“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. 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, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
-Winston Churchill, 4 June, 1940
Director and Writer: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, etc.
Soundtrack Composer: Hans Zimmer
U.S. Release: June 21, 2017
On 26 May, 1940, 400,000 mostly British and French troops are stuck on a beach near the port town of Dunkirk, France. Their efforts to stop the German army from invading France have utterly failed, and now they’re being picked off by German bombers while they wait for an inadequate number of British navy ships, and a whole lot of tiny civilian boats, to carry them over the narrow channel between Dunkirk and southern England. In this movie, we follow three groups of people: a few of the soldiers on the beach, the crew of a little boat that aids in the evacuation, and an RAF pilot in the air. Each one follows a different timeline, with the movie’s events taking place over about a week for the soldiers, a day for the boat, and just over an hour for the pilot.
Ever since I first learned about it (which wasn’t until college, sadly), the story of “the little ships of Dunkirk” has been one of my favourite chapters of World War II history. It’s a story of courage and determination in the face of defeat, and it shows that it’s possible to bring something good out of failure. Many historians believe the Dunkirk evacuation was one of the major turning points of the war, because it allowed the United Kingdom to keep a good chunk of its army (338,000 soldiers were successfully evacuated) and it gave the British people enough of a morale boost to keep fighting when the Nazis attacked their homeland.
So even if this movie wasn’t made by my favourite director of all time, I still would have had high expectations. And all of them were entirely met. This is exactly what I wanted out of a movie about the Dunkirk evacuation, and it’s the best war movie I’ve seen so far (though since I only watch one a year, that may not be saying much).
Although the timeline of events can get complicated–which should be no surprise to any Nolan fan–in most ways, this is a very simple movie. It recounts a single historical event with no larger context, no philosophising about causes and effects, and no sources of drama outside said event. Many of the central characters don’t get names, or are named in such quick bits of dialogue that they’re easy to miss. Dialogue in general is minimal, and there are no big monologues or expositional speeches. With the exception of the boat crew, who get one or two tidbits of backstory by the end, we never find out anything about the lives of the main characters–whether they have families, what they did before the war, what hopes and dreams they have, nothing. All we see is who they are in one particular moment of time, and we’re asked to root for them (or not) based on that. And honestly, I think it works. The actors, who include some Nolan regulars but also several newbies, all do a fine job. Their performances made it easy for me to sympathise with each character, despite not knowing much about them. Of course, the desire to survive is pretty universal, so that also makes it easy to sympathise with the characters’ goals.
If I were to describe Dunkirk in one word, that word would be “intense.” From the beginning to just before the end, the tension never lets up. There’s never a moment when someone isn’t in immediate danger, and thanks to Nolan’s trademark practical effects and realistic filming, that danger always feels incredibly real. The soundtrack often consists of nothing but percussive sounds meant to simulate a heartbeat, the ticking of a watch, or the tide coming in. And just because the movie’s not rated R doesn’t mean its visceral portrayal of combat can’t be disturbing sometimes.
The story doesn’t shy away from showing the gruesome and, even worse, monstrously unfair side of war. It also shows some of the shadier aspects of what really happened, such as the Navy’s preference for evacuating British soldiers at the expense of the French, and no one ever really gets a big heroic moment to contrast all that. But there are lots of little heroic moments. Like the pilot’s decision to keep fighting the bombers instead of flying back home when he gets low on fuel, or the civilian boat captain’s many detours to rescue survivors of wrecked boats and planes before he even gets to Dunkirk. At its heart, this is a story about ordinary men doing all they can to help others in the worst of circumstances. And even though the events it covers were a real-life military disaster, the movie ends on a hopeful, even triumphant note. It shows the value of continuing to fight and give one’s all to a cause, even when there seems to be no hope of success. By the time the Churchill speech I quoted above is recited in the movie, I was able to hear it with a whole new perspective.
This is a beautiful film, both visually and thematically. It doesn’t quite reach the mind-bending heights of some of Nolan’s other masterpieces, but it does an excellent job of reproducing an amazing true story that needed to be told. Dunkirk is an experience no one should miss.