I went to Southland with my friend Barbara to treat her to a movie and lunch for her birthday.
We agreed on Dunkirk, although we knew if it was historically accurate it would not be light cinematic entertainment.
Our childhoods spent in the shadow of WW2 – Barbara in the 1940s and me in the 1950s – so war stories, if not from family, then from school, novels, television and film ever present.
However, so much that is offered at the cinema today doesn’t appeal and the Dunkirk story seemed a good choice. It is about a definitive moment in World War Two of mythological proportions like the RAF’s Battle Of Britain.
Years ago, I was told my uncle sailed from Scotland to help with the rescue therefore like many families throughout Britain mine had some involvement. Others knew someone, whether a member of the British Expeditionary Force plucked from the beaches, or aboard one of the huge fleet of ships, both naval and civilian, which crossed the English Channel in the attempt to save them.
Dunkirk, the movie, tells the story of Operation Dynamo – not from the point of view of government or military command but from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers (army, navy and air) and the civilians called upon to help them return ‘home’ to England.
(The link highlighted above is an article published in 2015 on the 75th anniversary revealing ’40 amazing facts’ about the operation and is a good starting point if you know nothing about it.)
This 1940 evacuation of hundreds of thousands of allied troops trapped on the beaches of France turned a massive military defeat into a humanitarian triumph and spawned the phrase ‘Dunkirk Spirit.’ Words used in times of adversity when ordinary people show stoicism and courage beyond expectations. Words that became part of British culture.
The Setting of Dunkirk
In the early stages of the war, the advancing German Army swept through Belgium and Northern France to rout the British Expeditionary Force and their French allies and trap them at the Port of Dunkirk
The recreation of the armies on the beach with nowhere safe to go as sand and sea explode around them creates some of the most intense and distressing scenes of the movie, especially when seen through the eyes of the main characters.
The setting was intense, and for the movie adaptation, Nolan strove to make the scenes feel as realistic as possible. He filmed on the beach during the summer so the weather would be right, and he tried to avoid computer-generated imagery (CGI) as much as possible. Instead of having spectators feel like they’re in a theater, Nolan wrote in an essay for the Telegraph, he decided that “we’re going to put them on the beach, feeling the sand getting everywhere, confronting the waves … on small civilian boats bouncing around on the waves on this huge journey heading into a terrifying war zone.”
Even the props were legit: The crew used actual World War II-era ships from nine countries, according to the Independent, including a 350-foot French destroyer that needed to be towed to the set. They also built and featured at least one replica of a vintage plane.
In the movie, there is no individual protagonist as such, just several interwoven storylines of people we grow to care about as the minutes unfold. We journey through nerve-wracking, narrow escapes from death with the two young soldiers from the opening scenes.
We fear for the lives of the Spitfire pilots battling in the air, nail-biting tension because we know they have limited fuel for the journey across the Channel and aerial combat.
We worry the small pleasure craft will survive the obstacle course of rough seas, u-boats and attacks from enemy aircraft.
The film is told from three points of view: on the beach with the infantry (including Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles), the evacuation by the navy (featuring Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance, showing how civilians came to the rescue) and then in the air (with Tom Hardy engaging in plane combat).
Speaking about the narrative structure in Premiere magazine, Christopher Nolan stated: “For the soldiers who embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; even if the story is very simple. Do not repeat it to the studio: it will be my most experimental film.”
Barbara and I saw the movie on the large VMax screen. The naval and air battles with accompanying ear-splitting explosions and the fear for the recognisable characters is an emotional roller coaster. The soundtrack so loud that there were several instances where I literally jumped out of my skin.
According to actor-director Kenneth Branagh, roughly 30 veteran Dunkirk survivors, who were in their mid-nineties, attended the premiere in London. When asked about the film, they felt that it accurately captured the event but that the soundtrack was louder than the actual bombardment, a comment that greatly amused director Christopher Nolan.
However, this is not a blood and gore war movie – much of the horror implied, although you are in no doubt about the genre. The aim for authenticity leaves you gasping and tearful at man’s inhumanity to man.
(It is difficult not to think of the situation in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. The vast number of refugees and the constant bombardments they suffer. The horror beamed nightly into our homes yet where is the coordinated rescue response for them?)
Barbara exclaimed at the end of Dunkirk, ‘Well, that put my blood pressure up!’
‘It raised my blood pressure too,’ I agreed. ‘And I cried.’
‘Me too,’ said Barbara. ‘I had no idea what it was like. I was a baby during the war and Dad never talked about it. My uncle was in Changi and so the war with Japan more talked about. I probably learnt about Dunkirk at school but can’t remember.’
