The Imperialist Anxieties of Christopher Nolan

By Andrew FedorovDecember 4, 2020

The Imperialist Anxieties of Christopher Nolan

The Nolan Variations by Tom Shone

EARLY IN HIS new book, The Nolan Variations, film critic Tom Shone posits that “Nolan can with some legitimacy lay claim to being the greatest living filmmaker of the Victorian era.” It’s a fascinating proposition, but one with troubling consequences that The Nolan Variations only ever teases, never braving a thorough analysis. In evading the consequences of the Victorian aspects of Nolan’s films, Shone may simply be following his subject’s lead.

Nolan doesn’t like the idea that his establishment upbringing may have shaped his films. “I really do feel it’s a part of myself that I haven’t actually allowed myself to address in my films,” he says.

Dunkirk, interestingly, was probably the first film that I made where that was on the table, if you like, because it’s very much about establishment ideas of history. And in the end I think I just sidestepped it, not for any reason other than I thought it was more interesting to tell a story in a much more experiential, boots-on-the-ground kind of way.

As if “boots-on-the-ground” doesn’t say something about the establishment vision his film is overwhelmed by. Ultimately, Dunkirk doesn’t manage to say anything that hasn’t been said by a postwar rah-rah artifact like 1969’s Battle of Britain. Both films end with a recitation of Winston Churchill’s establishmentarian interpretation of events, which is hardly innocent of politics.

There’s a clear tradition of directors claiming that their films don’t reflect their politics while allowing them to become vessels for regressive messaging. Nolan invokes one of them, Don Siegel, when he shows detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tossing his badge into the bay at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, just as Dirty Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) does at the end of his first picture. Siegel, a self-identified liberal, expressed dismay at Dirty Harry being read politically and said that he and Eastwood never had a political discussion during the production. Eastwood, who would go on to fund a rightwing militia which crossed into Laos in the ’80s, claimed that people seeing any sort of political statement in Dirty Harry were the same sort of people who saw politics in their cereal. This, they said, was just entertainment.

Nolan doesn’t completely deny that his films have political content, but he believes it to be non-particular. He’s thrilled that they can be read as belonging to both the left and the right. Quoting a questionable journalistic mantra, he says he aims to be “neutral and objective” in his approach. “I always think of the great moment in Gladiator, where he chops off his head and then turns to the audience and asks them, ‘Are you not entertained?’ Whatever it is,” he says, “you’ve got to entertain.” And he does. But while Eastwood, at 90, has grown into the sort of filmmaker who can make a subtle critical statement without losing his sense of entertainment, Nolan has yet to do so. Eleven films deep, he’s failed to fight against the shaping effect of his establishment upbringing on his work. Wittingly or not, Nolan has spent his career recycling the narratives of imperial propaganda.

Through a mixture of biography and interviews with Nolan, The Nolan Variations paints an admiring portrait of a life firmly ensconced in the transatlantic establishment. The son of an English advertising executive and an American flight attendant turned housewife, Nolan spent his formative years at Haileybury, a boarding school founded in 1862 with the express purpose of training young men to serve in distant outposts of the British Empire. It’s no surprise then that Rudyard Kipling, the poet of the British Empire in its death throes, haunts the book. Shone opens with an epigraph from one of Kipling’s short stories and later, in a chapter on Batman Begins, quotes Nolan saying that before starting work on the film, he rewatched John Huston’s 1975 adaptation of The Man Who Would Be King. Based on Kipling’s short story about two British soldiers who set off to conquer an invented country deep in Central Asia, Huston’s film parodies the adventurer’s spirit in a moment of imperial contraction. Nolan calls it romantic. He talks about the film’s influence in terms of how it “used a real-world texture to lend credibility.” Of course, Huston shot Kipling’s Indian market and Central Asian mountain kingdom in northern Africa, because when all you want is a “real-world texture,” what does it matter where you get it?

Nolan’s admiration doesn’t just stop with surface textures — Batman Begins also exhibits a lack of specificity and abundance of stereotypes that point to a lazy orientalism borrowed from Huston. The Man Who Would Be King opens with an orientalist pastiche, complete with carpet weavers, snake charmers, and camels in a crowded market. In the first half hour of Batman Begins, Nolan shows Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) stealing fruit in a dusty market far from home, fighting Asian inmates in a prison in an unnamed country, and becoming a ninja in a snowy mountaintop monastery. Only three characters in the foreign part of Batman Begins have more than a line or two of dialogue: two white men and an Asian man who turns out to be a puppet for one of the white men.

The most potent imperial echo in Nolan’s first Batman film, however, is far subtler. Early in the film, Wayne — ragged, bearded, and just released from prison — climbs to the mountaintop monastery carrying an iridescent blue flower. When boiling water is poured over the crushed flower, he inhales the rising steam and experiences fear-inducing psychotropic hallucinations, which hinder him in an ensuing fight. When the flower eventually travels around the world, from an unnamed Orient to an archetypical metropole, it carries chaos in its wake. Its dose is concentrated and effects amplified as it’s developed into a gas meant to spread fear in the citizens of Gotham — a plan for Western blowback from an Eastern conflict. The obvious parallel here is the 19th-century spread of opium, brought on by a series of wars waged by rapacious imperial powers, chief among them the British Empire, who hoped to use the drug to wrench open China’s markets. This strategy backfired spectacularly. The drug failed to stay on the outskirts of the empires and, just as in Nolan’s film, it filtered back to corrupt their metropoles.

