Behind The Line: Escape to Dunkirk review

★★★

Directed by #BenMole

Starring: #SamGittins #JoeEgan #JenniferMartin

Film review by Nathanial Eker

Did you ever watch Rocky IV and think; 'this could really do with some nazis.' If so, you're in luck. The lovechild of an 80s sports movie and Sam Mendes' 1917, Behind the Lines: Escape to Dunkirk is a tonally dissonant microcosm of the hyper-masculinity associated with fighting for sport. It transforms the horrors of war into a literal sparring match between cartoonish forces so goofy they could give Mr. T and Hulk Hogan a run for their money. Yet, the film boasts a bizarre charm that forces the odd guilty grin at the sheer earnestness of its brutish bravado.


Danny Finnegan (Sam Gittins) is a talented boxer who has been enlisted into the British army following the outbreak of WWII. He and a friend are captured while in France and forced into a prison with a handful of other British and French soldiers. There, he becomes the rival of a German officer, who demands he fight one of his men in the exhibition match of his life.


Behind the Lines goes through a bizarre transformation throughout its ninety-minute runtime and ends up feeling like a completely different movie by its end. It is at first typical of the war genre, albeit with inconsistent acting and lower production values, and not to mention a dull script. However, everything changes when Danny is forced to box and the film suddenly transforms into a stereotypical sports movie, complete with slow motion punches though sadly without a training montage. The tone also shifts dramatically, and any semblance of realism evaporates along with the audience's boredom.


As the script embraces its growing silliness, the actors relax into their roles too. Sam Gittins does a fine job as tough-but-fair Danny Finnegan, though the rest of the cast are a mixed bag. Jennifer Martin and Joel Phillimore are remarkably unconvincing and offer far from the emotional response one would expect upon seeing their closest friends and family brutally killed.


The German characters fare little better, and offer only unconvincing accents and moustache-twirling levels of antagonism. Yes, the real Nazis were / are atrociously evil, but there's little nuance here beyond a caricatured portrayal and a basic understanding of their motives and actions, which feels a little uncomfortable. The group periodically sought to exterminate other races; they weren't the villains of an Adam Sandler film.


Overly simplistic portrayals of real-world fascists aside, Behind the Lines ends up becoming bizarrely compelling, due in part to some tight writing and a charming sense of escapism despite being set during a harrowing real world event. Writer - Director Ben Mole manages to turn the latter half of the film into a simple-yet-exciting escape attempt based around the eponymous exhibition match. Unfortunately, despite some excellent fight choreography, sloppy cinematography fails to avoid showing the obviously fake punches stopping short of making contact, thereby destroying audience immersion.


The film's editing also presents some issues as despite being well-paced for the longest time, the final fifteen minutes fly by at an absurdly frantic pace giving zero time for a proper emotional payoff. The bombastic soundtrack helps and is mostly used well, particularly during the fights though the core conflict resolves so laughably quickly that a good use of musical motifs can't soften the blow and make the ending feel at all earned.


Behind the Lines is perhaps one of the most odd, yet somehow still enjoyable war films ever made. It reduces the conflict of World War II to a level of simplicity that would make Tarantino blush, yet it simultaneously captures the spirit of patriotic classics of the 50s and 60s, where heroes escaped the German forces in ridiculous ways and every Nazi officer was the same tall, thin caricature who maintained a begrudging respect for the sheer Britishness or Americanness of the snarky protagonist.


Overall, Behind the Lines is conflicting. It's entertaining to a fault, though not always for the right reasons. You may find something to enjoy, but don't expect the level of despondent realism seen in most contemporary takes on the war.


Expect German and French accents that make Dick Van Dyke's cockney sound half-decent.