Wars for the Planet of the Gays: Same-Sex Masculine Intimacy in ‘Apes’ and ‘Dunkirk’

There are no women in War for the Planet of the Apes.

Or, at least, none of remote consequence. There’s Nova, the young mute child who’s taken in by the apes, though her youth largely excludes her from gender dynamics. Her introduction vividly recalls the end of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and solidifies her as the humbler future of mankind, who’ve done a fine job destroying themselves on their own. There’s Cornelia and Lake, two chimpanzee women whose roles are as mate and caregiver. Their presence only serves the apes’ domestic needs, which colony leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) stated in the previous film: “Home. Family. Future.” Those are quite functional, survivalist requirements for life, and if War makes anything bluntly, brutally clear, it’s that life is a hell of a lot more than just survival.

The film’s embarrassing gender dynamics have been rightly criticized since the release of Matt Reeves’ still compelling, captivating trilogy-capper. Surely, the future for women ought to be more thoughtful and independent than such one-dimensional archetypes, an issue with Fox’s Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy overall. What these criticiques largely failed to ask, though, is how the absence of women effects dynamics within a predominantly male cast. In a world without women, or where womens’ voices don’t hold sway over men, what do men come to mean to each other?

The most progressive female character, dispiriting as it is, is a member of the villainous Colonel’s rogue army of exceptionalist soldiers, without dialogue or character, but whose presence itself suggests that poisonous moral corruption has no gender. It also has no specific race, as Reeves’ previous Apes film, Dawn, made a forceful point of. War takes the assumption that hatred and violence are built into us from the beginning and thrillingly dismantles it, revealing a universal capacity for obsessive vengeance in people of all races, genders and temperaments. More tender, by contrast, is how Reeves also seeks out a universal capacity for love, however broken or contorted it may be.

Caesar and the Colonel, two seemingly opposite leaders who nonetheless come to eerily mirror one another, are about as far away from sex as possible. They’re both hellbent on the others’ absolute evisceration: Caesar, for the deeply personal reasons; The Colonel, for simply practical, if fanatical, reasons. While Caesar may be succumbing to volatile rage over his actions, the Colonel isn’t particularly angry at his ape counterpart. More than anything, he’s impressed, fascinated by the intelligence and perseverance Caesar shows through extraordinary pain and cruelty. Their scenes are charged with the electricity of two mutually loathing kindred spirits, and disturbed by the Colonel’s most radical religious notions, speaking of Caesar’s “unholy kingdom” as if he desperately needs to confound a reason for subjugating the apes.

If Caesar’s dynamic with the Colonel is fueled by rage, his relationship to closest confidant, Maurice (Karin Konoval), feels much more like a caring, communicative partnership. While spending much of the film separated, Caesar’s roiling internal journey taking him down a bleaker path, Maurice’s moments with him convey kinship and care, a desperation to remove some of the obsessive burden from his companion. His partner following a path of increased brutality, Maurice is essentially struggling to save the soul of a man who may already be too far gone. His final scene with Caesar, rich with grief and the immense legacy Caesar has crafted for his colony, pares the scope down to both their faces, reciprocating love, compassion, but most of all equality. When mankind fails to see themselves in the other is when humanity irreparably corrodes into a cycle of depreciating cruelty.

There are no women in Dunkirk.

That should go without saying. An exhilaratingly tight-focused portrait of the evacuation of Dunkirk in WWII, the only semblance of female figures in Christopher Nolan’s film is on the military ships and civilian boats coming for sailors. For a more feminist appropriation of the battle, see Lone Scherfig’s altogether lovely screenwriting saga Their Finest. To see hundreds of men of sculpted physiques scrambling for their lives, over each others’ bodies, Dunkirk is your immersive treat.

Nolan’s films have often restrained their queer – or remotely sexual, for that matter – dynamics, though the charge circulating between Jeremy Theobald and Alex Haw in Following,  Al Pacino and Robin Williams in career-best chiller Insomnia, and, yes, between Batman and The Joker in The Dark Knight, has been ever present. With women finally evacuated from Nolan’s brawny, steel-cast atmosphere, at last those dynamics are allowed to breathe, if not necessarily be acted upon.

This is war, after all. Survival is the most on each man’s mind. For those on the ground, a desperate drive to escape the hopeless hell of the Dunkirk beaches. For those at sea, a need to save as many dazed, shell-shocked soldiers as soon as possible. For those in the air, the goal to take down as many faceless, ephemeral enemy targets as possible. If War for the Planet of the Apes confronted the idea of the other head-on, the “other” in Dunkirk is hauntingly on the periphery; a metaphysical threat more than a national one, keeping the focus on the men on the sand, the rescuers on the boats and the lone man in the cockpit (Tom Hardy).

Carrying the film’s slimmest arc, we don’t get much direct, un-obscured face time with Hardy. His muffled voice was the flawed key to his character in The Dark Knight Rises, and his full, charismatic mug was on display in Inception. Here, it’s simply his eyes, and neither he, nor Nolan, are under the illusion that’s not enough. In the high-wire midst of mid-air dogfights, the grey-blue behemoths of the sky and sea often blending into one another, Hardy’s eyes are where we go for emotional clarity. In one mid-film shot, Nolan holds on Hardy’s face, begging the viewer to peruse past face-mask and goggles to glean just a bit of the chaos and desperation lurking between the irises.

In the cockpit, the only identification is with oneself. On the sea, however, there’s a more piercing failure of identification, as mariner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and over-eager wannabe hero George (Barry Keoghan, playing a strikingly similar role in ’71) struggle to control a panicked survivor. Titled only Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), his character’s lack of formal name speaks to his erasure of identity in the aftermath of war trauma. As tension rises, Murphy’s soldier grows hostile towards anyone who brings him inadvertently closer to the war he’s desperate to escape, psychologically failing to understand the moral consequences of his panicked actions.

On the beach, though, is where more intimate, flexible identification becomes a necessity for the soldier. Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy, our central boy, running from the ticking clock of the German invasion, takes himself up with any potential ally, first in Aneurin Barnard’s mute, yet resourceful, Gibson. Their kinship established over a silent of mourning, burying a fellow soldiers’ body, the two are companions by proximity and necessity, but even survival at all costs doesn’t compel them to climb over each others’ bodies. That is until a third soldier, Harry Styles’ handsome, mistrusting private Alex, complicates their dynamic and questions the equality and humanity of his fellow survivors.

“The Enemy” may be invisible, but it’s something both Alex and the Shivering Soldier can’t help but see surrounding them. Dunkirk becomes much less about flexible bonds formed under the heat of military assault, and more interested in the causes and consequences of undervaluing those simple, self-sustaining bonds. Without them, life (and death) is an absolute horror show.

The underwater sequences most inform the sense of panic that isolate people from their fellow men, often to devastating effect. The chaos of drowning, of being afraid to emerge from the water for fear of greater horrors, is so frenzied that we lose sight of whose handsomely sculpted bodies are where. A man emerging from below the surface only to be engulfed by flames is unnervingly inter-cut with a boy struggling to escape the current in order to board a rescue boat. In the end, the men on the ground, on the sea and in the air converge in a moment of urgent mutual care, rarely to the point of intimate identification, but with a simpler sense of human recognition. In the heat of war, we’re just bodies, to be used or discarded depending on a moment’s necessities. Beyond war, men can look each other in the eye and see their own forever fractured masculinities.

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