Of all the topics in cinema, war is the most challenging. Not only is war a complicated subject matter, historically sensitive, socially heavy and burdensome, it's difficult to portray realistically on screen. How can you make something as bleak as a war into a movie? It takes a master filmmaker to meld the gravity of battle with on-screen storytelling.
With Dunkirk hitting theaters this summer, we're all wondering how Christopher Nolan's daring sense of artistry will play into the historic situation he's chosen to portray. The director admitted to France's Premiere magazine:
It will be my most experimental film.
It's part of the fun to see a creative filmmaker's techniques enhancing the story, especially since war movies in particular often need the extra kick to keep things enjoyable. Through movie history, there has been a wide range of films that broke ground in the areas of stylization and storytelling. Because movies in a specific genre have a habit of influencing the way other movies are produced, there are a number of titles that have helped pave the way for Dunkirk to be a success.
Let's take a look at four specific films and uncover the elements that make these artistic war films work their magic.
1. Saving Private Ryan
As far as war movies go, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is considered the very best. With so many great films out there, ranking them seems a futile gesture, but Saving Private Ryan has one definite standout feature. Throughout the movie's nearly three-hour marathon run time, Spielberg focuses the camera not as readily on massive battles —though there are plenty of those — as he focuses on small moments. What kind of small are we talking about? Not emotionally small, for sure.
Saving Private Ryan is built around the idea that in war, people are still people. Tom Hanks plays a teacher with shaking hands, insecurities, fears to which everyone can relate. By narrowing the focus to the level of each character's struggles, Saving Private Ryan builds a specific kind of aesthetic and offsets the harshness of war. The human elements of the story make it feel more realistic and comforts the audience (as a bonus, Tom hanks gives one of his best performances).
But Saving Private Ryan isn't just important in terms of its emotional structure — there's another defining feature that Dunkirk is borrowing. Nolan says:
The editing was more complicated because there is little dialogue.
Dunkirk's plot is built from situational empathy, not from exposition, which is exactly why Saving Private Ryan worked so well. Both Steven spielberg and Christopher Nolan are adept at communicating high levels of emotion without diving into slow, expository exchanges between characters. They're skilled at bridging the gap between humanity and a movie screen, so we should expect to see the same excellence in Dunkirk that we saw in Saving Private Ryan.
2. American Sniper
As the most recent entry on the list, it's no surprise that American Sniper's artistic expertise comes in the form of modern film techniques. Director Clint Eastwood crafted this smash hit with extra care toward structure, flow and pacing.
The story of sniper Chris Kyle is not a story with a defined first, second or third act. Just like the real account of Kyle's life, it cuts off at an abrupt and unexpected moment. Eastwood relies on Kyle's four tours of service in the Iraq War to act as markers in the story, employing a myriad of sound effects, visual hooks, and smooth cutting to tie everything together. American sniper is a film for a new generation. You won't find the typical plot formulas of Hollywood, but the razor-sharp editing will keep any moviegoer locked to their seat. Most importantly, American Sniper retains the emotional complexities of Chris Kyle's story.
It's taken a long time for film editing to be as sharp as what's utilized in American Sniper, but now that Clint eastwood has set the new standard, we should expect Nolan to follow suit. After all, Dunkirk is already exploring new territory with its dialogue-light plot and narrative. American Sniper acts as a competitor to Dunkirk. Though both films are fundamentally different, there's no doubt they'll be weighed against each other when Dunkirk is released.
3. The Hurt Locker
Movies, whether they're centered on war or not, have the tendency to be, well, movies. They've got the special Hollywood gleam we all love, even if it doesn't always tell the truth. The Hurt Locker strays the furthest from traditional cinematic aesthetic than anything else on this list. Filmed in a documentary style, it builds a claustrophobic, anxious atmosphere. It was the best choice director Kathryn Bigelow could have made, given the subject matter.
The Hurt Locker follows a US bomb squad in the heat of the Iraq War. Named one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, here bomb disposal work is put on full display. The Hurt Locker draws viewers into battle situations in a unique way, keeping cameras tight on moving bodies and forcing the audience to see through the eyes of a soldier.
The hurt locker has stirred controversy over whether the story took too many liberties (and Jeremy Renner's character hasn't held up well), but it didn't win multiple Oscars for nothing. Bigelow improved on Saving Private Ryan's horrifying POV style and created an entirely new aesthetic. Her direction took wartime scenes to new heights and Dunkirk is striving to do the same.
Speaking of the way in which he hopes viewers will connect with his characters in Dunkirk, Nolan said this:
The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it?
Situational empathy. It sounds as though Bigelow's knack for hammering intensity into the very seams of her films would be something we'll see attempted in Dunkirk. While The Hurt Locker is rated R, Dunkirk is working with a PG-13 rating. How bold will it be? Can Dunkirk hold itself at breakneck intensity while staying acceptable for a wider audience?
4. The Book Thief
The Book Thief is a special case. Though the historical novel by Markus Zusak breaks the boundaries of fiction and draws tears from the most unexpected of places, Brian Percival's film adaptation is just as riveting. It brings a new element to the historical fiction genre, and it isn't an element you'd expect.
Set in World War II Germany, The book thief watches the fight from a distance with unexpected eyes. First, the eyes are of a young girl named Liesel. Second, from Death. The Book Thief uses Death, personified as the narrator, and it gives a whole new color to the story. Zusak and Percival opened the door to unconventional narration, succeeded, and taught audiences how to see war from a new perspective.
Like The Book Thief, Dunkirk is told from a unique perspective. Three of them, actually: land, sea and air. How will Nolan's own unconventional narration play into the story? Even with a good handful of plotlines to weave into one, Nolan assured Premiere magazine that it was a simple story. Experimental, like The Book Thief, but simple nonetheless.
Over time, the best directors in film have transformed a topic as polarizing and controversial as war into masterpieces of cinema. They've used camera tricks to drag us into battle, focused on small details to remind us of our humanity, set the bar for splicing together films, and told stories from unlikely perspectives. These films have established higher standards and increased audience expectation. It's a genre that has been explored deeply, but even after countless box office hits, there's much more to uncover. Whether Dunkirk digs into something entirely new or improves on the tricks of other films, there's no doubt it will blow us away.
Dunkirk is released to cinemas on July 21.