See Dunkirk to Hear It: A Spoiler-Free Guide to Music and Sound in Christopher Nolan’s New War Movie

by Todd Decker, author of Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam


Director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, opening in theaters this weekend in the US, sounds better than any war movie ever made.

I saw Dunkirk in 70mm and digital surround sound at the earliest possible showing at my favorite suburban St. Louis multiplex. Having just published a book on war movies from Apocalypse Now to American Sniper, I was eager to see and hear this latest entry in the intermittent but persistent World War II film cycle kicked off almost two decades ago by Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

At just 1 hour and 47 minutes, Dunkirk is a lean and gorgeous piece of filmmaking and film scoring that deserves to be experienced without undue preparation—so no spoilers here!

Instead, I want to offer some hopefully helpful hints about how Nolan’s film fits into the sonic and musical traditions of the post-Apocalypse Now war film. I detail these traditions at length in my book in separate sections devoted to each of the three elements of the soundtrack—dialogue, sound effects, music. Below is a quick consideration of Dunkirk along the same lines.

There’s very little talking in Dunkirk. Nolan has made a “silent” war film where sound effects and music carry the soundtrack: the film’s dialogue could easily be replaced with title cards as in the pre-sync sound era.

Nolan’s historical subject lends itself to minimal dialogue: Hundreds of thousands of British soldiers await evacuation from France on the beaches of Dunkirk. The British navy and a flotilla of civilian craft—pleasure boats, mostly—set out across the English Channel to bring them safely home. German bombers and fighter planes attack the evacuation and British Spitfires fight back. It’s a land-sea-air battle with clear geometric lines that Nolan effectively tells with sound effects following long traditions of the war film (see Chapter 6 in my book).

And, indeed, the sound effects in Dunkirk are astonishing—some of the loudest, clearest, and most physical I have ever experienced. I saw the film in a just renovated cinema outfitted with “dream loungers” (padded, automatically reclining seats straight out of high-end home theatre set ups). The low sounds of bombs reverberated through my whole seat with tremendous tone and clarity. My head felt vibrations as if on a rollercoaster. As with so many war films—especially the early digital surround sound hit Saving Private RyanDunkirk in the theatre uses sound to put the viewer’s body into motion, striving to elicit felt sonic identification with the soldiers in the story.

Dunkirk’s score is by composer Hans Zimmer, who also composed original music for The Thin Red Line and Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. All three of these films feature what I call almost continuous scores. Indeed, I can’t recall a single moment of Dunkirk when the soundtrack mix didn’t contain something categorizable as music. Zimmer’s score provides crucial support to Nolan’s “silent” film approach to storytelling.

And the music does something else, too. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that, as in his earlier films Memento, Inception, and Interstellar, Nolan is again exploring issues of time and narrative shape. Zimmer’s score for Dunkirk plays a crucial role pacing the action and instantly shifting the film’s momentum with a huge array of beat-driven textures (such as the below teaser track released on Youtube).

 

Zimmer offers only one melody in Dunkirk and it’s borrowed. To prepare yourself for the film’s most self-consciously emotional moments—best experienced in a theatre full of British nationals (who’ll likely be crying to more than just the music itself)—listen to Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations below.

 

Among many YouTube’s of “Nimrod,” I chose a version featuring the Staatskapelle Berlin at the BBC Proms, a site of nationalistic celebration in the UK. A German orchestra playing this British orchestral staple feels to me like a needed, tiny correction to Nolan’s film, which begins (like countless war films) with an informative title that euphemistically and problematically reads, “The enemy have driven the British and French forces to the beach.”

I hope you enjoy Dunkirk as much as I did.


Todd Decker is Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. The author of four books on American commercial music and media, he has lectured at the Library of Congress, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and LabEx Arts-H2H in Paris.