uses the prosthetics rather than being owned by them and finds a voice that echoes Churchill’s presence and power.

The past seasons brought us two remarkable Churchills. (Actors including Richard Burton have always been attracted to his language and voice, but makeup technology has now brought actual impersonation.) In TV’s “The Crown,” John Lithgow was a wonderfully salty Winston in his seventies. Oldman has the more vigorous Churchill in his sixties, though he still dictates from his bathtub and telephones FDR from his privy.

This was truly his darkest hour when he took over as prime minister detested by Parliament and even by the king who later loved him. He was considered crazy in his insistence on fighting on, even as Hitler squeezed closer and closer.

Oldman handles many moods, more setbacks, more testiness — even temptation to make a deal with the Germans. In attempting to show the humanity of Churchill, director Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (otherwise fine work) push Oldman into the film’s most maudlin sequence – an impulsive ride on the underground where Churchill gets a trite chorus of moral support from subway riders. There had to be a better way of honoring the common people for wartime normality amid perseverance.

There’s other strong acting work for Oldman to play off of, including Ben Mendelsohn as King George, Ronald Pickup as the doubting Neville Chamberlain and Stephen Dillane as the angry Halifax. But Oldman’s best partner is Kristin Scott Thomas (20 years ago the love interest in “The Horse Whisperer”) who is only in her 50s. But she is shrewdly aged to look like Churchill’s wife Clemmie, who chides and encourages him in deft bossiness.

Both this film and “The Crown” seek to use Churchill’s secretary to explore his whims and word fixation. In this film the task falls too much to Lily James of “Downtown Abbey” fame. Director Wright loves playing off the innocent loveliness of her face, and who can blame him?

Neither is a flawless film. But because of Oldman and the best portions of the screenplay, “Darkest Hour” is more triumphant while “Dunkirk” is more daring.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

13 thoughts on “Movies: Refighting World War II”

  1. Paul G. Hayes says:

    Saw them both and appreciated them as you did. They are movies that evoke the feelings felt at the time by those of us old enough to have experienced the real reactions of real people as the events unfolded. I was six, but aware of it all. WWII was the event that matured my generation. I hope these fine films get through to younger people, which now is almost everybody.

  2. Thanks Paul, I also worry about the reaction of the young vs those who lived through it in one fashion or another.

  3. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Having read 1000 or more books on WWII and talked to many vets, I can attest to the fact that the movies are accurate.
    Many did not know the dastardly acts of Neville and Halifax to undermine Winston, just like the Dems, MSM, Left is doing now to Trump when he has 3 wars to fight.
    Chamberlain, Halifax, King Edward, Joe kennedy wanted to negotiate peace with Hitler, letting him attack Russia and take over Europe. This would not have worked. King Edward, who abdicated, wanted to cut deal with Hitler and would take back over as King of England, as Hitler stooge.
    My 3rd cousin landed on DDay and other relatives went ashore few days later, on Normandy beach.
    If Hitler had taken power, forming the German empire including, most of Russia would have been the worlds most evil empire, worse than the Great Khan.

  4. Terry says:

    Sad to say but most republicans and crypto-fascist Trump lovers would be fighting with the Axis Powers today. Pathetic.

  5. max says:

    Great movies, and in all too important ways, the civilized, enlighted people of the world are again fighting against the kind of totalitariarnism of right wing extremism and war mongering, this time most clearly represented by the collusion of Trump and Putin to destroy democracies and freedom around the globe. Along with their attacks on democracies Trump and Putin both bring overt racism to the table, attempting to “cleanse” the population of “undesirables”. History repeats itself, right wing extremists have to be knocked hard on the head every so often to keep their evil racism and wars in check.

  6. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Terry, Max, please stop smoking glue or something, you are so stupid youre funny. Trump is opposed to all the wars.

  7. Old Man Yells at Cloud says:

    To equate the struggles of Churchill to those of snowflake-in-chief Drumpf is laughable! Especially since the troubles of the latter are caused by their own ineptitude. Trump is actively trying to START a war, tell me again how he is against all war? WCD must be high on his pills again!

  8. The movies do seem to stir thinking about the state of the world and as a film reviewer it delights me when living history through the eyes film makers has such legs, which is a credit to them. But it is also laughable how current political feelings intrude on interpretations. To Internet regular Wisconsin Conservative Digest, the story of Churchill produces an image of those who fought him as comparable to Democrats fighting Trump, painting Trump as the anti-Hitler. To others Trump is closer to the new Hitler. Future historians and film-makers will draw their own parallels.

  9. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Trump inherited 4 wars from Obama who got 2, one over with, when he came in. Trump has these dumped at his feet and has finished one.
    Churchill had to fight WWII with Neville and Halifax stabbing him in back. Trump has to take the Korean mess, the 4 wars while the Left who made the messes, the MSMedia who endorses the mess, the Dems stabbing him in the back while he is fixing all of our problems and keeping the US out of socialism.

    Carry on Donald while the Left whines about being losers.

  10. Some curious war math on this thread.

  11. Terry says:

    As usual nothing but ad hominem attacks and personal insults from the republicans…

    All the traitorous Putin loving, crypto-fascist, white nationalist supporting, sycophantic Trump toadies and boot licking republicans can take a hike! You too WCD! My family fought in the Union and in WW2 to shut your kind of hate and depravity down. The republican era of “party over country” is soon to be over. There’s a Big Blue Wave building and it’s going to wash all you lying, cheating cowards and charlatans away in November 2018! We don’t need your authoritarian loving fascist USA.

  12. max says:

    These movies in particular remind us of the great struggles over centuries to realize what Beethoven put to music, the 9th Symphony, and what Schiller put to words – Was die Mode streng geteil, Alle Menschen werden Brüder, Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt – What convention strictly divides, All People become Brothers, Where your (God’s) gentle wings abide. Republican have lost their heart and soul, doubt Trump ever had one, strongly encourage Republican’s to revisit their faith, if they have one, and listen to Beethoven.

  13. mike drew says:

    Write on!
    I admired Dunkirk’s ambition mightily, it’s execution somewhat less. We’ll wait for Winston’s gutsy wisdom, on the small screen where PBS, as always, as always, has owned this story.

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