Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 6; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
He reached down from on high, he took me;
he drew me out of mighty waters.
He delivered me from my strong enemy,
and from those who hated me;
for they were too mighty for me.
For the British, French, and Belgian troops stranded on Dunkirk’s beach from May 26- June 04, 1940, the period covered by writer/director Christopher Nolan’s film, the Nazis were indeed “my strong enemy.” Hitler’s blitzkrieg, quickly conquering Holland, Belgium, and most of France, seemed unstoppable. The British Expeditionary Force, along with thousands of soldiers of its allies, had been pushed back into the tiny pocket around the port of Dunkirk—over 400,000 troops seemed on the verge of death or capture. If this happened, the British Isles themselves would become easy prey for Hitler’s army. The encircled port had but one quay to service deep-water ships, and the Brits had just a few Spitfires and Hurricanes to fight against the massive German fleet of planes and U-Boats, and so the situation looked hopeless.
Nolan divides the coverage of his film into three parts, Land, Sea, and Air. On land, we follow Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier fleeing gunfire through the besieged village and out onto the beach, where he teams up with two other men among the thousands of other soldiers standing in long lines. We also see the Royal Navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) in charge of the evacuation. Staring across the English Channel, he mutters longingly, “You can practically see it.” “It” is “home.” So close, yet so far away,
In the air a pair of Royal Air Force pilots, Collins and Farrier (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy) duel with a number of Nazi fighters and bombers, downing several, to the relief and cheers of the trapped men below. The time of this segment reads “One hour” because that is the length of time that their gasoline allows them to stay aloft.
On the sea, a yachtsman named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sets off with his teenage son George and the latter’s friend toward the distant shore. His is part of a flotilla of over 700 civilian boats called forth to join the war ships. The smaller boats can more easily sail close to the beach than the large ships. The Germans sank many of the boats, and it is a survivor from one such that Dawson rescues. The fearful, shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) tries to make Dawson turn back, resulting in tragedy, but not preventing the skipper from sailing on to complete his rescue mission.
The cross-cutting between the many scenes add to the feeling of chaos and suspense, and the huge Imax screen engulfs us so that at times we feel as if we are participants. (This is definitely NOT a film to watch on an iPhone or computer screen!) The suspense is very great—besides the struggle on the yacht with the deranged soldier there is a scene in which a Spitfire pilot ditches into the sea but cannot get his cockpit to open as the water rises. In another, Tommy and some fellow soldiers find refuge in an abandoned boat further up the coast but apparently are spotted by German soldiers (whom we never see), the latter firing random bullets into the hull. This causes so many large holes that when high tide rushes in, the trapped soldiers are in danger of drowning. In still another, German Stukas dive-bomb and strafe the beach, hitting a clearly-marked hospital ship.
Nolan provides just a hint of the evacuation’s big picture, with just a few lines introducing the film reporting the number of men trapped and their danger. By concentrating on the experiences of individuals, Nolan intensifies the feelings of terror and exhilaration felt by the participants. Rescuing over 330,000 soldiers to fight on was very much a “miracle” when considering the array of forces seeking to crush them. One article I’ve read said that this was several times more than the British leaders had dared hope to bring back.
Concluding with one of the Brits reading a newspaper account of PM Churchill’s June 4th “We will fight” speech, the film provides a visual parable of courage and pluck. Although Bob Dylan’s anti-Vietnam War song “With God on Our Side” cautions us not to claim too much during wartime, I think it is safe to say that God was indeed in 1940 on the side of those brave men waiting on the beach. Often called “The Miracle of Dunkirk,” the evacuation of so many troops could be seen as the British 20th century equivalent to the miracle recorded in Exodus, the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea just ahead of Pharaoh’s army bent on their annihilation. The Brits just got their feet wetter.
Note: The recently reviewed Their Finest Hour is worth watching, the fictional film being about a British war-time crew making a propaganda film about the evacuation.
This review with a set of questions will be in the August 2017 issue of VP.