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.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Nolan was heavily influenced by Saving Private Ryan, even borrowing Steven Spielberg’s own print of the film to study, but it’s this other Best Picture-nominated World War II movie from 1998 that seems a closer relative to Dunkirk despite focusing on the Pacific campaign instead of on Europe. Based on James Jones’s novel and directed by Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line similarly employs a nonlinear structure and follows a bunch of characters without any one of them being the protagonist.
While Nolan doesn’t seem to be discussing Malick’s work in connection to his latest, he has mentioned being a fan in the past. “It’s one of the few films I’ve seen that, even though it’s based on a book, could only really be done in cinema,” he’s quoted as stating. “It’s just the essence of cinematic storytelling. It has a hypnotic quality where the viewer’s relationship with the photography, and the sound particularly, creates narrative points; it creates emotions that drive the narrative. These things are created by the combination of picture and sound rather than the dialogue.” That sounds descriptive of Dunkirk, as well, save for the based on a book part (although there are books about its subject matter, sure).
War of the Worlds (2005)
Since I’m skipping Saving Private Ryan, here’s another Spielberg movie that I also think is more akin to Dunkirk. The whole drive of Nolan’s movie is survival, particularly for the soldiers in the land-centered “The Mole” segment. There’s a lot of running and hiding and eluding and escaping danger. There’s not a lot of confrontation of the enemy, at least not on the ground, and that’s the same with this adaptation of the H.G. Wells sci-fi novel. Tom Cruise and his family (Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin) are just running away and attempting to stay alive during an alien invasion.
There are sequences that even seem like parallels between Dunkirk and War of the Worlds, though I doubt Nolan was informed by this Spielberg movie. When Cruise and his kids are waiting with tons of others to get onto a ferry, they’re like the lines of soldiers awaiting a ship at Dunkirk, and in both cases the vessel is destroyed by the enemy. When Cruise and daughter are hiding out in a farmhouse basement, it’s similar to when the “Mole” characters are stowed in a boat on the beach while unseen Germans shoot at it. Both films keep moving intensely at a pace that make me feel like I’m going to have a heart attack.
United 93 (2006)
I’ve seen a lot of people comparing Dunkirk to United 93, Paul Greengrass’s intense 9/11 movie depicting what happened to the hijacked United Airlines flight that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania that day. It’s another pick that I doubt Nolan was thinking of at all during the making of his movie, and there is a big difference between a tragedy being turned into an action movie less than five years later and an oft-depicted event of World War II being presented on screen again 77 years after it happened.
Still, the comparison makes sense, as with both movies the disaster is treated respectfully and is viscerally experienced and not necessarily for thrills (never mind Nolan’s quote in People that he wanted “to give people a really intense ride”). As viewers, we witness the intense action and devastating true story too closely and realistically and sensorily for it to be fun or entertaining. We feel like we’re there, which is terrifying but satisfying in terms of our need to comprehend the situation as a virtual first-hand history lesson.
The last time the Dunkirk evacuation was depicted on screen, I believe, was in this acclaimed adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel of the same name. And boy what a very different take it is. Joe Wright gives us an amazing single-take walk through, alongside James McAvoy, of soldiers on the beach and enjoying amusement rides and singing on grounded ships and drinking in a bar. Which movie gives a more accurate picture? I think both are viewed as truthful, with some exceptions, and just have differing focal interests.
Atonement is in general a very distinctive sort of World War II movie compared to Dunkirk, and not just because it only gives us a brief portrayal of the event that makes up the entirety of Nolan’s latest. It’s a melodramatic romance story first and foremost, set during the war rather than about or of it, as McAvoy is separated from his love and is not so much trying to run away from the enemy as he is just trying to get home to her. Both movies do offer non-chronological plotting, though, with multiple scenes replayed from various characters’ perspectives.