(Historians point out that until the Fall of Singapore in 1942 the withdrawal from Dunkirk was widely viewed as the worst defeat in British military history so why would people talk about it.)
As we walked out of the cinema, I said, ‘None of us learnt about Dunkirk this way, but maybe if we did people wouldn’t be so keen to join the army and go to war – not that those poor buggers had much choice.’
Perspective Is Everything
The strength of the movie is showing the large scale event up close and personal from a variety of view points. Something writers always ask – who is telling the story?
The limited dialogue from the soldiers while on the beach and in naval ships works because they experience u-boat and air attacks and the soundtrack to their fear and the chaos of war is tension-inducing music, punctuated by explosions and all-powerful silences.
This is showing not telling – what film does best.
When interviewed by Business Insider, writer and director Christopher Nolan said,
“The tension between subjective storytelling and sort of the bigger picture is always a challenge in any film, particularly when you’re taking on, which I never have done before, historical reality.
So I really wanted to be on that beach with those guys. I wanted the audience to feel like they are there. But I also need them and want them to understand what an incredible story this is.”
Two of the soldier characters do everything they can to get off that beach and we invest our energy in their efforts.
Escapades involve a tense scene of running with a wounded soldier on a stretcher, chosen at random so they can board a hospital ship ahead of others.
Their quick-thinking and queue-jumping raise ethical and moral questions but we feel their terror and understand their will to survive. They are both traumatised by the death and destruction they’ve seen.
Who can blame them for not wanting to follow accepted rules or orders from people who put them there in the first place?
Likewise, the events on board one of the civilian craft involving a rescued survivor suffering shell shock and a young boy who volunteered for the rescue mission. In a scuffle on board because the survivor wants to be taken home and not be part of the rescue mission, the young boy, George falls and hits his head. He dies from the wound but the traumatised soldier is never told it was his push that killed the boy.
When he and other survivors are finally off-loaded in England he sees a covered body taken off the boat. We assume he puts two and two together and makes four but perhaps he doesn’t.
The three storylines are woven together to form a cohesive conclusion but not neatly tied in bows or predictable endings. Life is messy and war is definitely messier.
Actions speak louder than words. Dialogue occasionally moves the story along but silence and audience interpretation work too.
Even Prime Minister Churchill’s famous speech is delivered by an ordinary soldier reading a newspaper report. His mate more interested in the free beer and accolades from civilians on the railway platform than the spin officials try to put on the debacle.
Winston Churchill had only been British Prime Minister for 16 days at the time of this event so it is probably more realistic that his speech was a bit of a non-event at the time for the soldiers.
This is a film about human frailty and courage, about death on a grand scale and on a personal level, about the survival of the fittest and collective responsibility, about selfishness and sacrifice, about deliberate and unplanned reactions.
The interwoven storylines of the fictional characters in Dunkirk have been criticised as only showing the allied perspective and for being so disparate that the film is disjointed. The characters have been called weak and the split timeline confusing.
I disagree and preferred this version of history with its limited dialogue, lack of melodrama, or made up romantic nonsense such as we saw in Titanic and Pearl Harbour. The characters and their relationships are believable.
Even young George’s desire for fame displays a teenage trait. He hopped on the rescue boat because he wanted to be part of something important, he wanted his name in the paper, to be considered a somebody, not a nobody who didn’t perform well at school, who others thought wouldn’t amount to much.
When George dies from what is really a freak accident and soldiers survive horrific air battles and boat sinkings we weep for the lack of justice in the world.
The characters represented every man, the human face to an overwhelming historical event.
Who can picture 400,000 troops trapped on a stretch of beach? And comprehend that many of the 338,000 were rescued by pleasure craft – ‘Little Ships” as they became affectionally called?
The characters in Dunkirk may be made up but Nolan did his research in creating them and recruited Joshua Levine, a historian to work on the script. He also consulted veterans before filming the movie and those who attended the premiere gave it a thumbs up.
The story arcs of the soldiers desperate to leave the beach, the civilians to the rescue and the airman who fights valiantly and is shot down make sense and like the ending of a good novel the storylines merge to a satisfying conclusion.
The war is not over but we know how it ended. We can speculate about what will ultimately happen to the characters and be grateful we glimpsed a deeper insight into a momentous historical occasion.
Art Mimicking Life
The accuracy of Nolan’s interpretation of research verified by videos available on Youtube with footage discovered in 2015 in Manchester University’s Library.
