In Britain’s new war films, it’s not really about the enemy

There’s been a lot of interest lately about what it might mean to be British. Two recent war films, “Dunkirk” and “1917”, dig into this question but rather than coming up with confident answers, they imply that a once-influential notion of Britishness is lost and adrift.

These films are set in northern France, on that fertile coastal strip where England and then Britain have fought wars for several hundred years. In both films, the British Army is on the verge of a catastrophic defeat which can only be averted by last-minute acts of bravery by individuals.

Both films are made by British-born directors (Christopher Nolan and Sam Mendes) whose Hollywood hits allow them to command huge resources for what seem to be passion projects. Both films strive for authenticity, for instance in the soldiers’ handling of their weapons and kit. Their leads are skilled, little-known actors who seem chosen for their period faces and lack of baggage.

Both films feature cameos by famous (mostly) British actors who perform variations on a theme of early 20th century (mostly officer-class) British maleness against a huge, alienated landscape: the grey-blue waters and skies of the Channel in “Dunkirk” and the bombarded wilderness of the Western Front in “1917”. This is a maleness reared on Empire. It wants to get the job done and to keep its upper lip stiff, but it seems dwarfed and beleaguered by the violent chaos all around. Yet there is no rebellion, just a dogged or bewildered acquiescence.

These films are unusual in their genre for taking little interest in combat. German planes are seen in the sky, but mostly in the middle distance, and German infantrymen only rarely and fleetingly appear. Both films imbue their landscapes with a dread whose essence is that the enemy have gone away for now, but might suddenly come back.

Such cinematic grandeur implies big statements, but neither film has much new to say about the horror of war. Nor are they much interested in the bigger picture of strategy and planning, unlike the star-studded, rather clunky epics which were on British television during Nolan and Mendes’ childhoods (such as “The Longest Day” or “A Bridge Too Far”) and which signposted their drama with scenes of officers on both sides looking at tabletop maps or shouting orders down phones.

Both “1917” and “Dunkirk” also shy away from the main attraction of the traditional battle film, which is the visceral thrill of close-quarter violence (think of “Saving Private Ryan”). Fights are few, brief, effortful and clumsy. Although both films do dabble in the language of heroism and national pride, what they mostly show are lonely, fearful men trying to navigate an intolerable situation.

So why were these films made now? There’s always been a fascination in British mainstream culture with the world wars (actually a fascination with some aspects and a selective forgetting of others). The centenary of the First World War has stoked up this fascination but it’s ambivalent and often politicised, like the debate about Britishness of which it is part. Some see these wars as expressing a lost national character which must be revived (though which nation, Britain or England?) but there’s also a general awareness that the First was a national tragedy while the Second marked the start of the end for Britain as a world power. Now even the future of Britain as a single state is cloudy.

Mendes and Nolan seem uncertain themselves about exactly what they want to commemorate.  In an apparent attempt to cover over this uncertainty they both resort to the same device towards the end of their films, which is to slather Elgar-esque or Vaughan Williams-esque classical music over scenes implying that their heroes might still be able, after all, to return to normality. There is ambiguity – can these men really go back, after the damage that has been done to them? But these scenes still seem over-determined and sentimental compared to the random cruelty of what has gone before.

Neither film offers catharsis. Disaster has been averted and some soldiers have got away, but the war grinds on and the enemy are barely even in sight. You can end up feeling that what you’ve actually been watching is a particular imagining of British maleness past and present – thoughtful, rather strait-laced, not consciously chauvinistic but wanting to belong to something – suddenly finding itself on hostile ground and wondering how the hell to get home.

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