Exploring The Understated Heroism Of '1917' And 'Dunkirk'

Oscars season is a time of the movie-going year unlike any other, seemingly mandating that film aficionados draw imaginary lines in the sand pitting certain works, both past and present, against each other in an occasionally insightful – though oftentimes frustrating – spectacle. Do you think Taika Waititi's Best Picture nominee Jojo Rabbit goes so far as to make a mockery of sensitive (and unfortunately timely) issues while Terrence Malick's much less mainstream A Hidden Life deserved the latter's accolades? There's likely a viral-ready tweet for that. Itching to examine all the ways that Todd Phillips' Joker exposes both the strengths and weaknesses of the class commentary in Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite? That's already been fodder for some interesting reviews.With 1917, directed by Sam Mendes, comparisons to another recent film from a similarly accomplished and distinctive filmmaker came flooding in even as early as its very first trailer, having only increased in fervor since its release. That movie, of course, is Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, a fairly obvious parallel that strengthens its own case when considering how much Mendes himself has encouraged those correlations through his last several films.What most sets Dunkirk and 1917 apart from other would-be pairings, however, is in how their inextricably linked subject matter goes far beyond mere surface-level similarities or reductive hot takes. Even with such notable differences in nuts-and-bolts filmmaking (perhaps exact opposites, in fact) and the depiction of two vastly disparate World Wars, both narratives feature purposefully grounded perspectives that are wielded to powerful effect. Despite being billed as ostensible war epics, both commit to premises based on preventing further bloodshed. And most intriguingly, Mendes and Nolan take pains to zero in on a particularly overlooked brand of heroism – the subtle, anonymous, understated kind that can add up to make the biggest difference.

