Continue with more depictions of the Dunkirk evacuation and other mostly intense recommendations.
If you did your assigned homework before seeing Christopher Nolan‘s Dunkirk, you’ve already watched one movie about the same battle and even with the same title. Well, there are others (with different names), and the more you watch, whether dramatic re-creation or documentary, the greater the picture you’ll have of what that evacuation was like. Nolan’s version, especially in IMAX, makes you feel like you’re there, but it doesn’t provide much historical information about the Miracle at Dunkirk.
In addition to the many war movies worth checking out after Dunkirk, Nolan has also named and discussed a number of influences on the movie, including Greed, The Battle of Algiers, Chariots of Fire, and Alien, that he’s curated for a BFI screening series this month. They all could be considered suggested viewing, titles recommended if you like his latest. I’ve put just one of them on my own list of picks inspired by the new World War II epic below. No, none of the others are Morgan Spurlock’s One Direction: This is Us.
Cameramen at War (1943)
While Dunkirk makes you feel like you’re at war, a lot of nonfiction works were produced during World War II that actually put you in the midst of battle. There are the many celebrated US propaganda docs (my favorite, John Ford’s The Battle of Midway, has at least one shot that feels truly like the work of an endangered filmmaker), but now is the time to also spotlight the British equivalents, like Oscar nominee Listen to Britain and winner The True Glory, as well as this less-honored short.
Cameramen at War isn’t a film embedded in battle, but rather recognizes those filmmakers risking life during the war to capture footage for documentaries and newsreels. Among those highlighted is Charles Martin, who was there at Dunkirk filming the land, sea, and air. One of his shots, showing the beach from a naval ship, is included (you can also see that and more of his coverage separately). The film, which itself plays like a newsreel, is available on its own via Periscope Film or as part of the Criterion Collection’s release of Overlord.
One of Nolan’s admitted influences on Dunkirk is Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, for its “portrayal of the downing of a plane at sea.” That’s a good one, but I thought more about this later World War II-set drama that solely takes place on a lifeboat in the North Atlantic. Similar to Nolan’s movie, it involves a mix of civilians and servicemen and tensions between strangers. The confined characters of Lifeboat are all survivors of a torpedo attack, and here one of them actually is a German soldier.
While far more dialogue-driven than Dunkirk and not nearly as cinematic, Hitchcock’s movie is still riveting and often intense for being so much tighter in scope. The idea for Lifeboat was conceived by “The Grapes of Wrath” author John Steinback after he returned from the war, but his intention, originally for a short story, was to have it represent a microcosm of the world. Of course, Hitchcock changed a lot of the idea, and Steinbeck wound up wanting to remove his credit. Interestingly enough, he wound up with a screenwriting Oscar nomination anyway.
The Wages of Fear (1954)
Nolan apparently watched a number of intense action movies ahead of making Dunkirk, including some surprising titles curated for the BFI series, like Jan De Bont’s Speed (a “ticking-clock nail biter”) and Tony Scott’s Unstoppable (“relentless”), both of which involve vehicles that can’t be slowed down let alone halted. There’s none of that sort of scenario in Nolan’s movie, but he was clearly inspired by their suspense and their never-decelerated pacing. Also on his programmed crop of influences is this much earlier French film that is not as well-known today.
Nolan calls it an “established classic of tension,” in his own endorsement, which is more fact than opinion. There is no convoluted villainous plot here, no unlikely accident, just the task of transporting nitroglycerine by truck on rough mountain roads. You know, the most dangerous job possible outside of maybe wartime military work. And in a movie like The Wages of Fear, there’s no Hollywood guarantee that our heroes will make it through their tense scenario alive. If you’ve never seen this, do so right away by streaming it on FilmStruck if you’re not sure about buying it sight unseen with the below link. And read more about it in this great showcase from Rob Hunter.
Battle of Britain (1969)
If you want to follow Dunkirk with a sort of sequel, a movie about the subsequent Battle of Britain, which is hinted at in Nolan’s movie, will do. There’s Frank Capra’s Battle of Britain installment of his propaganda doc series Why We Fight and there’s Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, which has Ben Affleck participating in a decent segment on the campaign defending England. But I prefer this action film from four-time James Bond movie director Guy Hamilton (at the time, though, he’d just done Goldfinger).
Aesthetically and tonally, Battle of Britain does not go with Dunkirk, so don’t expect it to at all. But the movie opens with a shot of the beach at Dunkirk and newsreel voiceover exposition stating that this story is what came next. It also co-stars Michael Caine, whose voice is heard in Nolan’s movie during the “Air” segment. Here he plays a RAF squadron leader during the still-impressive and relatively authentic dogfight sequences combining actual Spitfire planes and models (they’re so great the footage was re-used in other movies, including Midway, Das Boot, Hope and Glory, and Top Secret! — plus audio was used on Pink Floyd’s The Wall album). Also among its all-star cast are Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, and a young Ian McShane as a novice pilot.