“Dunkirk” is no “Saving Private Ryan”

This is just one reviewer’s point of view. I don’t usually post a negative film review here on “Uncle Bardie’s Stories & Such”. And I don’t usually go out to the movie theater these days. But I thought that “Dunkirk” (2017) would be something to see on a big theater screen instead of a big tv screen. Boy, was I wrong.

For all the use of the big motion picture toys directors have to work with, it looks like Christopher Nolan failed at giving the audience what mattered most. He had a great story but he didn’t know how to tell it well. And it’s a darn shame too. Because what the British people did to rescue 400,000 of their soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 was one of the great acts of the twentieth century.

Nolan has chosen not to give the viewer one character to care about. Instead we get three separate points of view: The Mole, The Sea and The Air and a time constraint. (My first question was what the heck is the time about. The soldiers on that beach have got to get the heck out of Dodge and in two seconds flat.) And these viewpoints are not always specific to a character. The first point of view is the soldiers on Dunkirk Beach. During these beach scenes, there are times it is hard to figure out who’s who.

The second point of view are the pilots in their Spitfires taking on the German Luftwaffe. There are times it is hard to know which pilot is which, who the German planes are and who the British are. The third of these viewpoints is the most individualistic of the three. It is Mr. Dawson taking his boat over from England to rescue the soldiers on Dunkirk. When his scene came up, I thought, “Now we’re getting somewhere.” But no. Just as I am beginning to figure out one viewpoint, Nolan gets cutesy and switches to another.

The first lesson in Storytelling 101 is give the viewer/reader a character to follow into the story. Especially a character we will want to follow. Nolan missed that lesson I guess.

In the “Harry Potters”, we are given Harry to follow. In “Lord of the Rings”, we meet Frodo. In “The Wizard of Oz”, we follow Dorothy. In “Gone With the Wind”, there’s Scarlett O’Hara. In “Saving Private Ryan”, we get Captain Miller, to care about. Spielberg throws me into the devastation of battle in a realistic way and I never doubt the danger.

There seems to have cropped up this tendency lately in filmmaking to make us play who the heck is this character and what’s she doing in this movie? It was a problem with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. It took fifteen minutes to figure out who the protagonist was and why I should care.

A second problem with “Dunkirk” was a lack of the sense of the danger the soldiers faced on that beach. The enemy remains anonymous. It would have increased the tension if I could have seen how close the Germans were. Even scenes of the Germans closing in. So much of the beach scenes have the British soldiers just standing around. Yes, there are a few German planes bombing from the sky. But not many and where are the German troops? Where is the German artillery? In “Dunkirk”, all I get is the muddle. Not once did I enough feel the threat.

Another issue is the lack of context. If Nolan had added an opening scene with the disaster that was about to happen, it would have helped. And the use of time to create suspense. “We have to get those boys off the beach or we’re goners. And we have to do it now.” Then use music and show us a clock ticking down to apocalypse.

Ultimately Nolan is providing the viewer an intellectual exercise instead of an emotional experience. In a day and an age when we have video games and movies like “John Wick” that are very realistic with the violence, why did Christopher Nolan think he had to save us from really caring about those guys on the beach?

“Dunkirk” isn’t a bad movie. It’s just not worth my getting out of the house and plopping down ten bucks at a movie theater. Next time, Mr. Nolan, I’ll wait for it to be on Netflix, then I’ll think about it.

Louis Jordan in “Gigi” said it better than I ever could:

 

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The Thing They Carried

It could have been the Germans. It could have been the Japanese. It could have been the Russians. But it was the Americans. The United States was the only nation with the resources to be able to create such a Thing. It was a Thing made for one job. For one purpose.

Since the Nazis launched their blitzkrieg on Poland in 1939, since the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor, war raged around the world. Millions were refugees, dead or held in concentration camps. It was time for it to be over. It would take a Thing to bring it to an end.

The question was: Would it work? The scientists said it would work. The tests had given them the assurance that it would work. But no one was absolutely sure. They would not know until those final moments over Japan. Until it was dropped.

By August, 1945, the Nazis had surrendered. But not the Empire of Japan though it was defeated. It had no air force to speak of. It was under allied blockade. Many of its greatest cities, including Tokyo, were devastated by the firebombing American B29s. Yet the military fanatics who led Japan had decided that the Empire would go down in a blaze of glory rather than submit.