Different Form, Similar Function

Arguably more so than anything else at their disposal, the use of the camera itself in war films tends to be a filmmaker's greatest tool (weapon?) in telling their story as efficiently and with as much clarity as possible in the midst of such chaos.For Dunkirk, consequently, Christopher Nolan turned to trusted director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Spectre, Ad Astra, and Nolan's upcoming Tenet) while 1917 found Sam Mendes reunited with industry legend Roger Deakins, whose body of work clearly speaks for itself. In their boldest feat of editing since navigating the complex "dream layers" in Inception, Nolan and frequent collaborator Lee Smith carefully threaded together three storylines initially separated not only by space, but by time itself – with each set on land, sea, and air playing out respectively over the course of a week, a day, and an hour. Fascinatingly, Mendes also recruited the same editor in Smith to stitch together the digitally-enhanced "one-shot" technique of 1917, eschewing traditional editing in favor of the singular challenges that come with recreating a (nearly) continuous experience.Where both of these wildly differing approaches manage to succeed is in the manipulation of tension and suspense, all in service of their complementary messages on heroism.With Dunkirk, every cut arrives loaded with meaning and intent. The first eight minutes establish "The Mole" as our foundation, following Fionn Whitehead's soldier Tommy as our main point-of-view character waiting for rescue amid dire circumstances on Dunkirk beach. We're then briefly introduced to the developing situations both at sea with Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter, and their young deckhand George on their yacht as civilians pressed into evacuation duty, and in the air as pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins oversee the defense from their twin Spitfire aircraft. Each check-in between storylines builds to complete three arc structures on the smallest scale only to cut away at the midpoint of their mini-climax, a fine-tuned trick that steadily increases in frequency as all three timelines get closer to converging and the individual stakes meld together into one like an emotionally-heightened rising tide.Nolan also draws thematic power in either cleverly juxtaposing or directly paralleling certain actions and situations. Notice how Smith's editing cuts back and forth from Collins shot down and at risk of drowning in his sinking plane, to Tommy and his mates trapped in a beached trawler rapidly filling with water as the unseen enemy closes in. Or consider Cillian Murphy's traumatized soldier, marooned on an overturned ship from a German U-boat attack and who, upon rescue by Dawson's yacht, insists on staying out on deck out of fear of future attacks – which neatly foreshadows the similar instinct of "Gibson" later on (days earlier, in terms of timeline), a Frenchman posing as another British soldier, who finds himself among Tommy's group but refuses to join them below decks of their own rescuing Navy ship. This, of course, proves prophetic when an incoming torpedo from a U-boat seals the fate of most of those unfortunate men. Nolan does this all while ensuring that every sequence is deftly linked by a sense of constant rising action – a tactic that both informs and is informed by Hans Zimmer's identical approach with the score.Everything that we're shown – Hoytema's sweeping vistas of endless beaches, choppy seas, and wide-open skies full of danger that dwarf all our protagonists – are equally as important as what we're not – higher-ups, removed from imminent threat, issuing orders from their war-rooms (in stark contrast to Joe Wright's similarly Dunkirk-focused Darkest Hour, even Winston Churchill's presence is relegated to nothing more than a concluding speech recited by Tommy, keeping the focus right where it belongs) or, most tellingly, the faces of the actual Nazi soldiers themselves. After all, a story focused on the smallest acts of courage would hardly be the proper venue to spotlight history's largest figures or most notorious villains.On the opposite end of the spectrum, the storytelling employed in 1917 couldn't be more different in form. Mendes seeks to document every hard-fought step taken by Lance Corporals Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Stanton) and Will Schofield (George MacKay) during their arduous trek through World War I's front lines, all to save the life of Blake's brother and that of 1600 other soldiers unknowingly marching into a German trap the next morning. This is accomplished through the illusion of one (two, really, counting the hard cut to black mid-film) unbroken shot. In place of conveying meaning through pointed transitions or momentum-assisting cuts, we're instead left in the headspace of both leads all throughout their journey – a claustrophobic, almost suffocating structure that is meant to leave us as exhausted and fraught as the characters themselves.Without the benefit of reaction shots to instantly synchronize action and reaction with emotion, the brunt of communication falls even more so upon basic camera movements, lighting, and staging. When a blow to the head renders Schofield unconscious in the second half of the film, the first (and only) example of overt editing reveals that precious hours of daylight have elapsed by the time he wakes up. If that weren't ominous and urgent enough, the surrounding French town of Eucost has since been transformed into a hellish, burning maze rife with hidden threats. It's here where Deakins' contributions shine through most tangibly, painting a gorgeously nightmarish tableau for Schofield to traverse through both deep shadows and intermittent flashes of light cast by flares.But in early scenes in the trenches and in No Man's Land, the narrow geography dictates that the camera either follows Blake and Schofield from the rear or looks back at them from ahead. The former robs us of their crucial facial expressions (though at several key moments, this is consciously used to remind us of the terrible path ahead), which is why the bulk of shots has us observing them from the front. The necessary trade-off means we're deprived of seeing where they're going, but that's precisely the point. The end goal still lies too far ahead in the distance for such a vantage point. All that matters is taking that very next step, which is its very own sort of heroism.

