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Weekend Binge: The 11 films that inspired Christopher Nolan to make Dunkirk

In celebration of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, here are 11 films that inspired him to make his war epic - curated by the man himself.

weekend binge Updated: Sep 01, 2017 13:16 IST
Rohan Naahar
Rohan Naahar
Hindustan Times
Weekend Binge,Christopher Nolan,Dunkirk
This week’s list is practically curated by Christopher Nolan himself.

Every week, we will curate a collection of titles - movies, TV, general miscellanea - for you to watch (and in some cases, read, or listen to), in a series we call Weekend Binge. The selection will be based on a theme which binds the picks - which could be extremely blunt in certain instances, or confusingly abstract in some. No rules apply, other than the end goal being getting some great entertainment to watch.

While the idea is to base the theme on the week’s major events - it could be the release of a new movie, or show - we could also use this opportunity to comment on our world in general, and turn to art to wrap our heads around some of the more difficult stories of the past seven days.

It would be a missed opportunity to talk about anything other than Dunkirk this week - even though so much has happened. We got a new president, OJ Simpson got bail, Trump had a secret meeting with Putin - but everything slides down the priority list when a new Christopher Nolan comes out.

In case you haven’t heard, the movie is quite incredible - one of the finest war films ever made. But starting 13 July, the British Film Institute ran a retrospective of 11 films that inspired Nolan to make Dunkirk. Only two of them, you’d be surprised to learn, are war movies.

So for all intents and purposes, this week’s list has been curated by Nolan himself.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

When Nolan announced his next film - after he redefined the modern superhero film, and created some of the most original science-fiction spectacles in recent memory - would be based on the evacuation at Dunkirk, the movie most people expected him to make was probably a lot like All Quiet on the Western Front. We expected an emotional epic, with impassioned speeches and fist-pumping moments of bravery - but we got a near-silent exploration of existentialism.

The Wages of Fear (1953)

While director Henry-Georges Clouzot would gain further recognition for his next film, Les Diaboliques, his taut, suspenseful work on The Wages of Fear, a film about a group of men doing manly jobs (driving trucks) made an impact on Nolan. Dunkirk is all about men doing manly things.

Alien (1979)

One would have expected Ridley Scott’s Alien - widely considered to be one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made - to have inspired Nolan to make Interstellar, or perhaps Inception. But we often forget that Alien is a better horror movie than it is a science-fiction film. And several scenes in Dunkirk are just as precise, and just as suspenseful.

Speed (1994)

The only thing that could top our delight at seeing Speed on this list is Unstoppable, which we’ll get to in a moment. But Keanu Reeves’ classic ‘90’s action film has the same relentless pace, and wall-to-wall action that Nolan brought to Dunkirk. Like Dunkirk, it is a film in which several small action set-pieces are stitched together into something larger, more experimental.

Unstoppable (2010)

Tony Scott’s final film, starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine as two technicians trapped on a runaway train, is perhaps one of the finest films he ever made. Only a few years later, Scott committed suicide. But he left his unmistakable directorial stamp - flashy visuals, quick cuts - on Unstoppable.

Greed (1924)

The legend behind Erich von Stroheim’s film is perhaps more intriguing than the movie itself. The original 42-reel cut of the film, which ran for an insane 462 minutes, is lost. Only 12 people saw it. It wouldn’t surprise us, being the archivist that he is, that Nolan has segments of that film kept in secret somewhere.

Sunrise (1927)

It could be argued that FW Murnau, one of the leading figures in German Expressionism, was the Chris Nolan of the silent era - or, vice versa, depending on when you were born. He introduced some revolutionary techniques that would alter the course of cinema forever - remember, this was still early days. In Sunrise, he used the then new Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, making Sunrise one of the first feature films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects soundtrack.

Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

Perhaps the biggest influence David Lean’s film had on Nolan - aside from the fact that it is a lavish war epic, and Nolan, as a filmmaker, has always ‘borrowed’ from Lean - is that it was shot in Super Panavision 70 mm. For a director as vocal as Nolan about the superiority of large format film - especially IMAX - this was a landmark movie.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Stylistically, Gillo Pontecorvo’s film based on events during the Algerian War have left a visible imprint on modern action films - most notably Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne movies. The verite, hand-held style of photography, the urgency to the storytelling, and the realistic depiction of war - it’s clear that Nolan was inspired.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Dunkirk’s final moments - without spoiling anything - are tonally very similar to Chariots of Fire. There’s a palpable sense of pride, of joy in the achievements of the characters in both films. And it’s all so very British.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Mood, and atmosphere, as you would have noticed, is a vitally important theme that connects the films mentioned in this list. Dunkirk is a film that relies immensely on Nolan’s ability to command the audience’s attention with only sounds and images - there’s very little dialogue. But it is clear that he learnt from the best. Hitchcock was a master of atmosphere, and Foreign Correspondent is an underrated addition to his oeuvre.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

First Published: Jul 22, 2017 09:43 IST