In 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is based on the famous anti-war novel of the same name, set during World War I, the so-called War to End All Wars.

The Variety review for the film stated: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word ‘war’ is taken out of the dictionaries.”

Neither the book nor the film prevented World War II.

Bad Wars and Good War Movies

War is by its very nature a high-drama enterprise. The stakes are not only life and death, but the fate of nations. It is natural for filmmakers to be drawn to stories set during war.

However, war is absolutely awful. As the book and documentary series Five Came Back recently showed, filmmakers who have experienced war firsthand are profoundly changed, perhaps even traumatized.

Even filmmakers who never served — say Steven Spielberg with Saving Private Ryan or Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now or Stanley Kubrick with Full Metal Jacket — are wary of making movies that glorify war.

You might think they succeeded. Those movies are full of moments that are gorey and grim. However, these are also popular films among American soldiers. The action spikes adrenaline. And the heroes (mostly) live to fight another day.

Even outside of war movies, films where the heroes fail to triumph are rare, and rarely commercial. However, most filmmakers don’t want to make pro-war propaganda films. The question is how to make war exciting, but also futile; how to make soldiers heroes, but not heroic. Vietnam, as a “bad war,” allowed filmmakers to make films lionizing individual soldiers even as they condemned war.

World War II is more tricky. The Nazis could not be a better villain if Hollywood had designed them themselves. First, there are the uniforms with those striking angular swastikas. The SS even wore black with skull symbols. Second, they were clearly the aggressors, taking over their sovereign neighbor countries. Finally, they committed genocide on an industrial scale. (This gives us the genre of the Holocaust film, which I would rather keep as a separate category.) We are going to root for anyone fighting against Nazis, even if they are a dirty dozen of otherwise rather odious individuals.

World War II’s European theater is where filmmakers go for a strong ‘good guys vs. bad guys’ narrative. The problem is, it is very easy to tip over into glorifying war itself, not just defeating Hitler.

The filmmakers behind Hacksaw Ridge took the approach of having a central hero who is steadfastly opposed to violence. Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) is a medic who achieves glory by saving people rather than killing them. Perhaps unfortunately for the intentions of the filmmakers, the viral sequence from the film is not one where Dawes rescues wounded soldiers, it is the aria of guts that comes before: the battle between US Marines and Japanese forces for control of the titular ridge.

Christopher Nolan’s Dilemma

As far as I can tell, Dunkirk offers an original answer to the dilemma of how to make a war movie that is crowd-pleasing yet doesn’t glorify war. Writer-director Christopher Nolan, a Brit, chooses a famous turning point in Britain’s story of the war, but one that has the unusual quality of being a ‘victory in defeat’.

Before the Americans joined in the war, the British and their French allies were backed up against the ocean at the port of Dunkirk, just across the channel from England. Thanks to a civilian boat rescue, the majority of the troops were able to retreat to fight another day.

While some military historians posit this was a massive German strategic failure, the film itself offers a different take. The Nazis, averse to risking ground troops, preferred to pick the troops off from the air and from artillery. This is a plausible reading, and it makes the story about a British success rather than a German failure.

In fact, except for perhaps some silhouettes at the very end, when Tom Hardy’s pilot character is captured, we never see the Germans in Dunkirk. They are, rather, a faceless, relentless force of nature.

That’s because movie itself behaves more like a disaster film than a traditional war movie. The military goal is evasion, not capture. Aside from the dogfights between the airplanes, there is no actual firing back at the enemy. Even with the dogfights, the goal is defensive: to take out the German bombers before they attack the British ships and soldiers. Our heroes in Dunkirk, like those in The Towering Inferno or San Andreas, are simply trying to survive.

The British soldiers, upon returning to England, are greeted as heroes. They don’t feel like heroes, but are told that surviving is enough. Even Winton Churchill’s great patriotic “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech is undercut in the film. Earlier, we learn that it was Churchill who refused to send navy boats for the rescue, not wanting to put his precious navy at risk. That is why the civilian boats were pressed into service.

Dunkirk also manages to combine three anti-war tropes into a single storyline. A soldier played by Cillian Murphy suffers from ‘shell shock’ aka PTSD (1). At one point he lashes out, causing a lethal blow to the head of a cabin boy played by Barry Keoghan. I’d categorize this under ‘friendly fire’ (2). Finally, when the story of this boy is told in the papers, the true circumstances of his death are covered up and he is hailed as a hero. This shows media complicity in promoting war (3). All of these tropes are direct criticisms of pro-war narratives.

Finally, Nolan and his team show that, as heroic as this episode might have been, the British were rather cruel to their French allies. They mistreat a fellow soldier (Aneurin Barnard) when they find out he is French. They wait until all the British troops are evacuated from the beaches before allowing the French to evacuate.

And yet, and yet… for all this careful, clever subversion of pro-war elements, Dunkirk is not being viewed as an anti-war film. I have seen no reviews about how this film has made viewers wish for peace in Afghanistan or Korea. I have seen many reviews extolling the heroism and stiff upper lip of the wartime Britons. That’s the original propaganda narrative. It’s not untrue — there was a great deal of admirable bravery in the evacuation from Dunkirk. But as the film worked very hard to show, it co-existed alongside desperation, death and misery.

The Flog of War

Christopher Nolan and company threaded a very thin needle with Dunkirk. In terms of audience reaction, it seems they struck the right balance between positive and negative portrayal of war. The negative elements may in fact have helped the believability of the positive ones.

As of writing, the box office for Dunkirk stands at $380M. It is the highest grossing live-action non sequel of the year. It is a masterful achievement in filmmaking that is sure to receive many award nominations. No one can accuse Nolan and company of not succeeding on a grand scale both commercially and artistically.

But I have a nagging feeling that word ‘war’ will be staying in the dictionary.