By Bruce Scott
Director Christopher Nolan is known for slickly futuristic films including Interstellar, Inception and The Dark Knight. Yet, in the Academy Award-nominated blockbuster Dunkirk, Nolan takes his high-tech, movie-making arsenal backward in time to the early days of World War II, telling a story with legendary status — the near-miraculous rescue of stranded British troops from the beaches of France.
So, it seems appropriate that Hollywood veteran Hans Zimmer, in his Oscar-nominated musical score for that film, hints at artistic strategies that also look back into history, reflecting techniques pioneered by composers nearly 1000 years ago.
Beginning in the very first moments of the film, Zimmer’s music makes extensive use of a theme familiar to lovers of classical music everywhere, and especially in Britain. It’s the melody of the “Nimrod” movement from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
Elgar’s “Nimrod” has become an artistic icon in England. It’s played at moments of great national pride and patriotism, remembrance and mourning. That makes it an obvious choice for a film evoking a pivotal moment in British history — an event vividly recalled for both its tragedy, and its heroism.
Yet, in an intensely driven film lasting 105 minutes, the extensive use of such a widely familiar melody, no matter how appropriate, might easily dilute its meaning. So, how does a composer continuously employ a familiar and beloved melody in ways that expand its significance, reflecting the profoundly moving story it helps to tell, without allowing it to become trite and repetitive?
As it happens, church composers in the Middle Ages — the days of Gregorian chant — had a similar problem. They were bound by tradition, and often by doctrine, to set each liturgical text to its own, specific melody — a plainchant. To expand their means of expression while meeting that requirement, composers used a method now known as organum.
Over decades, and even centuries, organum took many forms. In one, the plainchant became a cantus firmus, or “fixed song.” The melody was greatly extended — stretched out until each note sounded like an underlying drone. Then, over those extended notes, composers wrote freely moving harmonies and counterpoint — leaving the mandatory melody technically intact, but barely recognizable.
The music in Dunkirk does something similar. In the film’s opening scene, the “Nimrod” melody emerges slowly, its notes extended and overlapping, obscured by an eerie atmosphere of sonic effects. In subsequent scenes, the theme is stretched even further, with counterpoint provided both in the music, and by movie sounds — the chaos of battle, the pounding of the sea, the cheering of men who, finally, see rescue at hand.
In one striking instance, the opening note of “Nimrod” actually bridges two scenes — the tragedy of a dying boy, and a pilot’s glimpse of distant beaches and the troops he hopes to protect. That first note alone lasts more than 30 seconds! It’s only after the second and third notes are played that the theme itself becomes evident.
Eventually, near the film’s end, “Nimrod” is again heard in extended form, at first hard to discern, as that pilot faces a life-or-death predicament. At the pivotal moment, the rhythm accelerates, the harmonies resolve, and the famous melody reveals itself, with its full measure of tragedy, resignation … and relief. Thus, a distinctly modern film tells an immensely moving story from history, made even more effective by timely music with ancient roots.