Home > Reviews > DUNKIRK – Hans Zimmer

DUNKIRK – Hans Zimmer

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A lot of people today don’t realize just how close the Allies came to losing World War II. During the latter half of 1939 and the early months of 1940 Adolf Hitler and his troops swept across Western Europe, overwhelming the Netherlands, Belgium, and much of France. By May, his only real opposition to Nazi aggression was the army of the British Empire – the United States had not yet joined the war; Pearl Harbor would not be attacked until December 1941. But, to be frank, the British were losing. Hitler’s troops pushed them back to the small town of Dunkerque on the coast of Normandy and surrounded them; cut off from the rest of Europe, and with the English Channel separating them from home, more than 300,000 men were stuck on the beaches there, sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe. However, what transpired next proved to be the literal turning point of the war. For disputed reasons which are still debated today, Hitler accepted the suggestion of his commanders in the area that they should not move in for the kill and instead wait on the outskirts of the city and regroup; this brief respite allowed newly-elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his military commanders to organize an evacuation. Over the course of a week the men were ferried off the beaches to waiting Royal Navy ships by a flotilla of literally hundreds of volunteer civilian craft – lifeboats and fishing boats and pleasure cruisers – while the Spitfires of the Royal Air Force protected them from the air.

This successful operation, involving nearly half a million British citizens, thousands of them non-military, galvanized the country. Although, from a military strategic perspective, the event was a disaster, it nevertheless inspired one of Churchill’s most famous and rousing speeches – “we shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing grounds” – and imbued a deep sense of pride and honor in the British that became known as ‘Dunkirk Spirit,’ a common bond in which bravery, duty, and sacrifice linked the military with the ordinary citizens of the country on a real, tangible level. Had Hitler’s forces been victorious at Dunkirk, then it was highly likely that Britain would have been forced into a conditional surrender and the world as we know it today would be a very different place. Instead, with a significant number of its forces back on home soil and able to reconsolidate, and with the entire country rallying behind them, the legacy of Dunkirk eventually spurred Britain and its allies to victory in 1945.

Christopher Nolan’s film is the second major cinematic retelling of these events, following the 1958 film of the same name, which was directed by Leslie Norman. Whereas Norman’s film was a fairly straightforward post-war propaganda piece, Nolan’s is told as a more ambitious triptych, following the events from three different perspectives: on land, on sea, and in the air. The film has been praised as a technological masterpiece, lauded especially for its authenticity and attention to detail, and for its use of visuals rather than dialogue to create tension. It stars Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles as two of the thousands of soldiers on the beaches, Kenneth Branagh and James d’Arcy as the British commanders organizing the evacuation on the ground, Tom Hardy as a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot, and Mark Rylance as one of the boat captains of the civilian flotilla, who crosses the Channel with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and picks up a stranded soldier (Cillian Murphy) along the way.

The most controversial part of Dunkirk is its score, by Hans Zimmer. Many writers in the mainstream press have been enormously complementary; Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian called it “Zimmer’s best musical score: an eerie, keening, groaning accompaniment to a nightmare, switching finally to quasi-Elgar variations for the deliverance itself,” while Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter says that Zimmer “enormously strengthens the film with a work that equally incorporates both sound and music to extraordinary effect,” which “registers as an amazing piece of work that would require repeated exposure to analyze just how it has been conceived and applied to the narrative drama.” However, within the film music community, the score has been vigorously lambasted as yet another nail in the coffin of emotional, theme-driven film music, where anything resembling melody has been eschewed in favor of a palette that more closely resembles mechanical sound design than identifiable music.

Inevitably, I must stand in opposition to the mainstream reviewers. In principle, I understand what Nolan and Zimmer were going for. The score is a desperate, agitated, aggressive depiction of terror and confusion, the chaos of war as felt by those who experienced it, in which orchestral tones combine with electronic ones to create an overwhelming aural bombardment. This is coupled with the sound of a ticking clock, that of Nolan’s own pocket watch, which he recorded and sent to Zimmer to be synthesized; time, as portrayed by the film’s triptych structure, is possibly the most important element. I also feel compelled to dispel the notion that this isn’t music, because it clearly is. It has form and structure, rhythm and tempo, and uses numerous orchestral instruments. Music can be anything it wants to be, and those who dismiss this as not being ‘a score’ are simply, factually wrong.

