War movies have gone to some pretty intense places in the recent past, depicting battlefield carnage with a level of realism that was unimaginable during the classic era of Hollywood. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan memorably set a new bar for graphic war movie violence particularly in its brutal opening D-Day landing scene, and is still regarded as one of the director’s best works. Last year, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge filled the screen with flying bodies, dismembered limbs and other disturbing images as a way of driving home its message about the heroism of pacifist Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield).
This summer, Christopher Nolan will tackle the war movie genre with his epic film Dunkirk, a dramatization of one of WW2’s most pivotal moments. Thousands of British soldiers were trapped in the Channel port city of Dunkirk, under intense fire from German forces, and had to be shuttled over to England in one of the great mass evacuations ever undertaken. The story has all the makings of another Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, if Nolan is willing to go as far as Steven Spielberg and Mel Gibson in capturing the true horrors of battle.
It doesn’t seem however that Nolan is willing to go as far as Spielberg or Gibson, or Oliver Stone or Clint Eastwood or other directors who’ve endeavored to put warfare on the screen in all its blood-soaked reality. According to Collider, Nolan’s Dunkirk will hit theaters this summer not with an R-rating as might have been expected but with a PG-13, meaning the film’s violence will necessarily have to be toned down.
Early trailers for Dunkirk have made much of the film’s harrowing war-time subject matter, showing among other things soldiers ducking enemy fire on the beach, Tom Hardy flying a plane into aerial combat and Harry Styles struggling not to drown after going into the Channel. It all looks very intense and gripping and cinematic, but at PG-13, it will not have the full realism of some war films and this may present a problem for viewers who expect a full-on battlefield experience.
In order to achieve their harrowing, graphic effects, filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Mel Gibson were willing to accept an R-rating. However, Christopher Nolan doesn’t seem willing to take on the R-rating and everything that comes with it, including smaller box office. That doesn’t mean Nolan has necessarily sacrificed his own cinematic vision in the name of a bigger audience, it just means his Dunkirk will have to pull back on showing the brutal effects of war, and will need to use other means in order to get its subject matter across.
We will just have to wait until Dunkirk hits cinemas this summer to see how far Nolan is able to go within the confines of a PG-13 rating. Though the graphic violence may not be there, and Nolan frankly has never been about graphic violence, the film still promises to be a work of cinematic artistry such as we’ve come to expect from the director. Nolan says his film will be unique in terms of its narrative approach, and perhaps this fact will make up for the lack of graphic detail.
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