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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


From the not so good to the great summer war movies

Gerald Schmitz


War Machine (U.S.)
Sand Castle (U.S.)
Churchill (U.K.)
Dunkirk (U.K./Netherlands/France/U.S.)
War for the Planet of the Apes (U.S.)

As faraway battles continue to defeat the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or merely contain the Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan, let’s look at some recent offerings in the ever-popular genre of war movies.

You don’t have to leave home to see two looking back on Afghanistan and Iraq with a jaundiced eye, War Machine and Sand Castle, both streaming on Netflix since early summer. Several others, Churchill and Dunkirk, hark back to dark days of the Second World War. Looking ahead with dystopian dread is the latest in the “planet of the apes” assault on human civilization.

Australian director David Michôd’s War Machine is an uneven affair that draws on journalist Michael Hastings’ account, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Story of America’s War in Afghanistan. At the centre of the action in 2012 is U.S. General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), a fictional version of General Stanley McChrystal, then the top U.S. commander in the country intent on implementing a controversial counter-insurgency doctrine. McChrystal’s downfall proved to be an interview he gave Hastings that ran in Rolling Stone, notoriously including negative comments on the Obama administration. The voiceover narration accompanying this comedy of errors is purportedly by Hastings (although the real Hastings died in 2013). Pitt plays the role as broad caricature and the movie as a whole adopts a satirical tone. It would be easier to roll with these foibles of war if Afghanistan’s ongoing situation were not so dire.

In Sand Castle, helmed by Brazilian director Fernando Coimbra, a reluctant Private Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult), who joined the U.S. army reserves to earn money for college, finds himself deployed to Iraq as part of the 2003 invasion. The scenario by Chris Roessner is loosely drawn from his own experience.

Ocre doesn’t share in any “mission accomplished” bravado and seems aloof from the usual macho camaraderie of trigger-happy buddies. “I don’t belong here,” he tells himself. Indeed he injures himself in a failed attempt to be discharged. Instead, watched by suspecting superiors, he’s sent with a special forces unit to repair a pumping station damaged by American firepower, leaving a village without potable water. It’s a challenge that turns out to be harder than “winning” the military contest. The soldiers grumble at the non-combat grunt work. Locals are needed for the project, but with an anti-occupation insurgency developing, have reason to fear reprisals for co-operating with Americans.

Ocre reaches out to an English-speaking schoolmaster and for a while some progress seems possible. Yet the fraught relationship with the community is tested by hostile acts until the movie comes to an explosive end that could serve as a metaphor for the larger failure of the war.

Being born on the eighth anniversary of D-Day, with a relative of my mother’s killed in the battle of Normandy, I’ve long had a special interest in the Second World War. There’s no better guide to the Canadian role than Tim Cook’s magisterial two-volume history, The Necessary War, and Fight to the Finish. Hitler had to be defeated, but the means were often at savage cost in the air, on land and at sea. Cook is unsparing about the horrors, observing in conclusion that over the six years of war there was an average of some 25,000 war-related deaths a day, the majority civilians.

That the Allied young men in uniform faced appalling sacrifice is a theme that runs through Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill, set in the days before Operation Overlord as the D-Day invasion was codenamed. Unfortunately this version does little justice to the events of this crucial moment. Brian Cox’s Churchill is a caricature of the British prime minister as an irascible bad-tempered aging bulldog who quarrels with his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), and, with South African Field Marshal Jan Smuts (Richard Durden) at his side, gets into heated rows with the top generals, Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Montgomery (Julian Wadham), who were understandably exasperated by his interference. He’s shown opposing the operation as a calamity, even beseeching God to stop it, then insisting on accompanying the invasion force, only relenting on the advice of King George VI (James Purefoy). It comes off as rather pathetic; hardly the picture of a great wartime leader.

Although the screenplay is ostensibly by historian Alex von Tunzelmann, the movie is not compelling as history or cinema. The Churchill historian Andrew Roberts has written that it “gets everything absolutely wrong,” calling it “a perverse fantasy that deserves to be a flop.” (A much better Churchill portrait is HBO’s 2002 film The Gathering Storm, which starred Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave. Later this year Gary Oldman will portray Churchill in another wartime drama, Darkest Hour.)

Fortunately in theatres now is a vastly superior Second World War epic that truly deserves the term. Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (, filmed on location with IMAX cameras using 65mm celluloid, is only the second screen account of what happened from May 27 to June 4, 1940, when hundreds of thousands of British and French troops were rescued from the beaches of the French coastal town of Dunkerque near the Belgian border. They had been trapped there by the speed of the German advance. The mass evacuation of some 355,000 soldiers across the Channel averted disaster, as Britain would soon be alone to face the Nazi onslaught. In a foreword to James Mottram’s companion book, The Making of Dunkirk, Nolan pays tribute to the “Dunkirk spirit,” observing: “That this event ended with neither annihilation nor surrender is the reason that it provides one of the greatest stories in human history.”