However, for me, Zimmer’s music is a perfect reflection of the two things that are the film’s main flaws: the one-note emotional content, and the lack of connection with its characters. To address the second point first, the biggest issue which stopped me from fully connecting with Dunkirk was the fact that virtually nobody in the film was a properly fleshed-out character. Who are these people? What are they all about? Why should I care about this guy, played by Harry Styles, as opposed to that guy standing next to him, played by an un-credited extra, when I’m given exactly the same amount of information about both of them? The arbitrary nature of the characterization bleeds directly into Zimmer’s score, who as a result really has nobody he can focus his music on, and is left instead scoring ‘the bigger picture’ – which brings me to my other point.

Nolan’s apparent aversion to any kind of emotional manipulation transfers directly to the overall tone of the film, which is that of grim desperation. Although the legacy of Dunkirk was eventually used in a positive way, the reality of those who actually experienced it was terrible: countless lives were lost in gruesome circumstances, and morale was low. But by concentrating only on that, Nolan loses any chance to create a more emotionally rounded picture. The lack of any sort of framing story – no flashbacks to happier times with loved ones, no political context involving Churchill or Hitler, no explanation of what the Germans were doing while all this was happening – keeps the film in a bubble. Beyond a couple of brief title cards at the beginning of the film it doesn’t give any real explanation for what’s happening and why, and in doing so it becomes very easy for it to alienate its audience (especially Americans who, through my own anecdotal experience, have no idea what Dunkirk is, or why it was important). It’s a wholly visceral experience, which puts you into the waterlogged, sand-filled boots of these cinematic avatars, but doesn’t give you a reason to care.

Zimmer’s music, of course, has to reflect this directorial vision, and in the case of Dunkirk he does it so successfully that it too is virtually bereft of anything resembling human emotion. The whole score is just tension, tension, tension, anguish, anguish, anguish. But there’s no depth to it. We can see that the soldiers are tense, and waiting for deliverance to come home. We can see that Mark Rylance’s flotilla boat captain is anguished as he has to make a series of difficult decisions regarding his place in the war. So, where’s the subtext? Where’s the musical examination of character motivations? Why isn’t the music depicting the ebbs and flows of the story? This is just musical wallpaper, sitting on top of the film, reinforcing what we can already see rather than delving deeper into the things that we cannot see but need to feel. It doesn’t satisfactorily illustrate the breathless excitement of Tom Hardy’s Spitfire, dog-fighting high above the English Channel. It doesn’t touch the sense of noble patriotism that accompanies Dawson and his son as they leave Dorset on their boat to help save their countrymen. It’s all just tension and anguish, with no light to counterbalance the shade.

This appears to be Nolan’s new preferred musical approach on this film – one note, one emotion, no depth – and a brief hit of manipulated Elgar towards the end isn’t enough to save it. As I said, I understand what some Nolan’s conceptual thinking behind the score was – the ticking clock, for example, addresses the ever-present element of time, the three strands of which play an important role in the narrative structure – but it all just seems so obvious. I’m not saying that the score needed to be a wartime throwback to Ron Goodwin, 633 Squadron, William Walton, and The Battle of Britain, but almost anything would have been better than this.

As an album of music that someone would actually want to listen to – something that must be addressed, given the existence of a soundtrack album – the score is deeply, deeply unpleasant. “The Mole” begins with a series of drones augmented by an insistent pulse, and the ticking clock, which gradually becomes louder and more unrelenting as layer upon layer of crushing sound is piled on top; churning cellos, whining high violins, cacophonous percussion. “We Need Our Army Back” is more than six minutes of drones, overlaid with high, scraped, manipulated string sound effects, underpinned with a moody electronic throb, like the underwater echo of a ship’s engine. The descending, animalistic cello effect from The Dark Knight cameos in the cue’s second half. “Shivering Soldier” features a lonely, isolated-sounding trumpet motif, again underpinned by more throbs and drones.

“Supermarine,” the cue which accompanies most of the aerial dogfight sequences and is so named for the engineering company which built the chassis of the famous Spitfire fighter planes, has a more kinetic, rapid-fire string base, accompanied by grinding electronic pulses, fluttering sound effects representing propellers, and crushing brass whole notes. The cue actually increases in intensity and urgency as the cue develops, especially when an aggressive guitar-like string ostinato, coupled with a siren-like synth effect and the nervous clock tick, emerges during its second half. It’s probably the score’s best individual track.

