Posted by: JoAnne Hyde
Date: July 20, 2017

SYNOPSIS: In May 1940, Germany advanced into France, trapping Allied troops on the beaches of Dunkirk. Under air and ground cover from British and French forces, troops were slowly and methodically evacuated from the beach using every serviceable naval and civilian vessel that could be found. At the end of this heroic mission, 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were safely evacuated.

Dunkirk, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, isn’t the type of film you merely like – it’s the type of film you admire. You don’t see it for entertainment – you see it for inspiration. And, above all, you see it for its impeccable artistry.

In case you didn’t pay attention in history class, the Battle of Dunkirk and the subsequent rescue of almost 400,000 Allied troops pinned down on a beach and surrounded by German forces, occurred in 1940, before the US entered WWII. Much of the evacuation of troops was done by the “little ships of Dunkirk”, a flotilla of hundreds of merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and lifeboats, many manned by civilian volunteers.

Therefore, Christopher Nolan faced a problem all directors of films based on true, historical events face: how to make that event into a story that will resonate with audiences. He did it by interweaving the stories of soldiers on the ground, RAF fighter pilots in the air, and the rescuers at sea. He narrowed the story by using just a few characters in each narrative along with a cast of thousands of extras to encompass the scope of the actual situation.

The “land” story begins with a young soldier, apparently separated from his division wandering in the deserted town of Dunkirk until he arrives at the beach. He views thousands of troops in lines awaiting rescue, milling around aimlessly, working with the wounded, and waiting for information. All the while, angry waves pound on the beach, and the sea is a steely gray. Tommy, the young soldier, played by Fionn Whitehead, is mainly looking for a way to sneak onto a hospital ship to get home. Unsuccessful, he encounters a few other young soldiers, and they bounce from one perilous situation to another until only two of the original group, he and Alex (Harry Styles), stick together.

The “air” story focuses on two RAF pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden). The Germans are relentlessly pounding the troops on the beach, mowing them down, and dropping bombs on the ships that try to make it to the beachhead – even hospital ships. The aerial shots are easily the best in the film as Farrier and Collins desperately try to defend the men on the ground and the ships at sea. The dog fights will keep you on the edge of your seat as the pilots weave in and out of cloud banks and dive with dizzying speed toward a now brilliantly blue sea. Nolan achieved this effect by mounting cameras on the wings and in the cockpits of the stunt planes.

The “sea” story provides the most emotionally engaging segment as private boat-owner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carrey}, and a family friend, George (Barry Keoghan) take off to heed the rescue call. Dawson is the epitome of the “stiff, upper lip” description of Englishmen. One can tell that he always does what needs to be done. Peter obviously admires his father and strives to obey him even when he disagrees with him. George is a former classmate of Peter’s who hasn’t met with much success in life and looks at the rescue as a chance to prove himself to his own father.

Their journey becomes quite complicated when they pick up a stranded survivor, sitting atop the hull of a sunken ship. The character, never named and played by Cillian Murphy, is severely shell-shocked and is alternately withdrawn and combative. There’s an air of tragedy enveloping him, and you know that trouble will follow.

Kenneth Branagh portrays Commander Bolton, the man in charge, with understated strength and determination, but occasionally he lets emotion show. James D’Arcy plays second in command Colonel Winnant who seems much more overwhelmed by their dilemma.

Time segments for each story would be decidedly different. For instance, RAF Spitfires could carry only an hour’s worth of fuel while the evacuation actually took 8 days. Dunkirk was 39 nautical miles off the coast of England, so the crossing would take the better part of a day depending on weather and enemy interference. Nolan takes a non-linear approach to the passage of time, interweaving the stories in a non-sequential fashion so that it seems like one great saga. Doing so allows him to highlight the difficulties faced by those caught up in this seemingly impossible situation.

Throughout the film the musical score by Hans Zimmer intensifies the emotional impact in the most subtle way. Never overpowering, the music reflects the danger of the predicament, the urgency of diminishing time, and the resolve of the men involved.

On the first day of the evacuation, 7,669 men were rescued. By the eighth day, 338,226 had returned to their homeland. Referred to as the “Miracle of Dunkirk”, the rescue galvanized the British to continue to give their all to defend themselves and the world from the German onslaught. Nolan ends the film with the words of Winston Churchill’s famous speech to the House of Commons recited in the background – again subtly:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

If those words don’t move you, then I fear nothing will. At the end of the film, the preview audience showed two distinct reactions: enthusiastic applause or stunned silence.

Words that come to mind regarding Dunkirk are all superlatives, but magnificent will do. - J.A. Hyde


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