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Dunkirk by Hans Zimmer (Review)

posted Jul 24, 2017, 4:07 PM by Kaya Savas

Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s film that tells the story of the 400,000 British and allied soldiers stranded and cornered in northern France as the German forces closed in from land, sea and air to finish them off. In one of the most inspirational and miraculous stories from WW2; a 3-day halt order from the German forces was put into place which allowed for over 330,000 allied soldiers to be rescued. Many of which were rescued by civilian boats that sailed the 26 miles to the shores of Dunkirk to load allied soldiers.

Nolan’s goal for this film was not to tell stories of heroism and have a main protagonist that we follow through the events, but rather to show the visceral intensity of survival against all odds as well as the amazing triumph of human goodness to show how much the value of life drove everyday civilians to help take part in one of the biggest rescue missions in military history. Through the use of editing, cinematography, sound design and score Nolan was able to create a cinematic experience that shook you to the core and yet was still able to find enough humanity despite the lack of character development to make us care and make us feel. Hans Zimmer’s score was one of the most important parts of the film, literally being present in every second of screen time. The score is a fine-tuned machine meant to penetrate our inner psyche and replicate the dread, terror and chaos that the soldiers are experiencing on screen.

So before we dive into the music much further, it’s important to note that the soundtrack album is not the best representation of how the score functions within the film. If you are solely going off the album then you need to listen to the score in context of the film. The way the score was built was as 1 single cue. The score never stops and is the backbone supporting the picture from the first to the last frame. The CD album has separate tracks for the sake of presentation, but you are missing nearly 50min of score and nearly 50min of intricate structure.

The score is an absolute exercise in precision and structure, and its end result is so harrowingly effective. This score may seem simple since it’s built off of loops and rhythms, but the way it had to work with the editing is incredibly complex. You won’t find any big themes or melodies in this score; in fact it was the goal in order to make the score comment solely on the action with fear of death being the only emotion the music was trying to evoke. The only melodic material in the score comes from a rearrangement of a famous classical piece from Sir Edward Elgar titled "Nimrod". "Nimrod" in fact is movement 9 out of 14 movements that are part of the orchestral work known as Enigma Variation. Each movement is a variation on an original theme. "Nimrod" is an incredibly popular piece used at British funerals and memorial services. The title “Nimrod” refers to an Old Testament patriarch known as a mighty hunter before the lord. So in that sense, it has become a piece tied to death and war. This arrangement, done by the fantastic Benjamin Wallfisch provides the emotional payoff we get at the end of the film when help and safety finally arrive.

The most impressive thing about the score is how it works with the editing and sound design, it’s in this relationship where music and sound are able to effectively keep our hearts beating fast and our bodies tensed up. The music almost acts like the very waves that are rolling onto the beach of Dunkirk; it starts small and builds into these giant swells that finally crash and then pull back. There are certain things about the score that call back to how Hans approached this sense of chaos and dread in Black Hawk Down. In a sense this score took a certain aspect of that DNA and amplified it. Certain scenes are downright intense, one in particular that’s not on the OST is when a torpedo hits a ship and it begins to sink. The music in that scene makes it one of the most memorable in the entire film. And basically the score continues to provide this sense of dread and fight for survival for nearly the duration of the score. Some of the notes sound like a warning siren going off, constantly making you feel like danger is near. If there is a weakness to the score, and in turn to the film’s narrative, is that we really could have used a more central emotional arc that started as a seed and grew into the climax. I get it that Nolan wanted to keep it purely a visceral experience about survival and surviving long enough to be rescued, but there are moments of character seeping through, mainly from Kenneth Branagh’s character and we as an audience latch onto it like a castaway finding a tiny pool of drinkable water.

In the end of it all this is such an impressive execution of scoring precision that was meant to work not only with the edit but with the sound design. It’s a soul-shaking and stressful experience from start to finish and sets out to do what the film wanted to do. The score is filled with amazing approaches like the ticking clock motif that Hans has perfected over the course of a few scores like Interstellar and Sherlock Holmes, this time sampled from Nolan’s own pocket watch. It's understandable that the only emotional beauty comes from variation on the Elgar theme, it’s so the score wouldn't ever feel like it was being heroic or in a sense “Hollywood”. There’s a powerful line near the end of the film when some of the surviving soldiers finally get a blanket and the person handing them out is congratulating them and telling them “good work, boys. Well done”. One soldier responds, “All we did was survive.” And the man responds, “that’s enough.” That was the goal of the film and the score as well, just survive. Could it have used a little character development for us as an audience to latch onto? Sure. But talk to Nolan about that, not Hans. In terms of an exercise to use filmmaking to put the audience in the midst of an incredible survival story and rescue mission, the film and score succeed brilliantly. This score was a hard one for Hans and his team to crack, but they did it. They cracked it. It was a valiant team effort including contributions by Lorne Balfe, Benjamin Wallfisch, Satnam Singh Ramgotra, Andy Page and Andrew Kawczynski who all worked tirelessly to keep this behemoth of a score afloat as the edit changed and therefore would create ripples of issues to the structure. And when you see the entirety of it onscreen as it's meant to be experienced you'll see why. This 1hr 47min single cue of a score is a tremendous experience, see the film, and only then can you analyze the album presentation.