Seven years after starting what would become the biggest band in popular music on the planet, arguably its most famous member takes an acting job in a World War II movie that features the battle at Dunkirk.
That paragraph is obvious misdirection because it would be much easier to just say, “Harry Styles is one of the stars of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.” But, no, that opening paragraph isn’t about Styles, it’s about John Lennon and when he took a break from the Beatles to film Richard Lester’s World War II satire, How I Won the War.
The similarities are strangely uncanny: yes, both The Beatles and One Direction had formed seven years earlier and both Lennon and Styles had never been in a movie before – except for the movies in which they were playing themselves. Styles had previously been in One Direction: This is Us and Lennon had of course been in A Hard Day’s Night and Help! (both directed by Richard Lester).
(Note: I am not at all comparing The Beatles to One Direction. But it’s hard to ignore the similarities in this situation involving two of the most famous musicians working at their respective times. Also, for the record, before too many Harry Styles fans yell at me on Twitter for whatever reason, I have seen him perform live when I attended Saturday Night Live dress rehearsal back in April and he’s very good.)
Its just interesting that both of these extremely famous British musicians would turn to World War II (and, more precisely, both movies featuring Dunkirk) to gain acting credibility. Now, there might not be a lot here other than a lot of coincidences – it’s not like Lennon went on to a long a glorious movie career – but it’s still curious.
Styles’ Alex and Lennon’s Gripweed are very different characters. While Styles was obviously drawn to a role where he’d blend in with the rest of the cast, Lennon’s Gripweed is used for comedic effect in a very “John Lennon as the court jester” kind of way. But what stands out about Styles and Lennon is that it’s impossible to ignore them when they come on screen in their respective films. It’s a strange distinction: here is a platoon of soldiers who all kind of blend in with each other – then all of a sudden one of the most famous people in the world shows up.
Now, the films are trying to do opposite things: How I Won the War very much wants a viewer to pay attention to John Lennon, while Dunkirk treats Styles just like any other soldier that could easily see his life end at any moment. But the effect is the same: when Styles is onscreen it’s impossible not to pay attention because it’s Harry Styles. Nolan maybe didn’t necessarily want the John Lennon effect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. And all this works to Dunkirk’s advantage in a scene involving Styles’ character not exactly doing the most honorable of actions.
(One of the most famous stories to come out of How I Won the War is that when Lennon was filming in Spain his accommodations were near a beautiful strawberry field. This inspired Lennon to write “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” That’s obviously a joke. In truth, it inspired Lennon to write “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.” I digress. But, I do hope on Harry Styles’ next album he has a song titled, “I Have Cold, Wet Sand in My Pants,” or something. Also, How I won the War is when Lennon started wearing the round glasses that became his trademark. I hope Styles does something like this: like from now on he always wears an army helmet while performing.)
For this piece I watched How I Won the War, and it can be a tough watch. It makes its point about how it feels about the glorification of war pretty early, then keeps hammering it home again and again and again. But there is an interesting moment (at least in terms of writing this piece) where British officers are showing off their war trading cards – and swapping the cards amongst themselves like they are baseball cards. And of course, one of the most prized cards is Dunkirk – which then leads right into a scene at Dunkirk.
The big difference in all of this is I get the sense that Harry Styles wants to do a really good job and, I suspect, would like a career as an actor. To Lennon, this seemed like more of a curiosity and maybe even a favor to his friend Lester. Again, it’s not like Lennon ever appeared in a movie ever again playing a character. I have a suspicion this will not be Harry Styles’ last time in a major motion picture.
What does all this mean?!?! Probably nothing! But I personally find it extremely interesting that these two extremely famous musicians, at similar points in their career, both did a war movie about Dunkirk. And as far as Mr. Styles is concerned, it’s certainly a savvy move to follow the lead of John Lennon. (And if history is correct, we will also get a whole album of Dunkirk inspired songs from Harry Styles.)
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.