I rarely go out to the movies. We have a 51” TV and are content to watch DVDs or stream films from Netflix, where the Pause button is always handy for refreshment or the reverse, and in cooler weather a nice wood fire offers the contrast between ancient and modern technologies. But on this occasion my volunteer wife decided to take her elderly charge, a Marine Corps veteran named George, to a new film about the 1940 rout and rescue of the British expeditionary force in Belgium, so I tagged along.
The cinema was an Imax theater in the enormous Jordan’s Furniture store in Natick. The Jordan brothers cleverly put their theater at the opposite end of the store from the entrance, thus requiring patrons to march through endless rooms full of gaudy couches, beds, lounge chairs, dining tables, and all the other appurtenances of residential life. The Imax itself sports a large two-story screen for displaying films shot in 70mm ‘film’ (now digital cameras). It also boasts some 12,000 Watts of loudspeaker power, including, according to a preliminary blurb by one of the Jordan brothers talking to us from an immense image, speakers in your Tempurpedic® padded seats, which he called “butt-kickers.” These subwoofers vibrate at low frequencies, including those in the musical score. Since this was a war movie, full of roaring engines, constant bombardment, and explosions, we were subjected for about two hours to involuntary below-the-belt buzzing and jostling. I didn’t hear any complaints, so I suppose it was understood to be part of the ‘experience’, as one might find in a bed in a cheap motel.
“Dunkirk,” itself, the first cinematic telling of this massive defeat and desperate evacuation across the English Channel since a British film in 1958, has opened to enthusiastic reviews. Those that I have read have lauded its realism and deft production, weaving as it does three separate themes or storylines into one tale. In that respect, it is successful; so are the depictions of the dire events of those two days, as the hapless soldiers waiting for transport on the beach are incessantly bombarded by German aircraft, with only intermittant defense from a handful of British Spitfires. The dogfights in the air are terrific, and except for the occasional rescues, almost the only relief from death and drowning.
The other respite comes from our brief acquaintance with the captain and crew of a small private boat. Otherwise, as my wife complained, “There was absolutely no character development.” The film tracks the progress, or lack of it, of one English soldier attempting to escape, and repeatedly failing (the dastardly Germans—who, by the way, are never named: why not?—even bomb a hospital ship), but we learn nothing about this fellow, not even his name. There is almost no dialogue, and even when there is some, it is obscured by the roar of engines and explosions, or muttered in accents unfamiliar to American ears.
All told, this was a noisy large-screen extravagance with little redeeming value, aside from the sad but gallant story that has been told better, and here has to be pieced together from the collage of scenes, which though slickly done, make the viewer struggle to figure out “Where are we now?”
George, the gentleman who my wife accompanied, told her afterward, “That was the worst movie I ever saw.” Maybe the kids who like nonstop action, who can’t be bothered with character development, history, or reflection, will find it exciting. Will they learn anything about the significance of Dunkirk? Our returning, unnamed ‘hero’, reads Churchill’s famous speech (“We shall fight on the beaches. . .”) from a newspaper at the end. But it is not even anticlimactic, just a lame attempt to impart some signifance into what is nothing more than a very large, loud, animated slide show.
UPDATE: See ‘Dudkirk’ (2017) versus ‘Dunkirk’ (1958): Postscripts, HERE.