We’ve had Darkest Hour and Dunkirk on the TBV (To Be Viewed) pile of Blu-Rays in our family room for some time. (To answer your incredulous question, yes, I’m aware of the existence of Netflix. Yes, I still buy Blu-Rays anyway. I have a deep, deep mistrust of this thing they call The Cloud. It all sounds very Orwellian to me. And no, I don’t especially consider myself a Luddite. Or particularly pathological. Why do you ask?)
So. Two films dealing with the same dark historical chapter: it’s May/June 1940. World War II is underway in earnest. Hitler’s Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, the German army and air force, have emerged from Germany after a period of inactivity known as the Phoney War and, in several short, punishing, devastating weeks, swept through Norway, Denmark, Holland and Belgium, and penetrated deep into France. To a world expecting a repeat of the bloodily static meat grinder which characterized the 1914-18 conflict, the German advance has been unbelievable… stunning… lightning swift --- in fact, that’s what the Germans have named their military doctrine for this conflict: blitzkrieg --- literally, lightning war.
As France crumbles and its imminent defeat is obvious, the only country left in Hitler’s way is Great Britain. And almost all its professional army is stranded in France, forced to retreat to the coastal town of Dunkirk. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, hemmed in by advancing Germans. They must be retrieved and brought back to Britain. But how? The Luftwaffe, which enjoys air superiority despite the best efforts of the outnumbered Royal Air Force (RAF), is bombing the crap out of everything in the area, including soldiers on the beaches and warships offshore attempting to take them off.
The answer, as every military history student knows, is for the British to put out the call and send an enormous flotilla of small, private boats, crewed by their civilian owners --- just about anything that will float and is capable of crossing 40ish kilometers of the English Channel, which can be a notoriously stormy stretch of water --- to pick up as many soldiers as can be crammed into them.
And so they do. (Interesting, isn’t it? Those four little laconic words do absolutely nothing on their own to convey the magnificent heroism and desperation of that period.) The episode becomes known as ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk,’ because, against all odds, hundreds of thousands of British and allied troops are safely returned to Britain to live and fight another day. And the event encourages Britain to keep on fighting, referred to as ‘The Spirit of Dunkirk.’
Dunkirk focuses on the events at Dunkirk. You’re on the ground, in the water, and overhead in the skies, observing troops waiting for evacuation from the beaches as the Germans relentlessly shrink the beachhead ever smaller; watching RAF pilots doing their best to take down Luftwaffe planes before precious ships can be sunk.
Darkest Hour, in contrast, is set in London, in the halls of power at Westminster, seat of the British government. Things are very precarious: one Prime Minister --- the tragically ineffective Neville Chamberlain --- has been sacked by his own party, replaced by Winston Churchill. But Churchill’s grip on the Conservative Party is tenuous, and he doesn’t have the benefit of 21st century hindsight: all everybody in London knows is that the likelihood of catastrophic, irrevocable defeat looms large over everything.
Now, you’d think, based on what I’ve said, that the more gripping film should be Dunkirk, with its you-are-there breathlessness. Far more than the staid backroom politics of Darkest Hour. Right?
Nope. Not for me, anyway. Darkest Hour brought tears to my eyes several times. Dunkirk was good, interesting… but I wasn’t emotionally invested. And my eyes stayed dry throughout.
Why? Well, it boils down to characterization. And therein lies today’s Lesson for Writers.
Darkest Hour focuses primarily on the trials and tribulations of Churchill (superbly played by a virtually unrecognizable Gary Oldman, who justifiably won the Oscar for Best Actor in this role --- we’re a long, long ways from Batman’s Commissioner Gordon and Harry Potter’s Sirius Black).
Dunkirk… well, there’s a medley of characters, nearly all nameless: the terrified young British soldier who tries every trick to get off the beaches; two RAF fighter pilots battling the Luftwaffe; an older civilian and his son piloting their 30 foot boat across the Channel; the shell-shocked soldier they pluck from the water who goes bonkers on the boat and accidentally causes the death of the son’s friend; a British naval officer on the beach (Kenneth Branagh, in a curiously blasé performance)… the list goes on and on. But…
We Don’t Care About Them. (Well, I didn’t, anyway. Not really.) Again, why?
Because we don’t know them. There are so many, and the film doesn’t acquaint us with what makes them tick, what their backstories are, their circumstances, what they’re feeling --- besides obvious fear at their circumstances, and death --- that they just become this random, anonymous conglomeration of humanity caught in epic tragedy.
Darkest Hour, in contrast, provides an intimate look at one man. Sure, he’s not on a cold, wet, windswept beach, feeling his bowels turn to jelly as dive bombers shriek down, strafing him. But we get to know him… relations with his family and colleagues, fears, doubts, terrible decisions he must make (sacrifice 3000 lives to save 300,000) --- in short, we establish a relationship with this character. He becomes a person, someone we can empathise with. For example, Churchill must project absolute confidence and bluster in public that he feels not at all in private. We can relate to that. Knowing this character, knowing he’s like us in several respects --- it’s that which makes us care.
And folks, as a successful writer, that’s what you must do with your reader.
Make me care.
Because only then will I keep reading.