'I don't understand why it's never been made': Christopher Nolan's 'Dunkirk' celebrates British heroism
SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Director Christopher Nolan is a master of reinvention.
After rethinking the whodunit with 2000’s Memento, he rewrote the rules for the cop thriller with 2002’s Insomnia. Then there was 2005’s Batman Begins and its two sequels – The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – which injected new life into the moribund Caped Crusader on the big screen.
He also delved into sci-fi with a trip into the subconscious (2010’s Inception) and went into space in 2014’s Interstellar.
So when the Oscar-nominated Brit set his sights on making a film surrounding the real-life events in Dunkirk, France, during the Second World War, he decided to reimagine a battle epic as a suspense thriller.
“I never quite understood why a modern film hasn’t been made about it and as a filmmaker, those are the kinds of gaps that you’re looking to fill,” Nolan says during a press day at Santa Monica’s Barker Hangar.
“I remember the first time I was told about the events at Dunkirk,” he adds. “As kids, we receive this simplified, mythic fairytale of what happened. But over time, and in particular an experience Emma [Thomas, his wife] and I had 20 years ago where we made the crossing with a friend of ours and we went to Dunkirk... I came away from that experience with a fascination for people who took part in the evacuation.”
Dunkirk – which casts newcomers Fionn Whitehead and One Direction’s Harry Styles alongside Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, and Tom Glynn-Carney – tells the story of 400,000 British, French, Belgian and Canadian troops who found themselves surrounded by the Nazis on the beaches of Dunkirk in late May and early June of 1940. With safety on British shores just 26 miles away across the English Channel, the rescue had to be completed by non-military ships that sailed out from the southern coast of England to bring the stranded men home.
But from the moment the film opens with Whitehead’s Tommy narrowly escaping German gunfire, Nolan wanted to convey three distinct storylines – on land, on sea and in the air – to evoke a tale he says is about “communal heroism.”
“The idea behind the structure of the story and the way in which we’ve told it is us trying to tell this big story on an intimate scale and create what I refer to as an ‘intimate epic,’” Nolan says. “You’re trying to stay in a very intimate point of view for each of the story threads, but have them gradually, over the course of the film, fill up the cumulative picture of a very large event.”
It’s a pivotal moment in history. If those 400,000 soldiers weren’t saved, the Second World War could have had a very different outcome.
But rather than studying war films to thread his three distinct narratives, Nolan turned to the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Henri-Georges Clouzot for inspiration to craft what is a riff on a locked room thriller.
“I really wanted the film to be driven primarily by suspense, which is one of the most pure cinematic film forms,” he tells the Sun. “So we looked at Hitchcock, but the one that I think I’d point most to is (Henri-Georges) Clouzot’s Wages of Fear... Wages of Fear was the one that we honed in on the most for that language of suspense.”
With the multiplex firmly awash in superhero fare, it’s ironic that Nolan has divested himself from the genre (though he helped produce Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).
Perhaps it’s because he just doesn’t see those films as something that needs reimaging again.
“It’s always been about finding a story that hooks me," he explains of how he chooses what he does next. "[Something] that I think I’ll have an emotional connection with that will sustain me through the years of making the film.
“I’m very simple-minded. It has to be a story that I think is going to grab me emotionally and keep me enthusiastic.”
Dunkirk opens Friday, July 21.
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Harry Styles, from left, Aneurin Barnard and Fionn Whitehead in a scene from "Dunkirk." Styles, 23, who gained fame with One Direction and recently launched his solo career, plays a British soldier in Christopher Nolan’s suspense-thriller about the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk, France, in May and June of 1940. (Warner Bros Pictures via AP)