We see evacuated soldiers packed on to destroyers. All the while, other troops waited patiently on the beaches for their turn to be rescued.
“This is a truly remarkable discovery 75 years after Dunkirk, these films are testimony to the bravery of the servicemen and civilians who risked – and in many cases sacrificed – their lives to rescue the stricken army. Without Operation Dynamo, Britain would have lost the war.”
Scenes in Nolan’s Dunkirk mirror reality from this discovered archival footage:
“The footage shows the rapid passage of arriving and departing destroyers, and one Cross-Channel ferry, assisting in the evacuation. Meanwhile a destroyer fires her rear anti-aircraft guns, and another appears so low in the water as to be sinking or aground.
Historically the films are important because they capture key moments of Operation Dynamo. We see the camera pan across the scene of fire and smoke over Dunkirk town, with its distinctive white and striped lighthouse in the background. “
Kay Gladstone, Curator at the Imperial War Museum
Apparently, Christopher Nolan first got the idea for the movie when he sailed to Dunkirk in 1992. Before he started filming he made the crossing again, “The way the civilians would have done during the Dunkirk Evacuation. Nolan said it took 19 hours because of the conditions of the sea.”
He also “rode in the Spitfire shown in the movie in order to get a sense of the aerial feel of the fighter plane; with the purpose being to help him shoot and provide an authentically realistic experience of the dogfights for the audience.“
Just as research is important for novels, so too is it important for making authentic films.
Random Scenes That Stood Out For Me
- When the rescued men are ushered below deck on a destroyer and it is a mug of tea and the humble but effective jam sandwich they’re given. Britain was on rations for years after the war (up until 1954) and I can remember many a jam sandwich used as a filler to stave off hunger pangs until mealtime.
- The defeat and despair on the faces of evacuated men crowding the decks of a destroyer as it passes the pleasure craft heading for Dunkirk.
(This poignant scene triggered a memory of a story my husband, John told me of being a young recruit in the RN in 1954. The Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu signalled the end of French colonial influence in Indochina and the defeated French forces were evacuated by the aircraft carrier, Arromanches. John said you could smell the dead and the dying before his ship came abreast of the carrier. Tradition has it that crew stand at attention and salute each other when naval ships pass or draw alongside. That didn’t happen in this case and the Brits were shocked at the despair and defeat they saw from the demoralised troops aboard Arromanches.)
3. The joy and cheers when the first flotilla of little boats arrive at Dunkirk and the men know they will be going home. Kenneth Branagh’s convincing Commander Bolton has tears glistening and you see him struggle to keep it together and not jump up and down and cheer like his men.
4. Minesweepers protect the destroyers against u-boats. These ships were not supposed to stop and pick up survivors but many did – my Uncle Captain John Dinwoodie one of those who was awarded a DSC and Bar for risking his life for survivors in 1942-45.
At Dunkirk, Lieutenant John Dinwoodie, D.S.C., R.N.R. was skipper of a trawler and went from Scotland to help in the rescue. Passenger ferries, cargo vessels, paddle steamers, excursion ships, Dutch skoots (tugboats), British tugs, fishing boats, barges, small pleasure cruisers and yachts all participated. Up to 1300 vessels set sail in the early summer of 1940.
In the movie, Commander Bolton yells to one of the few women characters and a couple of other crew from little boats. ‘Where are you from?’ and if you know your geography there is a sense of how many citizens have responded. Scotland is not just across the channel and many boats answered the call, as well as a boat from the Isle of Man!
If you know your geography there is a sense of how many UK citizens have responded. Scotland is not just across the channel and many boats answered the call, as well as a boat from the Isle of Man!
(It is a pity the credits didn’t indicate the number of little boats but I guess Nolan was not wanting his film confused with a documentary, even although it is based on fact.)
- I was glad the other young deckhand went to the local paper to ensure George got his 15 minutes of fame and was recorded as one of the heroes of Dunkirk. A satisfying end to his story arc.
The scene where a group of desperate soldiers trapped in an abandoned trawler turn on each other is confronting but realistic. Desperation does not bring out the best in people.
When they discover a French soldier has stolen the uniform of a dead British soldier so he can escape the ugly side of humanity appears. It doesn’t matter he has saved lives and is only showing the same survive-at-all-odds behaviour as them. He is a foreigner, albeit an ally, and they let him know he does not belong!
Dunkirk has it all – the good, the bad and the ugly…
the story Christopher Norton has decided to tell will keep you emotionally engaged for 106 minutes and give plenty of food for thought, debate and discussion.
What more can you ask from a film?