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Oscars 2018: How ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Darkest Hour’ Became Complementary Movies About Heroism and Leadership

The "Dunkirk" and "Darkest Hour" editors tackled very different challenges for their book-end approaches to military and political warfare involving Winston Churchill.


Melinda Sue Gordon


With “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour,” we get a pair of complementary World War II movies about heroism and leadership, both involving the legendary 1940 evacuation of Allied forces from the beaches of France and the behind the scenes political warfare displayed by Winston Churchill (Oscar frontrunner Gary Oldman, who leads the latter film). Meanwhile, the editorial demands couldn’t be more different for “Dunkirk’s” Lee Smith and “Darkest Hour’s” Valerio Bonelli.

While Christopher Nolan offered “visceral realism” for his “Dunkirk,” an overlapping actioner covering land, sea, and air, “Darkest Hour” helmer Joe Wright delivered a more psychological approach to his claustrophobic pressure cooker.

Diving Into “Dunkirk”

After working with Nolan since “Batman Begins,” Smith found “Dunkirk” a very refreshing editorial departure. Even with its experiment in time, it contained little dialogue and the running time was only 106 minutes, around a half-hour shorter than the typical Nolan movie. “This is a film where you experience what it was like to be there and I think that generally adds to the tension of each of these scenes,” he said. “And the onus to tell a story visually is so much stronger.”

But the documentary-like, immersion into the land (one week), sea (one day), and air (one hour) timelines posed several unique challenges about creating a sense of dread. First, there was Nolan’s insistence on tracking the entire movie to the beat of his ticking pocket watch (which he worked out with composer Hans Zimmer). “It didn’t necessarily dictate the rhythm of the cut, but it was very much the inception of the idea of this film,” added Smith.


Melinda Sue Gordon

The editor cut entire sequences together and then decided how and when to split them up for optimal effectiveness, keeping in mind that land sequences moved slower than sea and air. The trick was making sure he cut back to a sequence quickly enough before the viewer forgot what had already happened.

Initially, Smith cut the aerial footage too much like action sequences, which made them fly by too quickly. “Given more time to develop, the aerial sequences became more realistic, which was the way they were shot [in IMAX 65mm by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema],” he said.

The two main challenges, though, were figuring out where the three timelines converged and when to place the emotional high point: The arrival of the fleet of civilian ships to evacuate the soldiers.


Courtesy of Warner bRos. Picture

“The convergence was always around the area of watching the ship sink and [Tom] Hardy down one of the last planes and when the little boat was steaming towards the upturned, sinking vessel to save the men,” Smith said.

However, it took several attempts before arriving at the two-thirds point for the spotting of the civilian ships. Then Smith had to wind it back up as the timelines started to separate again. “We follow the boys back to the beach and the ships back to England again, and Hardy having to land his plane after running out of fuel and being captured. Getting to that end beat was complicated,” he said.

Director and editor also changed the end. “The original ending was the spitfire burning on the beach, and very early in the cut, we realized that [Fionn Whitehead] owns so much of the film and it should end on the young soldier on the train, putting his paper down [after reading Churchill’s ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech] and cutting to black,” said Smith.

Getting Inside Churchill’s Head

With “Darkest Hour,” Wright (“Atonement”) went for a less baroque, more minimal storytelling approach in dramatizing Churchill’s divisive appointment as British Prime Minister. As Hitler closes in on Britain, Churchill must fight Parliament and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) to resist the signing of a peace accord.

For editor Bonelli, it was about breaking up scenes with impressions inside Churchill’s mind. “I think that’s where the interesting part of where ‘Darkest Hour’ is,” he said. “It’s the counterpoint of tension. It’s about reactions to learning the news and the thought process on people’s faces about what to do next. “

4106_D015_00585_R_CROPGary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

“Darkest Hour”

Jack English

Although the first war cabinet scene detailing exposition about Dunkirk was one of the trickiest to edit, given its seven-minute length, Bonelli had difficulty with the timing of the second meeting between Churchill and the king over lunch at Buckingham Palace. “In the script, the lunch occurred later, but we moved it earlier [after the war cabinet scene] to give it a sense of relief and intrigue of where the story might go,” he said.

“It was really nice to go to a scene with sunlight coming through the window and these two people studying each other,” added Bonelli. “The king is trying to understand this man and he’s scared by him. We stripped down the dialogue and made it about the two men. And it works from a dramatic point because it’s the first time you feel that Churchill is opening up to somebody else, apart from his wife [Kristin Scott Thomas], and you understand that the king has an important role.”

The humanizing of Churchill continued during a tender scene in which his secretary (Lily James) helped him with his address to Parliament and confided about the death of her brother. “I think what really was special was what’s unspoken,” said the editor. “And I think Joe quite interestingly created a [paternal] love tension between them.”

4106_D023_00001_R_CROPLily James stars as Elizabeth Layton and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

“Darkest Hour”

Jack English

“And there’s that look that he gives her at the end of the scene. And she says, ‘What?’ And he says he’s just looking at her. In the process of cutting, we discussed who should break the look first and we decided to break it on Churchill because, in a way, she becomes stronger than him,” he said.

To help bolster his appeal to Parliament, Churchill rode the London Underground to listen to a cross-section of residents and they told him to fight Hitler. Although the scene is fictional, Bonelli defended its inclusion. “It contains a spiritual truth about Churchill, who interacted with people during the London blitz,” he said. “And it serves the purpose of turning around the interior energy of this man. He goes there to get his mojo back and his fighting spirit.”

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