The only way to create empathy for the soldiers in ‘Dunkirk’ without interrupting the tension is to show their character through the decision they make to survive.
I am a long time fan of war movies and television series like From Here to Eternity or Band of Brothers for many reasons. Drama in a chaotic setting is pretty much the formula to a good plot, but something war movies always need is great characters. The events of WWII are not special, having been visited many times already, and so it lies on the specific stories of the characters in a war movie to capture the audience.
The lives and loves of the characters before the war are often incorporated into the plot because it’s an easy tool to gain the audience’s empathy. If you hear a soldier talk about the family he has waiting at home, you’re more likely to care if he survives through the movie–or mourn him if he doesn’t. Flashbacks and monologues about home seem to fit in most war movies because they can benefit from the relief in tension. There is usually the main event the film is building up to. Delaying that with character building and temporarily taking us out of the chaotic atmosphere is normal.
However, Christopher Nolan’s latest movie Dunkirk does not–and can not–follow the rules of typical war movies. The main event is the entire movie. While Nolan does take us out of one anxiety-filled situation, he only transports us to another dire circumstance. The film relies on a constant supply of tension. Taking the viewer out of the situation to build upon a character wouldn’t work for the type of film Nolan constructs. That certainly limits the amount of time the film can spend on developing a character, but Nolan does it with genius from a writing standpoint. Those small decisions the characters make to survive and save others show more about the kind of people the characters are than any flashback could.
Fionn Whitehead’s character is presented as the protagonist of the movie, starting out and ending the film. His first decision that gives us insight on his character is when he helps the soldier, Gibson played by Aneurin Barnard, finish burying another soldier. Tommy trusts that Gibson is a British soldier burying one of his friends who died, a naive outlook as we’ll see later. He agrees to help him without ever saying a word of dialogue. Circumstances continue to bring them together when they try to save a wounded man on the beach, sneak on a boat intended for the wounded, and are trapped in another boat under fire.
Tommy is certainly interested in his own well-being. He’s cunning and quick to judge a situation, but he doesn’t neglect the chance to help a soldier if he can for most of the movie. Surviving is important, but he still maintains the outlook that right and wrong still matter in times of war, even after several near-death experiences. His small efforts to help the other soldiers make the audience hope he survives to the end of the movie.
It isn’t until the group of soldiers is forced to make one leave the shelter of their boat that Tommy’s morals are challenged. Alex (Harry Styles) outs Gibson as a French soldier, proving Tommy’s instincts to be wrong. Even after the French soldier’s identity is revealed, Tommy still doesn’t want to sacrifice him. It’s wrong, but he then realizes it’s necessary to survive. This choice affects him for the rest of the movie and in his mannerisms in the final scenes, it’s obvious it will affect him for the rest of his life. He develops and changes throughout the movie despite the very small time frame.
Gibson suffers a heartbreaking death. The soldier Tommy meets in the beginning of the film is a smart and observative character who’s goal is to quietly survive the events of Dunkirk until he meets Tommy.
After Tommy helps him bury the soldier on the beach, they continue to help each other survive for a good portion of the movie. Gibson is always looking for a way out, as he does on the boat before the torpedo hits. Possibly the smartest character in the movie, he is also the character labeled as a coward by the other soldiers. Just as the other character’s in the movie, he does all he can to survive, even if that means changing his identity. He stills helps other men survive in the process, by opening the ship door to let Tommy and Alex escape and throwing them the rope on the rescue boat afterward. All this effort doesn’t matter to them once it’s revealed that he isn’t British, but French.
His decision–in Don Draper fashion–to deceive Tommy and the other soldiers in order to escape Dunkirk. That definitive action shows how much fear war can inspire. Despite stealing someone’s identity, we as an audience know that sacrificing Gibson is wrong, just as Tommy believes, but a reality of war. That didn’t stop me from crying when he died, though.
Sadly, that’s the only name IMDb gives for Cillian Murphy’s character as the soldier that Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and George (Barry Keoghan) rescue from the ocean. From the moment they find him, Murphy’s character is obviously a troubled soldier. Thankfully, he never details his experience aside from telling the boys he was hit by a U-boat. His actions don’t make sense to the boys on the boat who haven’t seen what war does to men.
He is terrified to go back to Dunkirk and doesn’t care about Mr. Dawson’s ambitions to save the rest of the men on the beach. Desperate to survive and scared to die, like many of us would be, he attacks Mr. Dawson to get him to turn around the boat. He knocks George down the steps in the process, busting his head open. The soldier feels awful about hurting George and asks if he will be okay twice throughout the rest of the movie. When Peter tells him George won’t be okay, he breaks down in tears. His regret is evident to Peter, who hides George’s death from him later on. Despite the soldier’s responsibility for George’s death, it’s hard not to want him to survive still, knowing that his actions are partly because of what he’s been through.
After Tommy and Gibson save him from a sinking boat, Alex joins the two as they navigate the beach and waters to survive. He is more perceptive than Tommy when it comes to judging the French soldier, pointing out his uneasiness on the boat before it sinks. He also thinks it odd that the soldier hasn’t said a single word since they met.
Unlike Tommy, Alex isn’t afraid to sacrifice others to survive. He shows no mercy for Gibson when the boat is under attack. He resents the strategy to survive by deceiving others. At odds with Tommy’s (and maybe even the audience’s) morals, Alex’s character provides drama to the situation. His hatred for Gibson and willingness for him to die shows his jaded personality while feeding the tension in that particular scene. He’s the closest thing to a specific antagonist the film has in this moment.
Alex’s character is complicated still when he shows a gentleness in the civilian boat. Peter yells at the men, including Alex, filtering into the lower deck after being saved to be careful with George, Peter’s dying friend. When Alex tells Peter that George is dead, Peter orders him to be even more careful then. Alex lays a sheet over George’s body and gently moves him aside to make room for the other soldiers. That scene where he honors and respects George’s body is a startling contrast to the last time the audience sees him willingly allowing Gibson to drown. where he allows Gibson to drown is a startling contrast. Alex’s decisions show the kind of person he is and the kind of people he values. He may not seem like a great person in the film, but a great character to have in a story.
Possibly the most dramatic scenes are with George, the young boy who makes a rash decision to go with Mr. Dawsona and Peter into war. Ambitious and naive, George is desperate to do something great. After he is injured, he confesses to Peter that deciding to join him to rescue these men was the best thing he’s ever done. George’s decision to jump on board shows how heroic he wanted to be and how unprepared he was for what it would take.
This makes his death all the more devastating. The boy who wanted to do good didn’t even get to experience the rescue of all the men from the burning sea in the end. He did have a hand in saving the soldier that killed him, however.
The characters in Dunkirk may seem to be limited to the situation, but their actions to survive prove that they are people far beyond Dunkirk. Each having their own grounds for the decisions they make, Nolan creates interesting characters within the confines of the event. The actions that define the characters also contribute to the tension and suspense of the movie, its driving force. Without any flashbacks or extensive character building, Dunkirk provides the amplified situation and the characters we want to survive those circumstances.