Nerdiest Oscar Post Ever: The Dunkirk-Darkest Machete Order

It’s Oscar Week! I am super excited. We managed to stream both Lady Bird and Get Out over the weekend. Both are wonderful in their own ways, with brilliant acting and directing. But I have to say that Get Out will be giving me chills for weeks. The alternate ending is worth watching, too, if you can.

These two films put us at having seen 6 out of 9 of the Best Picture noms, which is a pretty good streak for us. It’s always a challenge to squeeze in enough adult time between the nominations and the awards to see all the films, but we do what we can.

You’ve probably noticed, as I have, that this year’s films seem to cluster around themes. Racism and justice, holding leadership accountable, the impact of the media, coming of age… And two of this year’s best picture films (Dunkirk and Darkest Hour) center on the same critical moment in World War II in Britain, taking different perspectives on Britain’s response to the fall of France and Belgium to the Nazis in May 1940.

This is me in the underground bunker at the Churchill War Rooms, now a museum. (July 2016)
This is me in the underground bunker at the Churchill War Rooms, now a museum. The guards were super friendly, and great listeners. (July 2016)

Since I studied this era in British history a good bit recently, I was nerdy excited to see both films come out, and was thrilled that they are both (to me) excellent and revelatory in completely different ways.

**Edit to Add: Someone asked me about spoilers, and I will say that depending on your knowledge of WWII history, this might contain some information you don’t know if you haven’t seen the films. Since both movies are (I think) about telling the unexpected or little known side of well-known time in history, I don’t think what I say here will in any way ruin your experience with either film.**

Darkest Hour focuses on the political machinations in 1940 Westminister in general, the character of Winston Churchill (and others, including Clementine Churchill, Elizabeth Layton, Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax and King George VI) in particular. It shows in excruciating detail how close England came to capitulation to Hitler when things looked bleakest. How different history would be…

[By the way, if you’re interested in America’s role during this pre-Pearl Harbor era, I highly recommend Lynne Olson’s fascinating book, Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour. I don’t consider myself a history expert, or buff even, but the close character studies in that book cast that critical period in a whole new light for me.]

Dunkirk is a gritty, chaotic look at the seminal battle during that same time, which became the rallying point around which the British people gathered their courage to fight another day. It’s an excellent film as well, and what I loved about it from an artistic standpoint was that there was no true main character or protagonist (though there were plenty of heroes and heroic acts). Also, the sound editing is incredible in that movie — not something I usually notice — and I will be rooting for them in that category.

It occurred to me that — for my fellow nerds especially — these two films would go great together. So, with an apologetic nod to Rod Hilton and the Star Wars franchise, I’ve borrowed his term and created my own, smaller-scale machete order, so you can have your own Oscar-nominated, British-resistance night in.

Step #1 – Get the movies

Here are the streaming links*:

Darkest Hour

Dunkirk

Or, to purchase the DVDs*:

Darkest Hour

Dunkirk (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital)

*FTC disclosure: The links to the films and book in this post are affiliate links, which means if you click them and stream the movies from there, or go on to buy anything else while you’re on Amazon, I get a teeny-tiny percentage back from Amazon for sending you there (you don’t pay more than if you search for them yourselves). I really appreciate your support! Most other links are to recipes, information, etc., and are not affiliate links. There, I’m just being nice. 🙂

Step #2 – Cocktails & Appetizers

Originally, I had planned to suggest that you prime the pump by re-watching 2010’s The King’s Speech, because it stars the delectable and brilliant Colin Firth (who won an Oscar for his performance). And it gives you a bit of background on Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany in 1939, the title character King George VI (Bertie), and the complexity of his relationship with then-future PM Winston Churchill. Sadly, however, TKS is a Weinstein production, and it makes me feel skeevy to recommend buying it.

How about making some English tea sandwiches and Pimm’s instead? They’re light and delicious, and probably won’t assault you in their hotel rooms.

Step #3 – Watch Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour takes us to the crisis of May 1940, and we get to watch Gary Oldman completely, magically disappear into Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He won the Golden Globe for this role, it will be interesting to see what happens on Oscar night. [Aside: I looooove Gary Oldman — ever since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — and will watch him in almost anything. The accolades for this role are certainly warranted. But I still have to admit that I’m still rooting for Daniel Kaluuya to win Best Actor. Sorry, Gare-Bear. It’s okay if I call you Gare-Bear, right?]

Ahem. From a modern perspective, it’s fascinating to see how little support Churchill had among his peers for standing up to the Nazis, and how challenging his emerging relationship with George VI was. (Bertie is played by Ben Mendelsohn, who fills Colin Firth’s shoes admirably, even if we’ve never lusted after him as he emerges from a lake). History seems so clear-cut when we look back on it sometimes, it’s amazing to me how much uncertainty and doubt plagued the real life players. Strangely, this gives me all kinds of hope.

As you watch Darkest Hour, maybe enjoy some shepherd’s pie (or you can do what we’ll do Oscar night and eat a Victory Garden tribute salad). Pay attention at around the 49-minute mark: the situation at Dunkirk is explained when Churchill and his war council are discussing the 300,000 stranded troops and what their destruction would mean for the empire and the free world. (While Dunkirk does a great job showing the hardships, heroism and massive human cost of the predicament of the British military, I’m not sure I understood the full scale of what was at stake on that beach globally, until I watched Darkest Hour a couple of months later).

Step #3 – Pause at the turning point

Photo of the War Cabinet Room, taken by me in 2016.
Photo of the War Cabinet Room, taken by me in 2016. I’m just assuming the dude in the back is Halifax, practicing his “we give in, please don’t hurt us” speech.

Once you’ve heard Churchill’s plan to save the troops at Dunkirk, you can pause Darkest Hour at the around the 1:17:00 mark (shortly after “Courage, Miss Layton. Courage,” when the commanding officer at Calais receives the telegram that he and his troops will not be evacuated.) This timing allows you to go straight from Churchill’s War Room Map to Christopher Nolan’s view of the beaches at Dunkirk. Incidentally, this is also the point in the film in which I was continually slapping Hubs’ arm and saying “I’ve been there! Right in that room! It’s exactly the same!”

Or, you can wait for the 1:36:00 mark, when the fishing boats are shown on the water in Darkest Hour, and Churchill reaches his moment of crisis. They’re both powerful and timely, but if I were putting out an Official Schedule for Machete Order, I’d probably choose the latter.

Step #4 – Meanwhile, on the coast of France…

Watch Dunkirk. You’ll need a drink for this. You could try the “Churchill Martini” (gin over ice with vermouth open in the same room), or Winston’s standard drink of Johnnie Walker Red with water. If Winston’s tastes are too much for you, perhaps a good British beer is in order. My personal favorite is Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter. But really, you can’t go wrong.

You can watch Dunkirk all the way through; or if you are super-persnickety about chronology, pause at the scene near the trains toward the end.

Step #4 – Back to Darkest Hour

This is where we rejoin the stalwart people of Britain as Mr. Churchill grapples with the question of negotiation with Hitler and Mussolini. The films both capture the spirit of the beleaguered people of the British Isles and Mr. Churchill’s famous speech perfectly — even though only Darkest Hour features the words from Churchill himself. It’s moving both times, for different reasons.

Eat trifle. Have some claret. Wave your hanky. Pray for light in the darkness. And never surrender!

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MJ Pullen

M.J. Pullen is a Distracted Writer and the mom of two boys in Roswell, Georgia, where she is absolutely late for something important right now. Her books include quirky romantic comedies and playful women's fiction. Join her Distracted Readers newsletter list for updates, free content, giveaways and more.

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