“The Tide” returns to a grinding noise akin to broken industrial gears and electronically manipulated strings, creating a deathly dirge of tension and anxiety. “Regimental Brothers,” which was co-written by Lorne Balfe, continues the ticking, groaning, and droning, without much variation, with the exception of a more prominent trumpet part which fades in and out and appears to echo off itself. “Impulse” showcases the ticking watch effect more prominently than almost any other cue, and surrounds it with wavering violin harmonics that hover, almost subliminally, in the background.

“Home,” which was co-written by Benjamin Wallfisch, takes the level of electronic manipulation up to its highest point, with plectrum-scraping strings, pounding pianos, and colossal brass phrases being tortured and tormented within an inch of their lives. The whole cue has a throbbing, buzzing, overwhelmingly chaotic sense of confusion and terror that is actually quite effective despite coming close to being egregiously obnoxious. “The Oil” revisits the siren-like motif, and surrounds it with strings signifying imminent danger and dread, which build up to a tumultuous and frenzied finale that revisits the stylistics of the Supermarine piece.

Only in a few cues does any hint of warmth come peeking through, and that is entirely due to the score’s inclusion of a new variation on “Nimrod,” the famous Adagio from the Enigma Variations written by Sir Edward Elgar in 1898, which was newly-arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch for this film. The final minute or so of “Home,” most of Variation 15,” and parts of the “End Titles” come as such a jarring shock of harmonic consonance that they seem majestic, almost angelic, in comparison with the rest of the score, which was probably the point. “Nimrod” maintains an important spot in British classical music consciousness, being one of the most popular patriotic classical pieces in the contemporary repertoire, which explains its presence here.

At this point I would normally write a caveat to say that, although the score is deeply unpleasant to listen to, it works in the film – but, unfortunately, considering everything I have written above, I can’t even say that. Zimmer obviously gave Christopher Nolan the exact score he wanted, so on those grounds the score of course is a success; that is, after all, the composer’s first (and some would say only) priority. But I am coming to the conclusion that, purely from my own point of view, Nolan’s approach to music is fundamentally flawed. He doesn’t seem to understand what film music actually is, what it can do, how much depth and character and heart it can bring to a film, and how it can act as the emotional bridge between picture and audience. When you ask a composer as skilled and sensitive as Hans Zimmer to write an hour of electro-acoustic groaning and whining, augmented by a ticking clock and a bit of Elgar, you are grossly undervaluing what he could actually bring to the film.

I think the bottom line is that I’m getting increasingly frustrated with the prevailing notion amongst serious directors that scores have to be stripped away of any emotional content, have to do away with anything approaching a recognizable melody, and have to be ambiguous and unobtrusive, in order to be taken seriously. God forbid that any sort of ‘manipulation of feelings’ actually takes place, because of course we all go to the cinema to sit in stone-faced silence being un-moved by whatever is happening on screen. Christopher Nolan is certainly not the only respected director to have this view, but his position is such that his stylistic choices influence others, Zimmer’s responses to those choices influence dozens of other composers in the Hollywood film music world, and the cycle continues.

Buy the Dunkirk soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Mole (5:35)
  • We Need Our Army Back (6:28)
  • Shivering Soldier (2:52)
  • Supermarine (8:03)
  • The Tide (3:48)
  • Regimental Brothers (5:04)
  • Impulse (2:36)
  • Home (6:02)
  • The Oil (6:10)
  • Variation 15 (based on Variation IX: Adagio ‘Nimrod’ from the Enigma Variations by Sir Edward Elgar, arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch) (5:51)
  • End Titles (7:12)

Running Time: 59 minutes 45 seconds

Watertower Music (2017)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway and Benjamin Wallifisch. Orchestrations by Bruce L. Fowler, Walt Fowler, Suzette Moriarty, Carl Rydlund, Jeremy Levy and David Kristal. Additional music by Lorne Balfe, Benjamin Wallfisch, Satnam Singh Ramgotra, Andrew Kawczynski, Andy Page, and Steve Mazzaro. Featured musical soloists Nico Abondolo, Tina Guo, Steve Erdody, Ben Powell, Michael Levine, Jon Lewis, Johnny Britt and Chas Smith. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster and Alan Meyerson. Edited by Alex Gibson. Album produced by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe.

