Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy
It’s a great spectacle but don’t be fooled by the name of the film Dunkirk. The movie is not meant to be a documentary about the miracle evacuation of British troops from France over nine days in late May and early June 1940.
It is a fiction set in the midst of real events at the beginning of World War II. Nearly 340,000 British, Canadian, Belgian and French soldiers were rescued and taken to England after the German army swept through western Europe and raced through France.
The British who had come to help the French stop the Nazi Blitzkrieg found themselves, along with their allies, surrounded in an ever-shrinking pocket on the French coast. There was only one option for survival: evacuation to Britain.
The problem was, with the harbour blocked by sunken ships, the soldiers were huddling on the shallow beaches of Dunkirk. Navy ships had to hover offshore for fear of running aground while smaller vessels ferried the soldiers on board.
Winston Churchill had become Prime Minister on May 10, just as the disaster in Europe began to unfold. He famously said that he was expecting only 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers to be saved. So it seemed that the most of the British Expeditionary Force would be lost.
But with the French heroically slowing the Nazi advance, British civilians responded. More than 700 boats dared to cross the Channel — from fishing trawlers and yachts to pleasure boats and ferries — to rescue hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
So instead of one of the greatest military disasters in British history, Dunkirk became a legend, along with Agincourt, Blenheim, Rorke’s Drift and El Alamein. The might of a powerful, evil army was thwarted by the bravery of unarmed British civilians.
These events are the background for the three fictional narratives that make up the film.
One story follows a squadron of Spitfires fighting and defending the evacuating soldiers and the boats. This happens over the course of an hour.
Another story focuses on a father, his son and his son’s friend who leave Britain in a small boat to help with the rescue. This happens over a day.
And finally there is a narrative about a soldier waiting on Dunkirk beach to be rescued. This happens over a week.
It sounds confusing but Christopher Nolan, the British-American director of Inception, the Dark Knight Trilogy, and Interstellar, splices them together brilliantly. Nolan is known for his bold experiments with narratives. In Dunkirk he shows that manipulation of time frames can also work with the war-epic genre.
Nolan’s team is superb. The soundtrack by composer Hans Zimmer (Inception, Interstellar) is gripping and the portrayal of a Spitfire pilot by Tom Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) leaves you mesmerised.
On the whole the pace and tension is consistent throughout the film. And though the dialogue is spare, every sentence is crafted to vividly convey the fear of shell-shocked soldiers, the courage of the defenders and the understated heroism of the civilian rescuers.
The most poignant theme of the film is survival, though, not heroism. Desperation, horror and fear turned some brothers in arms against each other as they clamoured and clawed for survival, anything that gave them a chance to live, even it meant the death of comrades – both French and British.
These images of cowardice and panic must be hard for the British to accept, but it gives a more balanced depiction of the history of “the Land of Hope and Glory”.
Nolan’s focus is solely on the beaches of Dunkirk. The menacing Germans are almost never seen. There are no shots of the Prime Minister rallying the nation and bullying his generals.
But Churchill’s imperishable words after the evacuation are the hidden backdrop for Nolan’s canvas:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.
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.
It’s amazing that in an era of revisionist history, a director could resist the temptation to belittle the memory of one of Britain’s greatest disasters and greatest triumphs. But in the end, Nolan’s Dunkirk is a realistic tribute to the planning, pluck and patriotism of his countrymen.
Sebastian James is a Sydney journalist.