The Japanese military used fifteen and sixteen-year-olds as pilots of planes that were designed to be nothing more than bombs to crash into ships. They fired human torpedoes from their submarines. This was a foreshadowing of things to come if the United States invaded the Japanese homeland. Every man, woman and child was to be a kamikaze. Even Japanese school girls were taught to attack the enemy with spears. Suicide was preferable to surrender.

Few events were as controversial as the decision to drop the Thing. It was debated among the scientists who created It. It was debated by both the civilian and the military leadership in Washington, D.C. President Truman decided the Japanese leaders had left him no choice. After discussions with his advisers, he came to believe that the Thing would shorten the war and save not just thousands of American lives but millions of Japanese as well.

The Thing’s name was Little Boy, also known as the Gadget, the Device, the Gimmick, the S-1, and the most technical of all names, It. It was created at Los Alamos in New Mexico. Then It was assembled 5500 miles from there on Tinian Island, a part of the Marianas in the Pacific. On the night of August 5, 1945, the technicians wheeled It out to a special loading pit to be lifted up into the the bay of the B29 that was to deliver It.

Hours before the mission, the crews of the 509th Composite Group waited. They did what crews do the night before an important mission. A few ate. Some lay in their bunks and thought about loved ones. Some drowned their homesickness with a few shots of whiskey. Some played poker. One, a Catholic went to confession. Another spent his time briefing the New York Times reporter assigned to the mission. The navigator checked his flight bag to make sure his navigational tools were all in order. Each found a way to while away the hours that dragged.

Practice. Practice. Practice. For months, the team had practiced dropping The Thing, then make a 155 degree turn to get the hell out of there. Now there was a different kind of practice. Just in case of a crash upon take-off, the weaponeer decided to load and arm the Thing once the plane was in the air. In the hours before the takeoff, he practiced inserting the explosive charge and the detonator into the Thing. Difficult work to do considering how tight, how hot, how poorly lit the bay of the B29 that was to carry It. When offered a pair of gloves, the weaponeer said no. “I’ve got to feel the touch.”

At midnight, the commander of the mission gave a final briefing. He was the pilot of the B29 that would deliver the Thing to its destination. He finished with a word of advice for the twenty-six airmen in the room. “Do your jobs, obey orders, don’t cut corners.” Then the crew had breakfast while the flight engineer went out to the plane for his preflight check.

Early in the morning of Monday, August 6, 1945, the rest of the crew—the pilot, the co-pilot, the navigator, the electronic countermeasure man, the two radar operators, the bombardier, the tail gunner, and the ordinance expert—climbed aboard the plane, joining the weaponeer and the flight engineer. Painted on the nose of the B29 was the name of the pilot’s mother, Enola Gay.

2:27 a.m. Front engine No. 3, then No. 4, then No. 1, then No. 2.

“Okay to taxi,” the tower said.

2:35 a.m. In position to taxi.

Clear to take off.

A final check.

Take-off weight: 150,000 lbs., 7000 gal. of fuel, 12 men on board, and a five-ton Thing in the plane’s belly. The Enola Gay was eight tons over its normal weight.

“Let’s go.”

All throttles were pushed forward. Down the 8500 foot runway, the plane went past the ambulances and the fire trucks every fifty feet on each side. At the last minute, the B29 lifted into the air and was off the island and heading north by northwest toward Iwo Jima. It would be over the Japanese homeland 1500 miles away in a little less than six hours.

The tail gunner tested his gun, using 50 of the 1000 rounds he had.

The radar operators studied the radar pictures of Hiroshima.

“Judge going to work.” The weaponeer began to load The Thing. He inserted the gun powder and the detonator. He tightened the breach plate. It took him thirty minutes to complete his task.

The pilot did a check with the two planes following and got a “conditions normal”. So far nothing out of the ordinary. He turned the plane over to his co-pilot and went off to chat with the rest of the crew.

The pilot palavered with his crew for a few minutes, answering any questions they might have, trying to ease any tension there might be. The crew gave him a thumbs up that everything was a-okay. The pilot returned to the cockpit. He took the plane up to 9000 feet for a rendezvous in the pale, pink sky above Iwo Jima. A camera plane and an instrument plane joined up with the Enola Gay.

“Proceeding as planned,” the pilot radioed Iwo Jima downstairs.

“Good luck.”

The three planes formed into a V, the Enola Gay leading the way. Now it was on to what was left of the Japanese Empire.

