Most war movies get the experience of violence wrong.
Ok, that’s hyperbole. But the vast majority of war films get the experience of the violence of modern war wrong. More specifically, the dehumanization of modern war. What do I mean by that? The fact is that most war movies portray war as still existing in the state which Clausewitz described it as after the Napoleonic Wars- a series of duels, carried out on a grand scale. War is merely, to these films, an extenuated series of duels.
Think, for instance, to David Ayer’s film Fury. The main action scene of the movie, the one everyone talks about is a fight between a German Tiger I tank and a trio of American M4A3E8 Sherman tanks. This is a duel. It is, in the end, two sets of men matching wits, attempting to outplay one another in a grand duel to the death, with their lives and honor on the line. The movie can wax lyrical through dialogue all its likes, the experience the audience gets is one of a glorious duel, with glory or honor on the line.
Compare with the later action scenes in Saving Private Ryan. The characters talk about the horrors of war, of the stupidity of their mission, of the futility of it all. And yet what the audience is shown is a duel. The audience is shown Tom Hank’s plan meet the German offensive. The audience is shown courage and valor overcoming the enemy, and it’s shown Tom Hanks making a heroic sacrifice.
Dunkirk is unique among war films that have come out in the last thirty years in that Dunkirk is one of the few which gets the experience of violence correct. Dunkirk’s violence is completely dehumanized. Spoilers below.