Why You Should…
If you prefer Zimmer in his synthetic mode, with enough aggression in the engaging “Supermarine”, as well as some pleasing Elgar variations in the final third of the score.
Why You Shouldn’t…
If Zimmer’s approach is overall too abstract to register any long-lasting impact, much of the score being too intimate for its own good.
Release Date: 21st July 2017 (GENERAL RELEASE)
Composer(s): Hans Zimmer
Label: WaterTower Music
Additional Music By: Lorne Balfe, Andrew Kawczynski, Satnam Rangotra, Benjamin Wallfisch
Additional Arrangements: Steve Mazzaro
Conducted By: Gavin Greenaway
Mixed By: Alan Meyerson
Synth Programmer(s): Howard Scarr, Andy Page
Musician: Tina Guo
Although many aspects of the Second World War are still extensively taught with vigour and urgency in classrooms across the world, because of territorial differences, the perspectives of the soldiers and conflict vary accordingly. During the six-year long war, the Dunkirk Evacuation of 26th May-4th June 1940, also code-named Operation Dynamo or the Miracle of Dunkirk proved successful in liberating stranded Allied forces from Dunkirk, France. A combination of terrified and homesick British, Canadian, Belgian and French troops were isolated and cornered by the German Army, invoking drastic action of desperate measures. Addressed by then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who claimed Dunkirk as a colossal military disaster, despite lending the operation a more positive note in his infamous “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech immemorial, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) suffered a staggering 68,000 soldier loss by the time France had surrendered on the 22nd of June 1940. However, by the eighth day of the rescue, 338,226 soldiers were safely brought home across an 800 odd fleet of boats. The Dunkirk Jack flag commemorates this incident in British wartime history as absolute and unforgettable by any cost, only flown by civilian vessels that took part in the actual rescue operation. Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s eponymous triptych DUNKIRK marks the 77th anniversary of the evacuation at the time of the film’s release. Nolan, credited as the most defining director of the 21st century with originally inventive science fiction crowd-pleasers such as Inception and Interstellar, and the unseatable superhero franchise The Dark Knight Trilogy, returns to the mainstream with another non-linear narrative to enthrall audiences with. Despite unanimous praise from all angles, and potential Academy Award mentions for the upcoming campaign, Nolan’s depiction doesn’t focus excessively on the overall conflict, but the fictionalised treatment of his intimately sourced cast in a personal vein. With the rapturous buzz that circles a Nolan film, comes the even more rapturous buzz surrounding composer Hans Zimmer‘s work for said film.
Arguably, the Nolan and Zimmer duo are the most popular director-composer collaboration of the 21st century thus far, with each of their combined efforts yielding immense popular praise from masses alike. The internal wrath of the IFMCA and the film music society is another perspective to take note of, despite being largely overshadowed and redundant compared to the admirers at hand. Nothing has changed in the way both sides of the world look and regard his music, and that’s all that needs to be said. Zimmer once claimed Nolan as the co-composer of his music for these films, his aggressive and absorbing touches definitely reflecting on-screen. By now, the folk tale of Nolan’s written letter to Zimmer during Interstellar’s production is well known and documented, the latter effort yielding a first-class sterling score that proved the composer still innovates even when his detractors pin him down. Dunkirk is a different auditory matter, but similar in conception. The film’s screenplay was adapted to accommodate a Shepard Tone phenomenon to provide intensity. This reverberating effect comprises of multiple sine waves separated by octaves, played with the bass pitch and creating an auditory illusion of melodic ascension/descension, despite no such actual movement. A similar approach was adapted to incorporate the Batpod’s sound during The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Much of the score to Dunkirk is rooted heavily in the synthetic regions, perhaps to adhere strictly to the dramatic tension and lack of sufficient dialogue for a war film, but then Dunkirk is not the typical war film either. Context is pivotal in addressing the score, and as ever, what Zimmer and co provide functions masterfully in film. In album however, is a slow, laborious experience that makes the listener question the lack of melody in favour of abrasive techniques. Heck, his trademark lower region bass and cello marches would have more than sufficed for Dunkirk. Don’t go in expecting Goldsmith‘s Patton or Williams‘ Saving Private Ryan, two scores though fantastic, that would have been too much for the sparse tone Nolan desires to articulate.
What we have here is the back-burner of Inferno, albeit to a less grating degree. Zimmer’s standardised synthetic palette is the backbone of the score, with minimal motivic presence. The only form of a main motif for Dunkirk is the aggressively entertaining “Supermarine” piece, with 3-note slurs atop of a gradually rising melody that returns later in “The Oil”. The former piece is the birth child of Inception and adopts the throbbing build of The Thin Red Line in its lengthy proposition, before Zimmer applies his signature dissolve into silence when the maddening noise hits fever pitch. A lot of praise from film critics has circled Zimmer’s score, possibly either to this implement or the Elgar based variations found in the end of the score. The Elgar presence is interesting if only in the sense that it provides the superior cues and some emotional pay-off with its cold, otherworldly dulcet tones that signal homecoming for the stranded soldiers. One could draw a comparison with Johann Johannsson‘s usage of Max Richter‘s material in Arrival, which when coupled with the penultimate “Kangaru” acts as the only redeeming element in an otherwise catastrophic album.
What pushes Dunkirk over Arrival however, is firstly the audibility of the material in comparison. Much of Arrival was immersed in frustrating silence to the point where packaging and releasing it in album form was offensive enough, and this all leans back to John Cage‘s “4:33”, one of the godfathers of polarising experimental pieces. Secondly, there is a superior attempt at conveying tension in “End Titles (Dunkirk)” and “Supermarine” than there was in the entirety of Arrival. Many will point to the Elgar variations as the better sections of Dunkirk, and to their credit, they have reason. The abrasive piano cord slaps and string ostinatos in the former cue are effective in their use, and another motif presents itself in a wayward lone trumpet solo, that makes its first appearance in “Shivering Soldier”. That idea is a clear carryover from the death motif in Batman v Superman, ambiguous solo brass offering haunting solitude. The rhythmic tick sound of Nolan’s personal pocket watch is a tried and tested approach to representing time on-screen through music and sound design, synthesised by Zimmer. Synth-bass propagation in “Variation 15 (Dunkirk)” adds somewhat a structure behind the pleasant colours of the bittersweet Elgar, courtesy of the gifted Benjamin Wallfisch. Lorne Balfe‘s additions to the score also serve as the better moments. Cues such as “The Mole” are redundant on album, whereas “Impulse” utilises the watch ticking reasonably well whilst the glaring synths and cautious strings work. The atmospheric dominance is alarming, if only for the lack of sonic harmony to keep things affable enough. Much of Zimmer’s better material for his recent scores seems to be further towards the score’s end these days, with no strong middle-third album pieces either. Dunkirk for the most part comfortably sits in the rusty, metallic turmoil of which Zimmer’s music tries to narrate, some melodic redemption found in the final third of the score due to Sir Edward Elgar‘s posthumous presence, but much of the score is otherwise too abstract and forgettable. Seek out Supermarine and the Elgar material for a quick suite.
(all music written by Hans Zimmer)
1) The Mole (5:35)
2) We Need Our Army Back (6:28)
3) Shivering Soldier (2:52)
4) Supermarine (8:03)
5) The Tide (3:48)
6) Regimental Brothers (5:04)
7) Impulse (2:36)
8) Home (6:02)
9) The Oil (6:10)
10) Variation 15 (Dunkirk) (5:51)
11) End Titles (Dunkirk) (7:12)