The ordinance expert armed the charge. He was the last person to touch The Thing. Then he checked the circuits of The Thing on his monitor.

The pilot announced to the crew, “You are carrying the world’s first atomic bomb.”

The Enola Gay climbed to an altitude of 30,800 feet.

“Bomb primary,” came the message from the weather plane ahead. The pilot announced, “It’s Hiroshima.”

All lights on The Thing remained green. It was ready to do its job.

Course change to a heading of 264 degrees.

“Initial Point.”

Hiroshima’s morning sky was bright and clear. Perfect weather.

Below soldiers did their calisthenics.

Below a doctor was administering a shot.

Below a sixteen year old girl drove a tram.

Below two women arrived at the bank where they worked.

The pilot knew the city like the back of his hand from studying maps, photographs and radar pictures. He headed straight to the Aiming Point.

From below: “Top alert.”

“On goggles,” the pilot directed his crew to put on their goggles to shelter their eyes from the blast of The Thing they were about to drop. Only the pilot, the bombardier and the electronic countermeasures man did not slip their eyewear over their eyes. They needed their naked eyes to do their jobs.

Hiroshima in the bombardier’s viewfinder.

The plane began its three-and-a-half minute run.

The pilot: “Stand by.”

Below a nurse sterilized hospital tools.

Below a group of boys played hide-and-go-seek.

Below a woman had breakfast with her two children and her husband. He read the “Chugoku Shimbun” daily newspaper.

One of the women in the bank wiped a desk top. A soldier removed his shirt.

The Aiming Point of the T-shaped Aioi Bridge came into the bombardier’s cross hairs. “I’ve got it.”

Fifteen seconds.

The doctor looked up and saw the Enola Gay. Just one plane. Nothing to worry about.

8:15:17 a.m. Enola Gay’s bay doors opened. The Thing dropped from its restraining hook. Freed of the five tons, the B29 lurched upward. The pilot swung the plane into a 155 degree right turn and a steep power dive. The bay doors shut.

The Thing wobbled, then picked up speed.

Below Field Marshall Hata dressed for a meeting.

Korean Prince RiGu cantered his horse on the Aioi Bridge

Radio Hiroshima broadcast an air raid warning. Thousands of workers stopped what they were doing and hurried toward the “safe areas”.

The Enola Gay now five miles from the Aiming Point and heading out of the city.

Five seconds to go.

At 1890 feet above the city of Hiroshima, the Thing detonated, untold quantities of energy released in a blast. A white light, a flash, a fireball fifty million degrees centigrade at its center. The fireball expanded to 300 meters wide.

There was a new sun in the sky. A sudden and throbbing roar, then total darkness, then red, yellow, orange, green burbled up from the city below, then grayish, brownish, black smoke. Looking down at it all, the tail gunner said that it was “a peep into hell.”

That morning in 1945, the people below in the city were no longer Japanese. They were human beings.

Sources
Books

Hersey, J. (1989). Hiroshima. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Smith, J. M. (2010). Fire in the sky: The story of the atomic bomb. Place of publication not identified: Textstream.

Thomas, G., & Witts, M. M. (1995). Enola Gay – Mission to Hiroshima. Loughborough, England.: White Owl Press.

Films

Hiroshima (BBC History of World War II) [Motion picture on DVD]. (2009). BBC Home Entertainment.

Joffé, R. (Director). (1989). Fat man and little boy [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Paramount Pictures.

Modern Marvels – The Manhattan Project (History Channel) [Motion picture on DVD]. (2005). A&E Home Video.

 

 

War Story

Story Prompt: “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien

People ask me why I became a war photographer. Why did I pick up a camera at forty years old and head off to the hell holes where war devastates so many lives? I don’t talk much about the reason. Most people would not understand why a man keeps doing a thing over and over that is so destructive to his personal life. Ending two marriages and jeopardizing his relationship with his four kids. I have never told anyone this. It is because of my dad.

My dad never talked about the War. The War being World War II. Neither did my Mom. She  kept silent for my dad’s sake.

When he came home from the War, he didn’t take the G. I. Bill. “It’s not right,” he said to my mom. He went to working the assembly line for GM, building Chevys. He and my mom saved and scrimped enough money to pay his way through college. He became an engineer since he liked to build things. Ended up building bridges and roads. Seems many of the roads and bridges in the state of Florida one way or another have his stamp on them.