The Power of Perspective

To this point, I've been referring to Christopher Nolan's triptych storytelling in Dunkirk as three different "storylines" or "timelines" for the sake of clarity. For the purposes of truly analyzing the text, however, it would probably be more accurate to delineate them in terms of which character's story is being told – in other words, in terms of perspective - a concept that Sam Mendes picks up and runs with all throughout 1917 as well.Early on in their mission to prevent their army from attacking the retreating Germans and subsequently being massacred, Blake and Schofield repeatedly encounter the same two British biplanes flying overhead on some unknown assignment of their own. In a fortuitous echo of Dunkirk, we're once again confronted with the nature of perspective – except this time, we're forced to passively watch the distant warplanes engage in a dogfight, one that's far more removed though no less noteworthy than any in Dunkirk.When the downed German plane directly impacts the lives of our protagonists – Blake's kindhearted attempt to free the enemy pilot from the flames and get him some water results in his fatal stabbing – it calls to mind the similar intersections between perspectives in Nolan's film. While there isn't ever a point where each of the three truly merge together as one by the end (by design), Nolan forces us to consider the perspectives and points of view multiple times over of otherwise anonymous heroes (with so little spoken dialogue, we are rarely able to keep track of actual character names. This is used to great effect, emphasizing the smallest actions of 'everyman' individuals over rote, nationalist causes). Some are more subtle, such as when Farrier and Collins pass over a nondescript boat on their way to Dunkirk early on. It's nearly half an hour of screen-time later that we recognize what we missed previously, as we witness the same flyover above the yacht from Dawson and George's grounded viewpoint. The more intensive example takes up the bulk of the middle act, as we revisit the same sequence involving Tommy's waterlogged trawler sinking, the Navy minesweeper vessel coming under attack, Farrier attempting to shoot down the German bomber, and Dawson's yacht hauling survivors on board – crosscutting seamlessly from all of their own perspectives at any given moment for maximum effect.Curiously, there are moments in 1917 when the film briefly departs from its strict point-of-view structure and we actually leave Will Schofield's side. One such instance occurs late in the film, when a thoroughly shell-shocked Schofield barely survives his ordeal in Eucost and the following escape downriver. Driven to tears by sheer hopelessness, the haunting sound of a singer's voice brings him to his feet and towards an army regiment gathered around one last display of life and humanity before facing almost certain death in battle. Slumped down in a near-catatonic state, the camera leaves Schofield to fully take in the proceedings and focus on the men – boys, really – who prove to be among the very ones Schofield and Blake were sent to save. The next time this happens, it's following Schofield's frantic dash across the battlefield and his successful plea for Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to call off the attack. Wearied beyond words but still intent on finding Blake's brother, dead or alive, we once again leave Schofield behind to absorb the imagery of the dead and dying in makeshift medical tents – the horrific human toll transformed from theoretical to tangible.Life in the form of a mournful song in the woods, death caused by senseless violence in a war nobody fully understands, and all silently remarked upon by a camera straying ever-so-slightly from its established 'rules' of perspective.

“They Know Where You Were”

