Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is getting plenty of awards buzz – and it’s a fine movie – but I much preferred a more engaging historical movie in 2017: The Lost City of Z.
Dunkirk reminded me of the sort of serious war movies made in the 1950s and 1960s, films like The Dambusters, Sink the Bismarck, or The Longest Day. Serious in the sense that they faithfully told the tale of a real moment in the war, without resorting to Hollywood stereotypes or excessive melodrama. Filled with first class actors and directed by craftsmen like Michael Anderson. Lewis Gilbert, and Michael Powell, these films were thrilling without being chauvinistic flag-wavers and illuminating without being preachy. Many of them treated the enemy with, if not admiration, at least a sense that they were capable men stuck with a losing cause.
The Lost City of Z, on the other hand, felt very much like a David Lean film from the same era. (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) Lean’s films were as well crafted and true to history as the previous category I described, but they had the added glamour of epic sweep and a sense of almost mystical destiny.
The Lost City of Z relates the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett and his decades long obsession with finding evidence of an ancient, higher civilization in the wilds of the Amazon. It features beautiful scenery, danger that lurks at every turn of the river,and a real sense of the time.
The Lost City of Z is engaging, however, because of its characters. Charlie Hunnam stars as Fawcett, and epitomizes old-fashioned, stiff-upper lip British masculinity. At the same time, his views on the natives and the possibility of a highly advanced South American civilization are generous and in opposition to the hide-bound bigotry of the Royal Geographic Society. Angus MacFadyen as fellow explorer James Murray is highly enjoyable as Fawcett’s ally turned villain. Sienna Miller plays Fawcett’s fiercely intelligent wife and Robert Pattinson (yes, Robert Pattinson!) turns in a solid performance as Fawcett’s loyal right hand man.
It’s the interaction of these characters that helps to humanize the epic story and provide a rooting interest. That element is missing in Dunkirk, and that is why I think it falls a step short of The Lost City of Z. The group of soldiers who struggle throughout to escape the beaches are almost indistinguishable from one another. They all look the same and there are no personality quirks or personal touches to set them apart from one another. The same for the British fighter pilots. And the enemy, the Germans are never even shown. Dunkirk tells a compelling, true story, but it does in a way that emphasizes story over character.
Think back to those David Lean classics and recall how memorable Alec Guinness was as Colonel Nicholson, or Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi, or Omar Sharif as either Yuri or Sherif Ali. Fine actors given plenty to do, ringing dialogue, and unforgettable interplay. All missing from Dunkirk.
There’s a great lesson for writers from the master storyteller, David Lean. No matter how epic and thrilling your story is, there’s alway room for character.