When family and friends or my mom’s church group came over, my dad would head off to his workshop out back. He was not a man to give God no never mind, and he was not a man who craved company much. Our backyard became a playground for my sister and I and our friends. There was a tree house. There were swings and slides and a maze. All kinds of wooden things we played on. All built by Dad.

If a war movie, a “Longest Day” or a John Wayne playing at war, if one of them came on tv, my dad either changed channels or snapped off the movie.  He would say, “We’ll have none of that in my house.”

I turned eighteen in 1968. By this time, his hair had turned gray and he looked twenty years older than his forty years. He  packed my bags, put me on a bus and sent me off to Canada. His last words in his deep bass voice still ring in my ears, “No son of mine’s going off to Vietnam and get his ass blown off.”

Come 1990 I got the call. My aunt phoned me. Dad was dead. I had not seen him for the twenty-two years since I caught that bus to Saskatchewan. Every time I wrote or phoned, Mom told me that Dad did not want me to come home. The time was not right.

Before I could get my bags out of the cab, my sister Lindy was in my arms, hugging me, crying. Crying hard. Her husband, Dave, paid the driver and took my bags into the house. Lindy didn’t want to let go. It was as if she believed that I would disappear if she let go. Finally I wrenched myself from her arms. That’s when I saw Mom, standing on the porch, her face filled with sorrow.

In the next few days, I heard the stories of my dad’s war. He had been in North Africa and Sicily, fighting with Patton. He was at Omaha  Beach in Normandy. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was among those soldiers who liberated Buchenwald.

Mostly the stories came from our aunts. They told us that Dad had medals “up the wazoo”. Even the Purple Heart and a Silver Star. But there were no medals for us to see. No pictures of my dad and his buddies in uniform.

I asked Mom, “Where’s Dad’s medals?” She didn’t answer. She just slipped away into the kitchen.

Aunt George said, “He buried everything. When he came home from the war, he buried his uniforms. Any pictures we had. All his medals. My mom begged him not to. But nothing would stop him.”

“Where did he bury them?” I asked.

“Nobody knows.”

Later that night, I stood on the porch. Uncle Jack and I were drinking a couple of Buds. He said to me, “You know your dad shot himself on purpose. It wasn’t an accident. He meant to do it.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “No,” I said, angry at Jack for accusing Dad of something I just knew he wouldn’t do. I knotted my fists and got ready to strike.

“He knew guns too well for it to be an accident.”

I sat down on the porch and went to catch my breath. “But why?” I asked.

“I think he had enough of all the nightmares. Most of us were able to leave the war behind. Not your dad. He’d seen way too much of it.”

“I should have come back sooner,” I said, then downed the last of the beer in the can.

“You wouldn’t have been able to stop him. In fact, he might have done it sooner if you had been here.” His words were no consolation.

They lowered his casket into the grave. The soldier went to hand Mom the flag. She hesitated taking it, but she finally did.

Everybody left, but I lingered behind. I tried to recall Dad’s face. I couldn’t summon up that face. My mind was blank. I was numb all over. I went to say something to the man in the grave, but nothing came. After a while, I walked away. I joined Jack in his car.

“You alright?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I mean I don’t know.”

He drove on. Both of us quiet. Everything had been said. There was nothing else to say. Back at the house, I did the socially acceptable thing and spent time with all those who came by to express their condolences. Then I slipped off and climbed up into the tree house. The tree house I had spent so many good days in.

In the dark, I sat listening to the night. The crickets were chirping, filling the summer night with their music. I wanted to cry, to weep, but the tears just were not coming. Softly I prayed to the night, “Dad, I love you. And I miss you. My God, if you only knew how much I miss you. There isn’t a day that passes when I don’t think of you. I became an engineer because you were an engineer. I married and became a father because of you. Oh, I love Mel but I would never have had the courage to take on a wife and kids had it not been for you. Now, you go and do this. Why couldn’t you just share with me all the crap you went through. Maybe I could have helped.”

For two years after that night, I was in a fog. I flew back to Mel and the kids. Went back to  work on the project I was on. For a year I was a zombie. Mel, the kids, they knew something was wrong.  One night I was watching the news, or maybe it was some documentary. It was a war zone. Later Mel and the boys were off to bed. I sat alone in the dark in the living room.

The fog cleared. It all came to me in an instant. I knew what I had to do.

The next day I went out and bought a camera. Then I caught the next flight to Sarajevo.