Movie Mixtape: 6 Movies To Watch With Christopher Nolan's 'Dunkirk'

(Welcome to Movie Mixtape, where we find cinematic relatives and seek out interesting connections between new releases and older movies that allow us to rethink and enjoy what's in our theaters as well as the favorites on our shelf. In this edition: Dunkirk.)

In the early summer of 1940, a group of Allied soldiers had to be evacuated from their position on the beach of Dunkirk, France, after being surrounded by Nazi troops in the first weeks of the Fall of France. The events necessitating their rescue, according to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, were a "colossal military disaster," and the resulting mission (Operation Dynamo) is now know rightly as the Miracle of Dunkirk.

Unless you've had your head in the sand, you know that's the subject of Christopher Nolan's latest film, which has near-universal praise from critics. Some are pointing to the bleachers to predict an Oscar. Others are calling it his best film in a career littered with greatness.

Let's see what kinds of movie connections we can make to Dunkirk as it dominates screens (big and bigger) this weekend.

Dunkirk (1958)

Men who were afraid and the men who wouldn't let them be! The Dunkirk released a half-century before Nolan's came during a fascinating crossroads in the late 1950s, when the appetite for war films – especially those documenting Allied victories in WWII – was still high, but filmmakers felt bolder about adding layers of moral complication to the stories. The triumphs were still there, but the tone of rah-rah patriotism wasn't a pre-requisite any longer. Dunkirk's complexity is flavored by director Leslie Norman's own experiences after serving as a Major during WWII.

Thus, you have famed dinosaur-resurrecter Richard Attenborough playing a war profiteer whose actions are contextualized by the dire situation hundreds of Allied soldiers find themselves in. At the heart of the film is the renowned John Mills, playing a Corporal who stands steadfast in the face of doom both for the sake of the survival of his men, but also their spirits.

If you want even more time on the beach, the Jean-Paul Belmondo-starring Weekend at Dunkirk is another great option.

Der Untergang (Downfall)

It's time to take this movie's reputation back from the meme machine. Oliver Hirschbiegel's stirring drama is much more than the "Nein! Nein! Nein!" scene.

The film, which takes place in the final drastic days in Adolf Hitler's (Bruno Ganz) bunker obviously represents the other side of the war from Dunkirk. Like bombastic siblings, one represents Allied triumph near the beginning of the war and the other represents Nazi failure at the end of it. Downfall is peerless in its subject matter and the intensity of its portrayal. Ganz is a beast, and Traudl Junge is the kind of incredible character who could only exist in real life. Alexandra Maria Lara gives us a human handhold while shutting the heavy doors inside the bunker, and the real-life Junge's appearance at the end is a sobering reminder that past is prologue.

And, sure, Hirschbiegel is a fan of the memes, too.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Like Harry Styles long after him, David Bowie utilized pop stardom as a vehicle for an acting career (he's in less than two seconds of the comedy war film Virgin Soldiers). The responses to Styles in Dunkirk seems to be "He's actually good!" but the responses to Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth ranged from "Huh? What?" to recognition of a beautiful, raw performance. Bowie plays an alien visiting earth from a planet on the verge of a calamitous drought. He becomes the wealthy head of a tech company by patenting his people's inventions here on earth, but he also discovers sex and alcohol to disastrous effect, and, when his alien nature is discovered by a close colleague, it sets his story off on a chaotic spiral.

There are dozens of performances by young pop stars leveraging their fame to get into movies. This one is the best.

To Hell and Back (1955)

Back at the war, To Hell and Back is the classic gold standard of biographical war pictures. Audie Murphy stars as Audie Murphy based on the book by Audie Murphy in a sterling portrayal of military courage that led the Infantryman to become one of the most decorated soldiers of WWII. The thoroughly entertaining film takes us from his early days as a poor sharecropper, abandoned by his father, all the way through his most heroic action: single-handedly repelling a German force on the edge of a forest on the border of France by using the mounted machine gun in a tank that could have exploded at any minute. Audie Murphy was a complete badass who was initially rejected by every branch except the Army because he was short and looked like a child.

The Cockleshell Heroes (1955)

Yet another war movie inspired by real-world events, José Ferrer's movie has a definitive comic feel to it (if the video of the be-Speedoed men running around the firing range with a mine didn't tip you off) on top of its poignant, heartbreaking story of valiant loss. It's most prominent performance is probably from Trevor Howard, who also appeared in The Third Man.

The event the movie portrays is Operation Frankton, which saw men use military canoes (code named "Cockles") to infiltrate the Nazi-held port of Bordeaux where the Allied crew would place limpet mines on enemy cargo ships. It's an excellent war film with a different type of mission than you normally see fictionalized.

Wages of Fear (1953)

When looking for inspiration and masterclass advice on creating tension for Dunkirk, this is the film Nolan turned to. Which makes sense. Henri-Georges Clouzot was dynamite (or nitroglycerin in this case) when it came to crafting movies that sent you off the edge of your seat. Wages of Fear focuses on four people forced by straitened circumstance to drive trucks full of nitroglycerin over treacherous mountain roads to put out an oil well fire. Unstable explosives. Winding mountain paths. Clouzot mines this for all it's worth, although for my money, his follow-up Les Diaboliques is the one you really need heart medication for.

Dunkirk Prologue Playing Before Kong Skull Island

The Mix

I hope this is a good blend of real-world war stories, action films, and some surprises. No doubt you're already populating your own list with Black Hawk DownRescue Dawn and a hundred more.

If you're really looking to branch out, consider that Dunkirk is only about 70 kilometers away from a little town called Bruges. Just saying. The guidebook says it's a must-see.