Christopher Nolan used Stephen Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan as a point of reference for his own WWII film, Dunkirk. The latter film was a huge success upon its release this year, both in terms of its critical reception and its box office returns. As such, the film immediately drew parallels to other iconic WWII movies, Saving Private Ryan naturally being among them.
However, it was not just audiences that compared the two, with Nolan himself drawing inspiration from Spielberg's historical wartime epic. It seems that Nolan turned to his friend Spielberg, asking for a pristine print of Saving Private Ryan so that he could show his Dunkirk crew how Spielberg had successfully recreated the Omaha Beach landings on film.
According to Variety, Spielberg did more than this upon receiving Nolan's request - and instead, gave the director some advice on how to show the Dunkirk evacuation. As Spielberg explained:
"Knowing and respecting that Chris is one of the world’s most imaginative filmmakers, my advice to him was to leave his imagination, as I did on Ryan, in second position to the research he was doing to authentically acquit this historical drama."
Aside from an eye for detail, Nolan knew that he had to go down a very different route from the chaos and horror of the opening of Saving Private Ryan. "I realized I was looking for a different type of tension," said Nolan, with Dunkirk instead aiming for something else entirely. "I needed suspense, and the language of suspense is one where you can’t take your eyes from the screen," explained Nolan. "The language of horror is one where you hide your eyes. You’re looking away. It’s a different form of tension. We constructed our set-pieces not around violence, not around blood, but around physical jeopardy."
This attempt to build tension resulted in a film that felt very unique in comparison to the WWII movies that had come before it. Nolan wanted to film Dunkirk without a script, and the final product was nearly without dialogue, instead propelled by imagery, direction, and the silent actions of its actors. Add in an intriguing twist on a traditional movie timeline, and Dunkirk ended up being something special.
How much of of the success of the film relied on the guidance that Spielberg and Saving Private Ryan gave is up for debate, but Dunkirk has certainly made its mark. In fact, there have even been suggestions that Dunkirk could win Nolan his first Oscar - and given how impressive the film is from a technical perspective it's certainly a possibility. If the movie manages to pick up Best Picture, then it would even go one further than Saving Private Ryan itself.
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