Christopher Nolan is known for many things – practical effects, long runtimes and visual mastery being chief among them – but he could never before be accused of a lack of dialogue in his movies. On the contrary, he’s a writer-director whose back catalogue tends to lean toward the more verbose. That being the case, it’s interesting to learn that Nolan originally sought to bring Dunkirk to the big screen without a script.
This initial plan never came to pass, however – apparently due to the intervention of producer Emma Thomas. The screenplay that eventually led to the film now on release is a relatively slim 76 pages, and has just been published – accompanied by a transcribed discussion between Nolan and his brother Jonathan, which reveals the thought process behind the director’s original idea.
“I got to a point where I understood the scope and movement and the history of what I wanted the film to address, because it’s very simple geography. I said, ‘I don’t want a script. Because I just want to show it,’ it’s almost like I want to just stage it. And film it.”
These are interesting comments, as they indicate a high level of confidence in his own research, on the part of Nolan. It’s also a demonstration of the depths to which he has immersed himself in the subject matter, before taking his project before the cameras. But, there’s another aspect to this statement which becomes clear when seen in the context of both criticism of the movie and comments made in its defence.
While the film has been positively received, it has faced commentary regarding its apparent exclusion of the four companies of Royal Indian Army Service Corps, who served on the beaches of Dunkirk during this historic event. Additionally, little or nothing is seen of the soldiers from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria – among other countries – who are known to have played vital roles in the way in which this unprecedented rescue mission played out.
Those defending the movie against these accusations of whitewashing often cite the fact that this is a work of narrative fiction – and that the filmmaker was inevitably obliged to ‘pare down’ history for the purpose of the film – which apparently means excising the minority to centre the majority. This is where these comments from Nolan himself come in – because if he was to simply “stage it, and film it,” without a script, then surely the presence and contribution of those several hundred Indian Army soldiers would have been acknowledged. The fact that it was determined that a scripted film was the preferred way forward led to the narrative choices seen in Dunkirk being made – specifically, what to include, and what to leave out. As a result, the discussion about proper representation of who was actually on the beach at Dunkirk continues.
Elsewhere in the conversation, Christopher Nolan expanded further upon his wish to approach Dunkirk in a way that is very different to his previous work.
“I felt like I’d kind of mastered that [dialogue-based] form…”
If this indicates a desire on Nolan’s part to spread his creative wings and try alternative styles – feeling that he’s “mastered” the art of making films heavy in character-based exposition – than it certainly does suggest that there’s reason to be very excited about future projects from the writer-director. In the meantime, Dunkirk can currently be seen in cinemas worldwide.