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  1. Jonathan
    July 25, 2017 at 11:11 am

    Your review is not so much controversial as much as it is absolute rubbish. This is an example – a truly outstanding one – of the
    synergy of film and score melded rfectly together. The score is not an easy listen independently. But it doesn’t need to be. Find a job that you’re better at!

    • July 25, 2017 at 7:11 pm

      It’s quite astonishing. Some how you managed to read my review, but yet completely miss the point I was making. That’s some achievement!

  2. Michael
    July 25, 2017 at 3:59 pm

    “the score has been vigorously lambasted as yet another nail in the coffin of emotional, theme-driven film music,”

    It doesn’t happen everytime Zimmer releases a score? And yet, other composers make scores that are the opposite and directors ask them to write these kind of scores. Zimmer and Nolan’s methods are just one of many. And I think that James Newton Howard’s contributions on the first two Batman films were the opposite (they had themes, melodies and even woodwinds), and yet Nolan allowed him to write that kind of music.

    Funnily, Nolan said that he didn’t wanted to make a film about a single soldier, but about all of them, which it explains why you didn’t managed to connect with the film.

    • July 25, 2017 at 5:36 pm

      but it’s still possible to write a screenplay that focuses on many characters and allows you to connect with at least 1 or 2, if not all of them. Most movies do this. So that comment you made doesn’t have any relevance.

  3. James Gordon
    July 25, 2017 at 6:52 pm

    The score is monotonous, with no melodies (exceptfor Elgar’s theme). Disappointing. I agree that Nolan must redefine what he regards as music for a movie. Different from the current scores for Apes and Spider-Man I had no desire to listen it again.

  4. July 25, 2017 at 11:07 pm

    This score actually took me out of the movie. Parts were real good but others, I felt telegraphed what to feel. Not one of his best scores.

    • Michael
      July 26, 2017 at 12:22 pm

      I actually agree with that statement. Especially with the first part when the soldiers are taking the injured man to the boot and the strings are going in the background. Some scene would have worked better without the score actually.

  5. Daniel
    July 27, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    This is possibly the worst score I have ever heard in a major movie. It is baffling why Nolan thought that his images needed this god awful accompaniment. I think he is clueless when it comes to music and he left it up to Zimmer to handle it on his own. Zimmer, trying desperately to be innovative falls flat on his face here. Truly terrible.

  6. July 28, 2017 at 5:56 am

    Terrible score! Zimmer once again proves that his talents are gone!!!

    Good review!! This is exactly what I think about this awful work.

  7. Mac
    August 7, 2017 at 8:28 am

    The score was perfect. The movie was designed to reveal the reality of Dunkirk through the choices and experiences of three people whose paths crossed and impacted upon each other, sometimes in ways they would never know. History is woven from millions of unknown stories and Nolan’s Dunkirk shows us is how that happens. He reveals this by removing himself as Director, as far as possible, from the movie, and Zimmerman’s score does the same. The task they both took upon themselves was to present the experiences of the characters without telling the audience what to think or feel. As a consequence, this movie was the most gripping and moving I have ever experienced. I did not live their lives by empathising with them, I lived through this experience alongside them. Nolan and Zimmerman have taken movie-making to a new level; the conventions of Hollywood aren’t dead, but are definitely grown out of. I don’t need music to tell me how to feel or to gain insight into a character; I see what’s happening, what people are doing, and I hear what they are hearing; my heart beating, the machines grinding and the blood pounding though my veins.

  8. Clayman
    August 21, 2017 at 12:41 am

    I agree completely with both the review of the score and the general sentiment of what seems to be going in film music these days. As far as this particular score, I have tried to listen to it a couple of times but I have never managed to keep listening until the end. The score just feels so formless, uninspired and bland. Rationally, I can understand what the director wanted and why Zimmer felt obliged to deliver exactly that, but on an emotional level, that to me is the very opposite of why I listen to film scores in the first place. I don’t think I have ever been as disappointed with Zimmer’s score to a high-profile film as I have with one. I enjoyed his scores for Nolan’s Batman movies, I even found my way to Interstellar, although it was more difficult than I anticipated, but with Dunkirk I feel more listens are required than I am ever going to grant it.

    Also, this general simplification of film music is getting ever more noticeable, isn’t it? I don’t want every composer to put out John Williams-style scores, but c’mon. There must be some middle ground between super-abstract scores like Dunkirk and simplistic run-of-the-mill scores that are featured in most action movies nowadays.

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