Christopher Nolan’s World War II retreat-and-rescue epic “Dunkirk” has critical acclaim and is the first 2017 studio film to stand as a serious awards contender. However, it’s unlikely to become a significant player among the top war films at the box office.
Over the last decade, Nolan’s made five films that grossed $200 million-$658 million (adjusted domestic). However, while war films can still draw big numbers (Clint Eastwood’s 2014’s “American Sniper” earned $381 million, domestic adjusted), Nolan’s movie may be hampered by history.
War is the backdrop to some of the most popular films of all time, including “Star Wars” as well as “Gone With the Wind” and “The Sound of Music,” the #1 and 3 domestic grossers of all time. David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” was more of a biography-character study, but it was an epic set during WWI and its adjusted gross was $473 million.
War films were the original box-office draw. D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915) used the Civil War as a central plot element. Its groundbreaking recreation of battles, then unprecedented in their scope, were as much of a draw as the racism for which it now is infamous.
A decade later, its success was eclipsed by another war film with King Vidor’s WWI romantic drama “The Big Parade” (1925). Like all films from the era, the data is unreliable. However, some sources place its adjusted gross at over $700 million — at a time when the U.S. population was about a third of today’s. It was eventually replaced by “Gone With the Wind” (at nearly $1.8 billion), still the top grosser to this day.
In terms of hardcore war films set in and around battle, the most successful film is David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” ($481 million), set in a Japanese POW camp. Battle-focused hits include “Saving Private Ryan” ($404 million), “Patton” ($352 million), “The Dirty Dozen” ($334 million), and “The Longest Day ($317 million).
However, the last battle-centric hit was “Pearl Harbor” ($310 million) in 2001. And Michael Bay’s film was as much a soap opera/romance as a war film.
That makes the best recent precedent Steven Spielberg’s “Private Ryan.” Like Nolan, he was a director near the top of his appeal, had a summer release, rave reviews, state-of-the-art effects and technique, and even a similar coastal setting and intermingling of personal stories.
However, that was 19 years ago — ancient history, in movie terms, with events that took place 44 years earlier. By comparison, the events of “Dunkirk” occurred 77 years ago.
“Private Ryan” also benefited from an R rating that stemmed from delivering the sort of action that seems central to many war movies’ appeal. (Though they were accompanied with anti-war themes and critical support, “Platoon,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “The Deer Hunter” made their millions in part because they delivered the blood and guts that core middle American male audiences desire.) Spielberg’s film also featured Tom Hanks at the peak of his drawing power.
“Dunkirk,” by contrast, is PG-13, stars a raft of virtual unknowns, and is nearly bloodless (although its action sequences generate plenty of tension through skillful filmmaking and sound design).
The more distant in time and experience “Dunkirk,” along with its story more centered on rescue than battle, might place it further outside the framework of prior wartime successes. However, it certainly has its own assets in Nolan’s name, great reviews, the promise of an elevated theatrical experience in 70mm and IMAX.
And as recent films have shown us, blood-and-guts battles are no assurance of blockbusters. Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” grossed $67 million last fall, while “Fury” with Brad Pitt came in around $90 million in 2014. (“Unbroken” was primarily a POW story, “The Monuments Men” more of a caper, “Allied” a spy romance, and “Inglourious Basterds” had Tarantino to boost it and more of a secret-agent plot.)
Among the unknowns for “Dunkirk”: Will it open around the $40 million predicted? Will it have a strong multiple (Nolan’s “Interstellar” opened under expectations to $47 million, but then grossed four times that during its run)? How vital will the domestic share will be to its overall haul? (Europe and the U.K. in particular could have real impact.) How will its potential Oscar contention add to its long-term value?
What we do know: Despite some history of military-themed films breaking out in the past, the particular elements of “Dunkirk” suggest it is the least-guaranteed success of any Nolan film since he achieved A-list status.
Ten Biggest Grossing Military/Battlefield/Men at War Films (Sound Era)
(Fun fact: Four of these 10 won an Oscar for Best Picture and/or Director and eight of the 10 were Best Picture nominees. It would be hard to make a similar list of top-grossing films in any other genre with the same results.)