I’m on a must-watch Oscar movies marathon. The idea is very simple: I try to watch all the films nominated in key categories, and, if there’s any endurance left, I check out categories like Best Documentary. Last year, I failed terribly at this attempt but 2018 is turning out quite differently. I first saw Call Me By Your Name (because queer, duh), The Shape of Water, Get Out, and now Dunkirk. Dunkirk is the war survival film directed by Christopher Nolan, with particular focus on the trapped 330,000 British and Allied soldiers successfully evacuated from the titular French beach Dunkirk during World War II.
Nolan’s period drama has a total of eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Compared to Call Me By Your Name and Get Out and their respective nomination scoop, Dunkirk fared better. But I’m not exaggerating when I say I dozed off twice while watching the film; I still don’t know what sequentially happened in Dunkirk. And despite not being overlong like most war films (I loved David Ayer’s 2014 Fury even with its 2 hours and 14 minutes running time), Dunkirk had a tedium of its own.
I didn’t feel invested enough to care about the characters. I wouldn’t have cared if Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his fighter craft had been bombed out from the sky and fallen into the beach, his body devoured by sharks. On the other hand Alex, played by ex-One Direction member Harry Styles, who was just as irrelevant as wallpaper. (If he ever plays James Bond, trust me to boycott the franchise forever). At a point, I thought: Is it forbidden to talk in this film?! Why is there no character-developing dialogue?! And where are the women?!
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, wrote for CNN on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the role women played: “If World War I was a watershed for women in terms of participation in labour force, World War II brought women into the battlefield in a new way. Women had combat roles in the armed forces of many countries, and, in some, the right to fire their weapons.”
In Nolan’s directorial frame, however, women become invisible. They are only fleetingly shown catering to the soldiers, and this happens like twice at most. Making a 2017 film in the age of shifting gender prescriptions means you adapt accordingly. And besides, there’s undeniable historical truth to portray women in Dunkirk beyond cleaning and making sandwiches. The Dunkirk evacuation timeline was between 27 May to 4 June 1940. Two years before then, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was established and allowed for the conscription of women. Though at first, the women who joined were given non-combatant roles; the auxiliary force grew in numbers as women volunteered freely but were paid two-third of the pay their male counterparts got.
While it was an all-male affair, it’s worth mentioning again that I didn’t just care about what was going on. Dunkirk is far from a masterpiece, and to erase women from its world does history a disservice.