Tuesday, August 15, 2017

music on the dunkirk beach

Last week, I went to Dunkirk.

Not the French port. The movie.

I tend to avoid movies based on historical events. It is not that I know how the story ends, though that it is a consideration. It is because directors and screenwriters are faced with a major dilemma from the outset. Do they capture the grandeur of the big event and leave the story of the participants to fend for themselves? Or do they focus on a few individuals and run the risk of missing the big picture? And, too often, they do not choose wisely.

But Dunkirk was written and directed by one of my favorite movie creators -- Christopher Nolan. I had full faith that he could pull it off. And he did.

Dunkirk has all the elements of being a typical war movie. Outnumbered British and French troops, with the sea at their backs, surrounded by a German army closing the noose. The British and French navies did not have enough destroyers to evacuate the troops, and what they had, they were reluctant to expose to almost certain sinking by the Luftwaffe. Even though losing the troops would have meant negotiating an end to the war with Germany.

But, we all know what happened. Hitler failed to close the trap, giving the British navy time to requisition small boats to act as ferries for the troops. Many boat owners volunteered. As a result, almost 300,00 British and French troops were plucked from the beaches of Dunkirk. And Britain went on to prevail.

The story could have lauded the plucky British soldiers and public managing to pull victory from defeat. The type of mawkish sentimentality that has undermined many a war tale.

Christopher Nolan is not a hack. If he takes on a project, the last thing he will serve you is sentimentality. He has done for film what Stephen Sondheim has done for music.

To tell the tale of the Battle of Dunkirk, Nolan gives us three separate story lines from the perspective of a limited group of participants. The first is the week-long ordeal of the soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk. The second is a day-long tale of a father, his son, and a boat hand who volunteer to steer their small boat into the path of German fighter and bombers and oil-fed fires on the sea. The third is a one-hour story of two British Spitfire pilots who provide limited air cover to the armada.

What we get is one of the most claustrophobic and tense portrayals of forsaken gloom I have ever seen portrayed on film. Even though we know the vast majority of troops will be evacuated, we do not know if any of the characters we are following will survive. And Nolan makes us care for them as men in danger, not as some sentimental prop for political purposes.

Most of the credit goes to Nolan's choice of filming scenes. Death is a constant. And, even though most survive, others do not.

But credit for that tension also goes to the composer of the film's score -- Hans Zimmer. Zimmer is a regular choice of Nolan. And he usually commissions Zimmer to produce a specific type of music.

Rather than his schlocky Pirates of the Caribbean pieces, Zimmer usually delivers Nolan edgy scores that not only complement the feel of a scene, but often create it.

Because the film is filled with tension, Zimmer wrote a score based almost exclusively on the musical device of the Shephard scale -- an auditory illusion that gives the impression the music is a continuous ascending or descending scale in the same octave. It is similar to the optical illusion of a mobius strip.

The music is electronic and modern. But, it fits so perfectly with the images, there is no vestige of anachronism.

With one exception. Or, so I thought, when I first heard the chords of Edward Elgar's Nimrod when the naval officer in charge of the rescue first catches a slight sound and then a glimpse of the small boat fleet.

Nimrod is one of those works that shows up in British pops concerts to evoke British patriotism. It is every bit as sentimental as Elgar's other popular Victorian piece, Pomp and Circumstance, or Thomas Arne's Rule Britannia.

With those chords, my heart sank. After giving us such a sophisticated look at despair in its starkest form, would Zimmer and Nolan now betray their audience with Elgar's mawkish piece to describe the arrival of hope?

I should have known better. Even though the chords of Nimrod are immediately recognizable, Zimmer reconstructed the piece by slowing it down and playing it in a lower registry with a limited group of instruments. No soaring orchestra here.

The music underscores Nolan's line of narrative. People have put their lives on the line to help other people. Not necessarily out of patriotism, but out of concern to help others who have put themselves in danger to protect those who are now rescuing them. Greater love has no other man.

Moments like that are what make Dunkirk a movie not only worth seeing, but discussing. The human condition that Nolan describes is with us today. We can either despair, or we can act as moral agents helping those in need of rescue.

Note -- You can hear Zimmer's rendition of Nimrod at the top of this essay. For the straight version, listen below. I suspect you will appreciate Zimmer's version far more. At least, for the purpose it was composed.

Some of you may remember the original version being used in the background for the scene in Elizabeth, where the queen is deciding how to deal with her unfaithful lover, the Earl of Leicester. It was an effective use of the piece as Elgar wrote it. After all, what could be more sentimental than a veneration of Good Queen Bess?

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