Friday, February 16, 2018

"Dunkirk": Britain’s Band of Brothers

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” That’s the beginning of a famous speech in which Shakespeare’s Henry V urges his troops forward. It’s 1415, and the British are invading France, in a series of battles that are part of the Hundred Years’ War. Somewhat later in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the young king – who in the spirit of the times personally leads his men into battle – addresses them, manfully insisting that the odds stacked against them will only make their success more glorious. In what is always called the St. Crispin’s Day speech, Henry waxes philosophical about the long-term fame that awaits his soldiers, then rises to a glorious climax:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . .

The valor of English soldiers and their leaders, as displayed in Henry V, has of course always had high appeal for English audiences. That’s why Winston Churchill, in the dark days of World War II, turned to actor/director Laurence Olivier for a film version of the play, with which to boost the morale of the English citizenry. It appeared in 1944, dedicated to “the Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has humbly attempted to recapture.” The movie was a commercial and artistic success, winning Olivier an honorary Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

Given the tensions of those times, it’s no surprise that the war as depicted in Olivier’s Henry V is picturesque and fairly bloodless. Almost 50 years later, in 1989, Kenneth Branagh was gutsy enough to film the play once again. His version (which like Olivier’s features the cream of the British acting community) is powerful and realistic, containing battlefield scenes that strongly convey the horrors of war.

I bring all this up because two films that take us back more than 75 years to another English war are in the running for the 2018 Best Picture Oscar. I confess I haven’t seen Darkest Hour, which I understand is best served by Gary Oldman’s stirring portrayal of Winston Churchill, captured at a moment when he and his strong anti-Nazi views are finally coming to be adopted by Britain’s royals and its citizenry. I did, however, see Dunkirk, which has been called an impressionistic account of the massive British evacuation of a French beach in one of World War II’s most pivotal moments. Dunkirk is a labor of love for British director Christopher Nolan, who’s best known for such science fiction and fantasy fare as The Dark Knight and Interstellar. It’s clear he feels deeply about this moment in history, when thousands of small English seafaring vessels sailed across the English Channel to rescue English soldiers. The film cuts between a pilot in the sky, the crew of a fishing boat on the water, and a representative British “Tommy” trying to leave that corpse-strewn French beach. My problem: I could never figure out quite where I was and who was at the center of the action at any given moment. (At least in my American eyes, young English actors all seem to look pretty much the same.)

Nolan has been praised for making a strikingly different sort of war film. I certainly got a sense of the enormity of the whole undertaking. But having to continuously ask “Wait, what’s going on?” is not a helpful sort of history lesson.

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