Dazzling Dunkirk is ‘a victory for film’

Mission accomplished: Dunkirk cost around $100m to make. It has recouped that in three days.

In its first weekend, Dunkirk has conquered the box office. Much has been made of the second world war epic’s special use of technology. Can this save the ailing cinema industry?

For the Allies in the second world war, the Dunkirk evacuation was a great setback. But a new movie that tells its story is a huge success.

With its breathtaking action sequences, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk conveys the chaos and courage of those days. It consists of three storylines, following a soldier, a fighter pilot and a rescue boat. The movie was very well received; the word “masterpiece” has been used a lot.

In its first weekend Dunkirk took $105.9m worldwide, far exceeding expectations. The strong reviews surely helped, as did the all-star cast (including Harry Styles in his acting debut). However, the movie has another ace up its sleeve: its format.

Nowadays most movies are made with digital cameras. In the 20th century, however, they were shot on various kinds of film. The most sophisticated type is called 70mm; it allows for bigger shots, sharper detail and richer colours than anything else, digital included.

Directors began to experiment with 70mm when television became popular in the 1950s. The idea was to offer viewers a visual experience that TV could not match. The format was used for epic blockbusters like Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia, but its cost and inefficiency meant that it eventually fell out of use.

Since the rise of digital, some directors have become nostalgic for the special qualities of film. Nolan believes that 70mm is uniquely immersive: “virtual reality without the goggles”, as he says. He shot Dunkirk with 70mm cameras, including some specifically suited to giant Imax screens.

Cinemas equipped to show 70mm movies are quite rare, so not everyone will get to see Dunkirk as it was intended. But reviewers have noted how amazing it looks in that format, generating buzz and triggering a debate about how movies should be filmed.

Just like TV in the 1950s, video-on-demand is now stealing viewers from cinemas. In the USA, fewer tickets are being sold than at any time since the 1920s. Even 3D, the big innovation of the last decade, has flopped. Could movies like Dunkirk, which focus on the cinematic experience, save the industry?

The Dunkirk spirit

No, say some. Action epics look great on 70mm. But for less visual films, the format barely makes a difference. And even if it did, people always put convenience above quality — hence why video-on-demand is so popular. Dunkirk is a one-off. Big-screen cinema is dying.

Not true, reply others. After Dunkirk, more cinemas will invest in 70mm equipment and “quality” screenings will become more popular. Video-on-demand will trigger a backlash, much like MP3 and vinyl. Nolan has reminded us of the joy of the big screen. As one critic says, that is “a victory for film”.

You Decide

  1. Are you excited to see Dunkirk?
  2. Do you care about the format in which you watch a movie?


  1. Write a review of a movie you recently saw. Mention whether you saw it on a big or small screen, and how this affected your experience.
  2. In groups of four, come up with the concept for a movie titled Courage. Present it to the class next week.

Some People Say...

“Narrative is more important than visuals.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In the past two decades, digital technology has swiftly taken over the movie industry. Many cinemas have got rid of their film projectors, so even movies shot on film are often shown digitally, thus erasing film’s advantages. Purists say film gives a richer, more “authentic” image. But digital is cheaper, lighter and more efficient. It makes life easier for film-makers with small budgets.
What do we not know?
Whether film — 70mm in particular — can stage a full comeback. For now, 70mm equipment is rare and costly, and only famous directors can afford to use it. Industry figures will be looking at how well Dunkirk’s 70mm screenings sell compared to digital ones. If there is evidence that viewers actively seek out the special format, we may start seeing a lot more of it.

Word Watch

Dunkirk evacuation
Over 10 days in 1940, with the German army closing in, around 350,000 Allied troops were evacuated by sea from the French harbour of Dunkirk. Almost 100,000 were left behind and imprisoned or killed.
Christopher Nolan
The British director is famous for his high-budget action movies like the Dark Knight trilogy and Interstellar.
Heavy historical movies normally come out in the autumn, leaving the summer for more light-hearted fare like superhero flicks. This makes Dunkirk’s triumph even more remarkable.
So named because it is 70 millimetres wide. The most common type of film is 35mm; it can only carry half as much visual information.
Cinemas that do not have 70mm projectors can still screen Dunkirk digitally.
3D has been criticised for being used unimaginatively, for the awkwardness of the glasses, and other things besides. In the USA, the box office for 3D movies is declining. But in some other territories, notably China, it is still rising fast.
In both the USA and the UK, vinyl sales are at their highest in decades.

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