I have been fascinated with World War 2 since I was a child. While others were reading comic books, I was reading accounts of the invasion of Normandy. So when I saw that there was a not only a WW2 movie coming out but one about Dunkirk, I was cautiously excited. The near miraculous rescue of 300,000 doomed soldiers from the beaches of France at the outset of the war is one of the great stories of the war.
I was cautious simply because most war movies are either terrible, political or just so bloody and filled with inappropriate content that they are unwatchable. Though I love reading histories of the war I generally dislike or won’t watch most war movies for this reason.
Dunkirk was none of the above. In fact, I found it to be extraordinary. From beginning to end, it was a vivid and intense representation of simple soldiers fighting to survive against all odds. It felt like the viewers had taken a time machine back to 1940 and were experiencing the sheer terror, bravery, and will to overcome of the men who lived it.
So a little background is necessary to discuss the movie. I have included pictures from the actual event for reference.
At the beginning of World War 2, Nazi Germany had caused Britain and France to declare war on it after the German Army invaded Poland without provocation. A good portion of the British Army was sent across the English Channel to France to stem what was expected to be an imminent invasion by Germany. Unfortunately, the Germans outflanked the British and French and proceeded to drive those troops they did not capture or kill immediately across the width of France. This was the Blitzkrieg or “Lightning War” portion of the war when the German Armies seemed just about invincible. Given that Hitler and his minions were homicidal murderers about to start systematically killing millions of people this was obviously a huge moment in history.
It was a terrible defeat for both of these Allied powers that had believed themselves an even match for Hitler’s armies. The Germans pushed the remainder of their combined armies to the edge of the English Channel and were poised to kill or capture the 400,000 remaining soldiers with relative ease.
For reasons that are debated but still unknown, rather than continue on to the Channel, Hitler ordered his tank divisions to stop attacking and remain in a position of containment. That is, they surrounded a greatly outnumbered and demoralized enemy and just needed to continue what they had been doing and the entire army would have been captured…yet they stopped.
Because of this pause, in the days that followed more than 300,000 of the trapped soldiers were rescued from the beaches of France by any means possible. Small boats, yachts, fishing boats and boats of all types crewed by their civilian captains were called out from England, crossed the Channel and pulled handfuls of soldiers off the beaches back to the safety of Britain. They did this all while under artillery fire and air attack. It was an amazing turnaround and a huge moral victory in a time when all else looked bleak for the world seeking to stop the Nazis.
When the movie begins it follows a group of nameless British soldiers who are in the midst of what appears to be a mundane stroll. They pick through propaganda leaflets, look for cigarettes and food and even are attempting to relieve themselves. Just as soon as the viewers begin to understand what the patrol is up to, the unseen enemy takes them under heavy machine gun fire and picks most of them off one by one as they flee in confused terror. The viewer is thus ushered from regular life into the intensity of modern warfare.
It then follows a small number of soldiers, sailors and pilots as they struggle to survive. This fight is depicted in three different story arcs that are presented alongside each other even though they are not simultaneous. Nolan depicts one hour of the battle through the eyes of two RAF pilots in their Spitfires. One day of the battle is seen alongside a yacht owner who sets off with the civilian flotilla to Dunkirk. One week is then also depicted through the story of Tommy, a simple British soldier trapped on the beach at Dunkirk.
It can be somewhat confusing to keep track of the timelines involved as they run out of time sequence in the movie, but Nolan uses this to good effect. In one sequence, we see the sinking of a British minesweeper by the Germans from all three perspectives. Each time we watch as the characters experience the same event very differently, from the air, a boat and from the water but equally vividly.
The disjointed timeline also does not take away from the visual and audio effects that Nolan uses to assault the viewer’s senses like a German Stuka divebomber attacking the beach. The soundtrack of clicking, screeching and other somewhat unusual noises is used to great effect to heighten the tension. He turns the beach from a picture of peace and safety to a place of danger and great malevolence. It is really interesting filmmaking.
Nolan even uses the Navy ships that are there to rescue the soldiers as a picture of the forces that are working against survival. One of the most memorable moments in the movie is when a British destroyer carrying soldiers off the beach is torpedoed at night by a German submarine. The water tight doors imprisoning the soldiers in what had been their mode of salvation and then the capsizing ship itself are used to show the unrelenting harshness and dangers involved.
The battles of the RAF pilots and the very British determination of the yacht owner are other highlights of the movie. For any World War 2 buff like myself, just the presence of Spitfires and German Messerschmidts, Stukas, and Dornier bombers is a wonder to behold. Nolan used the elements, the planes and the boats to present often beautiful pictures that contrasted with the horrors of the ongoing battle.
I also appreciated the lack of revisionist history in the story line. The Germans are the bad guys. The British and French are the good guys. The Allies may be imperfect and trying to escape with everything they have but they are the good guys and they prevail in the end.
Cautions for the Movie
There is cursing. I heard curses on two occasions though there may have been more as the dialogue goes quickly at times.
The movie deals with an army about to be destroyed after heavy fighting. It is a generally rough time.
Violence is significant, obviously, as the movie depicts a historical battle where thousands died. It does not contain graphic violence for the most part. Generally, people get shot, there is a puff on the clothing and they fall down for example.
There is one scene where a soldier is burned and this was more graphic than the remainder.
Obviously, discernment is necessary here based upon the subject matter.
It is an extremely intense and suspenseful film. While at the movies watching there was a couple who were ejected for drunkenness by the staff of the theater. It took place in front of where we were sitting just a bit to our right. I did not even realize it was happening, the movie was so overwhelmingly intense visually and audibly. You remain on edge the entire film waiting for the next bombing run or torpedo attack
It is certainly not a movie for kids. It is also not recommended for those who don’t like suspense or intense movies. It is a depiction of real historical battle so again discernment is necessary for each person.
But it is also an excellent movie about a very important moment in recent world history.