Dunkirk: When A Score Nearly Sinks A Film
Right, let me start by saying the following:
- Dunkirk is a visual marvel taking the idea of a war movie onto the next level in terms of scale, vision, and ambition
- Christopher Nolan is an outstanding director.
- Hans Zimmer is a gifted film composer whose approach to scoring has taken the art form to unchartered territory.
In a similar way to Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13”, Christopher Nolan has managed to create suspense and drama even if we know the ending. But, with the absence of any plot complexity, context or any character development, Nolan chose to rely upon his trusted collaborator Hans Zimmer to create what I would humbly describe as a score of sound design rather than music. It shakes us in our seats as the sound of the Rolls-Royce powered Spitfires fly through the skies or when enemy bombers hit their targets. It is sound that aims to transport us into the characters and scenery we see with our own eyes and feel what they feel. But, at times it is feels like sensory overload, distracting us (or at least me) from the film. How did the soldiers find themselves trapped on Dunkirk beach? How many civilian boats come to their aid? Why were there only 2 British bombers? Why was there one Frenchman trying to get to England? Whilst the film doesn’t really try to answer these questions, Nolan’s focus is to create an immersive experience, designed to make us feel how it might have been to actually be on that beach under that oppressive sky. In that context, one can understand why music and sound are so prominent.
Yet, and I’ve written about this in past blogs, whilst I’m the first to jump for joy that music’s role is so prominent in a film and that it’s a much talked about topic too, there are times when the lack of score would have had a much greater impact. In 110 minutes, Zimmer uses a tool named “Shepard Tone” where the illusion of a slow and steady rise in pitch is created without ever going out of range. He does it perfectly as one feels a gradual crescendo of sound from start to finish. I don’t recall a moment in the entire film when there is a pause in the score. Perhaps the use of sound is inspired from past movies like The Godfather’s famous café scene where the sound of the subway builds to the climax, but Nolan and Zimmer have taken music and sound to the next level by engulffing the entire film . Moreover, only 10 minutes of the entire film features music with a melody - an awe-inspiring arrangement of Elgar’s Nimrod from the “Enigma Variations” by the very talented composer, Benjamin Wallfisch. So, can we really say the score for “Dunkirk” is music in its traditional sense?
Creatively, Nolan and Zimmer have a great mutual understanding of music’s role in their films but I think too much of it is at times distracting.
As an example (no spoiler alert here), in the early moments of the film, we witness 2 soldiers carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher. They are running across the beach, carrying the weight of another human being, pushing themselves through the thousands of soldiers crammed on the pier hoping to catch the one ship before it sets sails. Throughout this sequence, we hear repetitive quavers played by strings to build the tension, depicting the running steps across the beach or their heartbeats beating faster and faster. Yet, had we been left to hear the sound of these exhausted, terrified, brave soldiers, we would have felt their struggle just as much. In another WW2 drama, “Band of Brothers” take this scene with Captain Winters leading a charge. Watch and listen. No music, no enhanced sound design. It still looks and sounds terrifyingly authentic. The series does have a wonderful score by Michael Kamen and sound design to accentuate the horrors of war but never to the point of sensory overload.
Nolan made his own artistic decision for the score’s role and there will be many who will love it. Art is, of course very subjective and no one should judge it or compare it, but I do believe music's role in film should be as an accompaniment. Let the sights and sounds of the characters create the emotional landscape even if there is no dialogue. Unlike European films, Hollywood tends to fear silence, and hence used music to fill gaps in dialogue. Nevertheless, Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan have created a film that will sit high within the pantheon of WW2 films, and will also be talked about for years to come, fuelling healthy debate on music and its role in film. And for that alone, I hope this immense collaboration between a great filmmaker and composer evolves for many years and movies to come. I also hope the brave re-working of Elgar’s Nimrod fuelling the film’s climax will be the piece most loved and talked about from the film’s score. It gave me Goosebumps, which is what any filmmaker, composer or music supervisor hopes to create when marrying music with visuals.