Thursday, July 27, 2017

Dunkirk and Mrs. Miniver

Small craft head navigate the Thames to aid the rescue at Dunkirk
I went to see Dunkirk last night and almost left a few times during the first hour. Sitting through the immersive assault and escape from a beach in IMAX 70mm film with the sound turned up too loud was the most punitive experience I'd ever gone through in a movie theater, topping the now infamous opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, but since I was in the hands of another master storyteller and filmmaker, Christopher Nolan, I suspected that the sound was louder for a reason; the same reason the film was shot with three 70mm frames stacked together to create an image that replicates human sight: you are there.
Another reason for not walking out: Dunkirk is a true story, I reasoned that I could sit through the movie from the safety of my comfortable seat since that safety came at the price paid by those who fought for my freedom to sit there. If I could experience a small part of their sacrifice, I would know the cost of my freedom better. This was my chance to experience it as if I could have travelled back in time 75 years.
The scope of Dunkirk is massive: more than 400,000 British troops are evacuating France as the unstoppable German forces drive the Brits into the sea. A mainly French rearguard of 160,000 troops attempt to hold the Germans off while the Brits are forced to deploy over 700 small, private vessels from home to aid the British Navy in the rescue effort 47 miles away from the homeland, across the English channel. 200 vessels, mainly Royal Navy, were sunk in the attempt. A ferocious air battle overhead, and a submarine assault from below making the rescue attempt a gauntlet of suspenseful horror that would drive men mad from the torturous waiting for certain death.
338,000 British and 140,000 French troops were ultimately rescued. The Admiralty had hoped for 45,000 to be saved.
I left the theater awed and a shaken by the experience, a confusing jumble of emotions as I boarded an overcrowded MUNI train, headed for home at rush time. Packed together, I felt a camaraderie I rarely feel when my personal space is invaded, mixed with a lingering sadness and knowledge that I alone on that train felt it was a privilege to be there.
Once home, I went downstairs to my theater, fired up the projector and started Mrs. Miniver, the 1943 film made when the outcome of the war was still uncertain. Mrs. Miniver was a landmark film for it's time, nominated for 11 Academy Awards and one of the highest grossing films of the year. Stylistically speaking, it is as dissimilar to Mr. Nolan's film as a film can get, but as a lens into that time, it is a remarkable achievement. We follow the life of a middle class British family just before war with Germany is declared. Husband and wife attempt to hide their purchases, hers: an extravagant hat, his: a new convertible family car. They will become personally involved in the war: He will pilot their small boat to Dunkirk and she will guard the home while their son, visiting from university, joins the Royal Air Force to fight the Luftwaft in the skies above his home.
As a counterpoint to the "you are there battle" of Dunkirk, the finely crafted Mrs. Miniver fleshes out the human experience of the war in the language of 1943, leaving me with a more complete understanding of what it might have felt to have been alive during World War II.
When the credits for Mrs. Miniver rolled, the emotion that I had felt building for hours burst out of me, as I sat in the dark, unrelenting tears streaming from my eyes.