Dunkirk: A Ghost Story
Why Nolan’s war movie is more haunting than the latest Blumhouse
I love Hallowe’en and ghost stories. As kid I would obsess over tales of haunted houses or werewolves but as I got older I realised none of that was real, sadly, and what real horrors there are in this world are far more human and sad than the gothic adventures I would dream up. This kind of cynicism has also been reflected in how we tell ghost stories in society at large too. In recent years the way we tell ghost stories has changed. In modern ‘woke’ times we don’t really worry over the kind of bump-in-the-night terrors we used to enjoy. The prevalence of ‘Slasher’ movies in the 90s onwards speaks to how we are keener to address the darkness in ourselves and the real horror therein rather than the more metaphorical horrors of yesteryear. Today shows like True Detective have managed to combine the frisson of classic horror, the existential dread of cosmic horror and the miserable darkness caused by people in real society. For this reason, True Detective is one of my all-time favourite shows, along with Edge of Darkness from 80s which achieves a similar level of strange, eeriness along with a depressing realism. None of these however capture that sense of excitement and old-fashioned shivers that reading books about Borley Rectory managed to accomplish in me. The film that has come closest to that so far was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
As the title of this essay suggests, thinking of Dunkirk, as a ghost story is meant to be unusual. It clearly wasn’t made to be a ghost story, it’s a war movie. A classic suspense war movie at that, akin to Where Eagles Dare or The Longest Day. But the movie has more than a few similarities to the horror genre than you might think. The most obvious one to me is that the threat in the film is never given a human face, if glimpsed at all. The most you see of the Nazis is their bullets, bombs and planes, until the very end when dark, shadowy figures appear upon the dunes and behind Tom Hardy. They are never even referred to as Nazis or even Germans, the are referred to in the abstract simply as ‘The Enemy’; a ghostly force of nature pressing against the British Expeditionary Forces. A malevolent spirit without a face that hungers for their death. Sounds like a ghost story to me. The protagonists are also trapped in one place, the Beach, like the various hapless protagonists trapped in the haunted house in traditional ghost stories. Haunted House movies revolve around the same need to escape a limited area they are trapped in but are thwarted by the spirits acting upon them. This is to say nothing of the other meaning of the word ‘Haunting’. We tend to use the word ‘Haunted’ to refer to our past; Previous events that come back to assert their relevance or dominance over current events. Many saw the timing of a story about the British fleeing Europe being released less than a year after the Brexit vote as being a little too on-the-nose, but more significantly it’s telling a story of the amorphous and relentless progress of fascism encroaching upon all of us. A story which is depressingly relevant today.
In more ways than one Dunkirk is a story about the weight of the past, which ultimately encapsulates everything about Gothic storytelling and this is what makes it a true ghost story. Ghost stories were always warnings of the past coming back to haunt us, be that in family secrets or entire towns and villages caught up in some historical evil they allowed to lie fallow. Today our horror seems to focus primarily on the future (something we should also be wary of) with our fears of climate change and mutually assured self-destruction if we, as a race, continue on our current path, but by ignoring the way the past can assert itself in a very real way if it is not tended to, properly buried or is disrespected in some manner, we run the risk of allowing culture to ignore our past mistakes. The Dunkirk rescue was a disaster, a fact Nolan does not shy from, one that, as Churchill put it, contains “a victory inside this defeat that should be acknowledged”. However, Britain has taken the lesson of British Pluck and tenacity but ignored the lesson of not being routed by fascism. Sexism, racism, the alt-right and all other signposts of a slide towards totalitarianism are on the rise again in the UK, unchecked by those in control who purportedly ‘oppose’ it, yet we treat these ills as anomalous, attempting to merely bat them down like a still glowing ember of a long-spent fire. By making ‘The Enemy’ faceless but still an ever-present threat, Dunkirk, is a ghost story in its truest sense: a warning from history.
The true test of a horror story or scary folk tale was the validity of its monster. Far from being literal, the creatures of classic horror are representative of genuine fears: Dracula was a horror story about disease and class, Werewolves about unchecked masculinity, Frankenstein the fear of science, Zombies, with their slow unstoppable trudge, embody death itself, shambling toward us, arms outstretched, inevitable. A horror story should speak to us on a fundamental level about our deepest fears or the genuine concerns of the time. Ghosts, ghouls and goblins have long since had their day in the mainstream, in the Hi-Def digital age such things don’t scare us. Despite being set nearly 80 years ago Dunkirk manages to tell a story about a very real and present horror to almost everyone in the world today and it does it without even showing us the monster. Just like all good ghost stories should.