The narrative is presented through three different perspectives and time frames — one week on land (focused on the beachfront breakwater known as the “Mole”), one day at sea with vessels big and small, one hour in the air as RAF Spitfires battle German Messerschmitts — intercutting seamlessly and rapidly between these. It begins with heart-pounding intensity as young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) dodges deadly sniper fire to get to the beach where he meets a French soldier (Damien Bonnard). Several other soldiers (Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) become the faces we follow through the desperate terrifying days that follow in which ships are sunk and huddled troops strafed by Luftwaffe bombers. The big picture is represented by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), but it is these young men that give the unfolding drama visceral power.

With large destroyers unable to get close enough to shore, the rescue had to be effected by civilian small craft. The story zeroes in on one piloted by Dawson (Mark Rylance), helped by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and teenage friend George (Barry Keoghan). In the channel they pick up a shell-shocked survivor (Cillian Murphy) of a U-boat attack whose demand that they turn back to England has a tragic consequence against the extraordinary feat of so many lives saved. In the astonishing scenes of aerial dogfights we are drawn to several pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden), both of whom are eventually forced to crash land, one on water, the other on sand. Although the enemy remains unseen and little bloodshed is shown, a violent fate is an ever-present threat. (In fact, about 68,000 soldiers were killed or captured.)

What Nolan does so brilliantly is to convey the enormity of what is happening while at the same time giving an audience the sense of experiencing it up close and personal. This is very much a big-screen movie — ideally watched in IMAX 70mm projection — and also an intimate one in the stories it tells. Even Churchill’s famous “no surrender” speech is rendered in the halting reading of a newspaper account by a returning soldier on a train home.

I had the pleasure of listening to Nolan discuss the art of film at the 2016 Sundance film festival. He is a cinema purist who eschews digital tricks and shortcuts. As a result, Dunkirk benefits from an exceptional effort at authenticity that is a rarity today. Everything from the meticulous attention to detail to Hans Zimmer’s immersive score combines to thrust one into the feeling of what it was like to be there.

A miracle was needed in 1940, and Nolan honours it with a miracle of filmmaking. Fully deserving of superlatives, Dunkirk is a definite Oscar best picture contender.


Matt Reeves is back as director of the impressive conclusion to the 21st century Planet of the Apes trilogy following 2014’s “Dawn.” War for the Planet of the Apes opens 15 years after the genetic breakthrough of intelligent chimps and viral outbreak deadly to humans portrayed in “Rise.” Through the magic of motion capture Andy Serkis again excels as Caesar, the wise leader of the ape colony, as they shelter in northern woods beside a great waterfall. (It looks like the Northwest Territories’ Virginia Falls on the Nahanni River, which I have paddled and portaged around. Much of the movie was shot in B.C.)

Caesar speaks perfect English, which the rest understand while communicating in subtitled grunts. He has overcome a warlike rival, Koba, but now faces a hostile surviving paramilitary human force commanded by a fanatic American “Colonel” (a Kurtz-like Woody Harrelson, shaved head and all) and aided by rebel apes called “donkeys.” After a bloody skirmish Caesar releases several captured humans and offers peace. A betrayal later, the Colonel responds instead with a nighttime raid, killing Caesar’s wife and older son. The younger Cornelius is saved and sent with the main body of apes in search of safety and a new home. Caesar goes after his nemesis, accompanied by three others on horseback including the faithful orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval). Unexpected incidents result in the addition of two more travellers — a little mute girl (Amiah Miller, the only female human character) who will prove crucial to the end game, and a talking “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), a pint-sized former zoo chimpanzee who provides a comic touch to the grim events to come.

Coming upon the humans’ wintry encampment, the party of five is horrified to discover that the other apes have been attacked, imprisoned, chained and enslaved, forced into building a wall of rock. A few have been tied to wooden Xs like a crucifixion. When Caesar is captured and subjected to such treatment he becomes an almost Christ-like figure. It turns out that the wall is actually a defence against an invasion by other humans. The homicidal Colonel fears them and infection at any cost.

The story builds to an epic confrontation of wills and conflagration in which we find ourselves sympathizing with Caesar and his followers. There’s a liberation, an exodus, and a promised land; just don’t expect a resurrection.

Beyond great special effects and action sequences, War for the Planet of the Apes takes the time in its 140 minutes to develop characters and storylines that make it one of the more satisfying movies of the summer.