These comforting words by Mr. Dawson come at the very end of Dunkirk, with the evacuation a success (not by military definitions, but by lives saved) and hundreds of thousands of men trudging onwards – to home, and to inevitable redeployment. "Where the hell were you!", an irate private accuses Collins, still decked out in his airman's uniform. Dawson's reassurance that those whose lives were saved by Collins' actions both in the air and on Dawson's yacht are well aware and forever grateful, even if others may never know, serves as the thematic lynchpin of not only Dunkirk, but 1917 too.In a direct refutation of most standard war films and conventional Hollywood storytelling in general, neither film is particularly interested in finding the glory and valor of battle amid the carnage. While Dunkirk leaves this mostly unsaid, 1917 features a poignant sequence revolving around Schofield's missing medal from a previous engagement. After admitting that he traded "just a bit of bloody tin" for wine, Blake is taken aback that such a priceless achievement means so little to him. Choking back tears, Schofield implies that he didn't bother saving it as a family heirloom because he fears never making it back to his loved ones at all.Survival is the key, not recognition.This is what both films, at their cores, make convincing cases for – the heroism to be found in the understated, little-known, anonymous acts of bravery among the everyday rank and file.1917 confronts this idea through constant reminders of the pointlessness and futility of the war – a ghostly French doll abandoned amid ruins, a forgotten photograph of a German soldier's wife and child, and certainly all the gruesome corpses, civilian and soldier alike – which makes every moment of kindness and humanity stand out that much more. In addition to Blake's innate selflessness with the German pilot before his death, a Sikh sepoy named Jandalar becomes a much-needed source of altruism after Blake is killed and Schofield hitches a ride with another regiment. Ridden with grief and trauma, Schofield can barely hold himself together while the other soldiers carry on obliviously. When the convoy gets stuck in mud and threatens to delay Schofield's mission even more, Jandalar is among the first to notice the toll this takes on Schofield as he desperately helps push the truck onto dry land again. His softly-queried "Are you alright?" and a sincere parting token of "I hope you get there" once they go their separate ways leave a mark on Schofield, serving as a reminder of virtue and basic human decency. More than anything else, perhaps this display is what reverberates later on when Schofield selflessly offers his food and milk to the French woman and motherless infant in her care that he encounters in the ruins of Eucost.Meanwhile, examples of this theme can be found over and over again baked into the very DNA of Dunkirk. The storyline on the yacht is part and parcel of this: Dawson takes it upon himself to pilot his Navy-requisitioned boat himself and leap into danger when he doesn't have to (as he does when rescuing Collins from drowning in his crashed plane, and again with the survivors of the sunken trawler and minesweeper), and likewise George goes above and beyond in volunteering to stay aboard when he could've easily remained on shore. George's accident and subsequent death at the hands of Cillian Murphy's unnamed, PTSD-wracked "Shivering Soldier" at first seems needlessly cruel, but it provides a stunning moment of empathy and compassion when Peter chooses to hide the truth from the guilty soldier and spare him of further blood on his hands; which isn't to minimize George's actions either, as Peter makes sure to fulfill his last wishes and have his heroism chronicled in their local paper. Tommy and Gibson's exploits also represent this, with Gibson fighting his inclination to flee by opening the hatch of the sinking Naval ship for the trapped and drowning men inside and Tommy (unknowingly) repaying this by standing up for Gibson when the group turns against the Frenchman and demands his sacrifice so the trawler may float and the rest may live. Farrier's actions in his Spitfire across the English Channel and over Dunkirk beach, however, are perhaps the clearest distillation. Compressing his narrative into a single hour heightens the threat of his fuel running out, which makes his agonizing decision to turn around, throw caution to the wind, and engage yet another enemy bomber headed towards the minesweeper all the more exceptional. It's no coincidence, then, that the dual climaxes of the film involve Dawson and Peter narrowly avoiding certain death from an incoming fighter and Farrier, now with no fuel left whatsoever, shooting down another enemy aircraft over Dunkirk that would've finished off the evacuation when it'd only just begun.Indeed, there may not be a more powerful sequence of images in Nolan's entire oeuvre than that of legions of men cheering the heroics of the pilot in the gliding plane overhead, Farrier's safe landing miles away, and his silently resolute capture by the Nazis in front of his burning Spitfire. This fades out from view, a perfectly symbolical grace note to end on just as Tommy's narration of Churchill's speech concludes with "...until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the Old"... except we briefly return to Tommy's pondering face one last time, looking beyond the camera to an uncertain future ahead. A reminder of what's truly at stake.

Final Shots and Final Thoughts

1917 and Dunkirk both end on close-ups of their protagonists; the former as a way to bring Will Schofield (and, in spirit, Tom Blake's) journey full circle to where it began, and the latter to emphatically reiterate Tommy (and the countless troops and dutiful civilians he represents) as the most important perspective of the narrative.It's ironic, then, that both films withstood criticisms stemming from intentional choices that make these concluding images as meaningful as they are. To some, 1917 doesn't adequately capture the horrors of war... but what if it isn't trying to? There's a reason, perhaps, that so much of the story is set in the aftermath of battles rather than the midst of them (with the sole exception being the last act) – consider instead that it's dealing with the terrible cost of war, the ways it changes us, and the ways it simply must not. With Dunkirk, complaints regarding the lack of "character development" or "memorable characters" can't help but ring hollow. The absence of backstory and other traditional shorthand to curry audience investment is purposeful – with so little dialogue or exposition, what's prioritized instead is how individual moments of hope and progression collectively add up to a greater whole.Sam Mendes suggests that succeeding in saving as many men as possible is every bit as praiseworthy as personally delivering the news of a comrade's death to his brother and keeping a promise to write to their mother. What Christopher Nolan emphasizes, especially through one kindly old blind man handing out blankets, is that the mere act of surviving is "enough"... so long as we don't compromise our morals along the way.Whether the Academy Awards see fit to acknowledge it or not can't be helped, but that's exactly the thing about understated heroism – these effective and transcendent messages found in 1917 and Dunkirk are more than capable of speaking for themselves.