By the late Victorian period, opium had become a trope in popular fiction. Shone notes Nolan’s admiration for Wilkie Collins’s 1868 detective novel The Moonstone, which lent its name to the rescue boat in Dunkirk. The conclusion to Collins’s mystery, in Shone’s summation, is that the novel’s central theft is committed by one of the narrators while he is under the influence of opium. “The crime is unconscious,” Shone writes, “the perpetrator not even aware of his own guilt.” Read today, it’s an underwhelming twist, but in 1868 it must have been chilling, evoking the underlying anxieties of a society which just a few years earlier had wrapped up the Second Opium War. British readers would have had ample evidence of what an excess of opium could do to a society, because their own country had inflicted it on another. Shone posits that Collins’s dream thief prefigures Inception’s protagonist Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), but he elides how the heist at the center of that film also recreates, on a smaller scale, the Opium Wars themselves. Just as imperial powers flooded Chinese markets with drugs over the objections of Qing royals, and fought two wars to alter their internal directives in order to gain access to one of the biggest markets in the world, Cobb drugs the son of a recently deceased mogul and tampers with his dreams to convince him to break up his father’s companies so his competitors can expand into his market.

Imperial anxieties about colonial sins turning back to haunt the metropole can be found in both Victorian pop culture and Nolan’s films in more allegorical ways as well. Richard Marsh’s 1897 horror novel The Beetle, which outsold Dracula in its day, tells the story of a shape-shifting Ancient Egyptian who travels to London from British-occupied Egypt to exact revenge on a parliamentarian. It’s one of countless stories from the era where the villains have ties to the colonies. In The Dark Knight Rises, Wayne’s butler informs him that Bane (Tom Hardy), the film’s central villain, is a former mercenary best known for having carried out a coup in Africa for a financier in the imperial center. That he turns these methods back toward Gotham echoes the fears evoked by Victorian writers like Marsh. Nolan firms up these parallels in his interviews with Shone when he describes Bane’s intonation as “colonial” — the voice of someone without a “foreign accent, but [from whom] there's a precision to the language that’s off” — seemingly finding this sinister in the same way that Marsh finds “The Arab” in London disturbingly out of place. But Shone fails to dig into any of this. He doesn’t press Nolan on why his villain has a “colonial” voice, rather than “a more Richard Burton voice,” as Nolan describes the alternative. A filmmaker more critical of his imperial roots might have gone with the Burton voice, recognizing that the man who speaks with the tones of Western authority is usually the villain in the final analysis.

Yet another key to Nolan’s filmography lies at the bottom of a pit in the heart of Uzbekistan. Behind a huge royal fortress in the ancient city of Bukhara is a former prison called the Bug-Pit, a 20-foot-deep hole where the Emir of Bukhara, the ruler of the region, kept his most hated prisoners. In the hokey tradition of Soviet museums, in which the fortress now exists, a couple dummies sit at the bottom of the pit. They represent the prison’s two most famous inhabitants: Arthur Conolly, who coined the term the “Great Game” to describe that 19th-century conflict between the British and Russian empires for control of Central Asia, and Charles Stoddart, an agent who tried to win over the Emir to the British side. Stoddart was imprisoned for being a brash and incompetent diplomat; Conolly for attempting to rescue Stoddart. For these crimes, and technically for espionage, they were beheaded in the city’s central square, after digging their own graves.

In The Nolan Variations, Nolan confesses to a fascination with the Great Game, and anyone who has studied the conflict Conolly named has undoubtedly come across the tale of his imprisonment. Conolly and Stoddart were so heavily propagandized in the years following their deaths that a book investigating their final days became widely influential in Victorian Britain, counting Prince Albert and Lord Palmerston among its readers. Their story became the keystone in the telling of the international conflict. (Historian Peter Hopkirk, a troublingly jingoistic figure in his own right, went so far as to open his account of the Great Game with Conolly and Stoddart’s execution.) So it’s unsurprising that Nolan would have absorbed and reproduced the Victorian set piece of the Bug-Pit. It’s hard to miss the uncanny resemblance between the hole in The Dark Knight Rises, where Bane was raised and Bruce Wayne dropped, and the Emir’s subterranean prison, but the parallel eludes this book.

It may be that Shone, who misidentifies the Great Game as a conflict in “Southeast Asia,” is out of his depth discussing the imperialist aspects of Nolan’s films, but that doesn’t stop him from leaving a trail of tantalizing connections. In his introduction, Shone describes walking out of a screening of a Nolan film, “enlivened by the unshakable sense of a great game being afoot.” Unfortunately, he seems to be unaware of how right he is.


Andrew Fedorov is a writer often found in New York and sometimes found walking across countries. Follow him on Twitter @andrewfed.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Fedorov is a writer often found in New York and sometimes found walking across countries. He’s temporarily based in New Delhi. Follow him on twitter @andrewfed.


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