I want to talk about characters in Dunkirk. Dunkirk lacks one of the classic means that a war movie uses to develop characters, specifically the characters sit around and talk about how the girlfriend they left back at home. I am going to refer to this colloquially as “The Girlfriend Scene.” Many of the people who did not enjoy the film pointed to the lack of “The Girlfriend Scene.”
So, I want to talk about characterization. Specifically, 1 What is characterization in film 2 Do characters matter in film?
1 I want to talk a little bit about how characters are developed. In high school, I read a book called True and False, Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, which is a controversial book about acting by David Mamet. I remember snippets of the book, but one line I remember was “When we say that Abraham Lincoln had character, we don’t mean how he held a handkerchief.” He meant that we talk about how Lincoln reacted in a crisis.
With this in mind, I want to talk about a key scene in the boat. A group of soldiers climb into a beached boat at low tide. They wait for six agonizing hours, enduring unseen soldiers using the boat as target practice, as they wait for the tide to come back in. As the tide comes in, the water leaks through the holes and the soldiers begin to question whether or not the boat will sink. Harry, one of the soldiers, decides to throw a French soldier (who has been posing as a British soldier) off the ship, most likely to his death. Tommy refuses to go along with this, and defends the French soldier.
This interaction between Tommy and Harry actually shows us a great deal about their characters. Tommy is empathetic. He understands that the Frenchman is stowing away with the English out of fear. He also is clearheaded in a crisis. Harry accuses the Frenchman of killing the English soldier he buried and stealing his dog tags. Tommy points out that that would have been unnecessary. “How difficult is it to find a dead Englishman in Dunkirk beach?” Lastly, Tommy has a clear moral code, and that is more important to him than his own survival. Tommy definitely wants to go home (he says that he does) but he also wants to protect an innocent man. When Harry points out that they might die, Tommy says calmly, “That’s the price.” He is willing to risk death than to send someone else to his death.
Harry, however, does not fair so well under pressure. He is very much a foil for Tommy in this scene. He panics under stress. He is also suspicious and judgmental, and perhaps a little xenophobic. He quickly condemns the Frenchman, calls him “a frog” and accuses him of murder. He is realistic about war, stating, “Survival’s not fair.” (The film agrees with him, because Harry survives.) However, he takes this to extremes, caring only for his own survival, even if it means he has to kill other allied soldiers in order to do it. I don’t want to be too hard on Harry, since we don’t know how we would react in this situation, but he is far from the ideal soldier in this moment.
Now, Jeremy Jahns comments that for all we know, the characters could be serial killers back at home. Harry, possibly. But Tommy? Not a chance. We know that, not because he may have a girlfriend back at home, but because of the choices he makes in a difficult situation. That is the correct way to develop a character. Tommy and Harry may not be fully fleshed out characters, but moments like that reveal something far more important than their relationship status or the fact that Tommy wants to eat fish & chips at Blackpool.
2 Do characters matter in film?
This is on surface a very simple question with a simple answer. The simple, short answer is “Yes.” The longer answer is, “Mostly yes, but what do you make of films like Into Great Silence or United 93?
I want to start by talking about Into Great Silence, because I have actually seen this film. Into Great Silence takes place in a Carthusian monastery. Carthusian monks are essentially hermits that live in the same building. Whereas other monks will spend a lot of time together working, praying, eating, or recreating, Carthusian monks do most of these activities alone. They eat Sunday lunch together and spend several hours in recreation on Sunday, and gather together for night prayer. But for the rest of their lives, they spend nearly all of their time alone in their cell.
It goes without saying that in a nearly 3 hour film, there is about only 10 minutes worth of dialogue. I’m probably overestimating that. The rest of it is exactly as the trailer shows. There are silent images of the monks and short scenes of the monks going about their day, praying and working. Yet, critics loved it.
The affect of the film is not to get attached to the characters but to feel immersed in the world. I read in an interview that the title, Into Great Silence, is not a direct translation of the German title. In German, it is The Great Silence. However, the director Philip Gröning said that he prefers the English title, since it more closely matches his intent. He wants the viewer to enter into the experience of these monks.
Now, Into Great Silence is a documentary so it is not a perfect analogy. A better one would be United 93, which I have not yet seen. However, Roger Ebert did, so I am quoting his review.
The director, Paul Greengrass, makes a deliberate effort to stay away from recognizable actors, and there is no attempt to portray the passengers or terrorists as people with histories. In most movies about doomed voyages, we meet a few key characters we’ll be following: The newlyweds, the granny, the businessman, the man with a secret. Here there’s none of that. What we know about the passengers on United 93 is exactly what we would know if we had been on the plane and sitting across from them: nothing, except for a few details of personal appearance.
Scenes on board the plane alternate with scenes inside the National Air Traffic Control Center, airport towers, regional air traffic stations, and a military command room. Here, too, there are no back stories. Just technicians living in the moment. Many of them are played by the actual people involved; we sense that in their command of procedure and jargon. When the controllers in the LaGuardia tower see the second airplane crash into the World Trade Center, they recoil with shock and horror, and that moment in the film seems as real as it seemed to me on Sept. 11, 2001.
My point is that the minimal characterization is nothing new. Christopher Nolan also talked the film The Wages of Fear by Henri-Georges Clouzot, which he screened for the crew before filming. He argued that Clouzot showed people in the middle of physical, dangerous processes and believed that the characters did not need to make a case to the audience through dialogue as to why they shouldn’t die.
Are characters essential? Not really, though it is risky to leave them out. I am curious as to how Dunkirk will feel on Blue-Ray. I don’t think the film will play as well on a small TV screen as it does in the big screen. However, the second time I saw the film it was definitely on a smaller screen, and while I missed the bigger screen, I still cried when the boats showed up.