Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s new film about a World War II military disaster that ended up symbolizing the “never give-up spirit” of Britain, may well have established itself as the leading contender for Best Picture at next year’s Academy Awards. But be forewarned: Dunkirk is survival film, not a typical war film. Viewers will leave the theater with a sense of dread and foreboding. This tone, however, is also what makes the film fresh.
Many war movies focus on the dazzling heroics of soldiers even when faced with overwhelming odds (e.g., Hacksaw Ridge). The lead characters are shocked from complacency by the specter of death and carnage, struggle to overcome the odds, and eventually emerge as something or someone better through maturity, wisdom, or deeper understanding.
Dunkirk doesn’t follow this storyline—the quintessential “hero’s journey.” The heroes are the ones that kept more people from dying, soldiers out of German prisoner of war camps, or bought a few hours in the hopes a miracle would avoid capitulation to the Nazi juggernaut. Their character arcs are flat, a creative choice that contributes to the film’s mood and tone. While the miracle appeared, it wasn’t a victory as much as a mitigation of a disaster.
For those a little rusty with their World War II history and European geography, Dunkirk is city on the northeast coast of France. As Hitler’s armies steamrolled over the Netherlands, Belgium and France in 1940, the Allied Armies found themselves surrounded, stranding 400,000 British and French soldiers on the beaches near the town. The German Army, in what is now recognized as one of the biggest strategic errors of the war, failed to advance on the Allies, providing precious time for Britain to execute a mass evacuation.
Conventional warships such as destroyers, hospital ships, and various military support vessels were used to evacuate some troops. The waters were too shallow to allow evacuations on the scale necessary to save hundreds of thousands of soldiers stranded on the beaches. Most ships had to dock on stone causeways built out into the channel, also making the ships targets for German dive bombers and artillery. Britain eventually commandeered 700 private yachts, pleasure craft, fishing boats, and other small vessels to cross the English Channel and aid the rescue. About 338,000 troops were successfully evacuated. The British and French still abandoned enough artillery, tanks, vehicles, and other equipment in and around Dunkirk to provision eight to ten army divisions.
Nolan puts the foreboding, nearly hopeless tone at the center of the story. This somber mood is weaved masterfully through the concurrent timelines of soldiers (land), fighter pilots (air), and private boat owners (water) navigating the treacherous seas and battle. (Notably, almost all the private vessels actually commandeered by the British military were actually staffed by officers and sailors from the Royal Navy.) The dialogue through out the film is minimal, confronting viewers with the stark vistas of beaches lined with soldiers waiting for evacuation with almost no signs of hope. The film even opens with a sequence of scenes where soldiers simply use their cunning to find the fastest way to get to the front of an evacuation line.
While the approach of telling the three sides in the same story is confusing at times, the technique creates a level of uncertainty that pulls the viewer into the perspective of the subjects, isolating them from the broader narrative. Viewers are immersed in the desperation of the evacuation. This contributes to the sense of abandonment and helplessness that surely captured the mood of most of the men on the beaches during this fateful week.
Dunkirk features a number of accomplished veteran actors, including Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Hamlet, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) as the Royal Navy Commander who orchestrates the evacuation, James D’Arcy (Jupiter Ascending, Cloud Atlas) as the Royal Army colonel directing the evacuation, Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, The BFG) as Mr. Dawson, a private boat owner participating in the evacuation. Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, The Dark Knight Rises) plays a critical role as a heroic Spitfire fighter pilot but is obscured through most of the film by his oxygen mask. Notably, perhaps the most important figure (in terms of plot) is simply identified as “Shivering Soldier” (Cillian Murphy, The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Sunshine), a soldier rescued by Dawson from a sinking evacuation ship who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Nolan’s telling of the Dunkirk disaster is an experiential meditation for the viewer, rooted in the perspectives of those on the ground without passing judgement on the military decisions that led to the outcome. This makes the film somewhat controversial among those knowledgeable of military history. It also creates a framework in which viewers get a real sense that all of Western Europe was on the cusp of succumbing to an authoritarian nightmare, a real-life apocalypse facing freedom and personal liberty.
Dunkirk is widely heralded as one of the best films of 2017, largely because of its innovative approach to telling the story from three concurrent perspectives, the pacing of the stories as they converge toward a penultimate moment, and the emotionally powerful effects created by Nolan’s artistic choices as a director. Some viewers without at least a cursory understanding of the Battle of Dunkirk’s role in the trajectory of the war might find themselves detached from the characters and stories.
Nevertheless, Christopher Nolan has done a service to history by deepening the story of the evacuation and taking the events beyond the boosterism and propaganda of the time depicting the “Miracle of Dunkirk” as a victory. As Winston Churchill reminded Britain’s citizens at the time: “[W]e must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” True enough, but the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation is deserving of its own movie, and Nolan has exposed a new generation to a darker shade of victory.