Song for the Unsung.
A high-pitched drone of violins imperceptibly morphs into the far-off air-scream of a diving German fighter plane. From the expanse of grey sky, a jot of shrill steel, growing into an engine roar, swelling into machine gun slaughter over a beach where 400,000 Allied soldiers huddle, stranded by circumstance, packed like lemmings, waiting for deliverance on the beach at DUNKIRK.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK follows the civilian-aided evacuation of 400,000 British, French and Belgian troops from the beach at Dunkirk on the north coast of France, during WWII.
But it’s not a war movie. It’s a thriller, almost a horror movie, as an isolated location is established, an unseen enemy attacks, and our protagonists are murdered in the most gruesome manner possible.
Opening scene shows flyers cascading down from the skies onto Allied soldiers patrolling deserted streets. The flyers show a map of Dunkirk, and all around it, on the land and surrounding sea, arrows pointing at Dunkirk’s beach, with the legend, “We Surround You.” Just 28 miles from Britain, across the English Channel, the retreating Allied troops were trapped by Dunkirk’s beach being too shallow for the British fleet to get close enough to pick them up. In a desperate move, Britain requisitioned all manner of private vessels – pleasure craft, weekend fishermen, yachts, lifeboats (about 700 private craft) – to cross the Channel in a bizarre civilian/military rescue. To this day, a unique, monumental deed, which springs the tear-ducts for its poignancy – the best of humanity during the worst of humanity (war). Even the slogan chokes me up: “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.”
Opening title cards sketch the situation, otherwise there is no politics, no history, no character development, no Hitler (and his inexplicable orders to quell the air attack and tank advance which would have decimated the Allies irrecoverably), not even any Germans! There is but ONE GOAL – to get home!
Bolton: “You can almost see it from here.”
And surely, the white cliffs of Dover were just over the curvature of the Earth (OR – for the Flat-Earthers – just out of sight due to distance).
DUNKIRK follows the fate of a young soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), as he survives an ambush, and ends up on Dunkirk beach, seeing thousands of Allied troops gathering, yet none being evacuated. As we ponder on Fionn’s character name being the slang term for British troops, the violins, like an ice-pick to our temples, turn into Messerschmitts…
Three intriguing title cards appear onscreen:
1: The Mole | One Week
Stretching like an isthmus from the beach at Dunkirk, “The Mole” was a long dock for deep-bottomed ships to get close enough to pick up passengers. Even so, the British ships were too deep. Scenes of men crushed like sardines on this open dock, trying to take cover where there is none, as enemy planes strafe them arbitrarily.
As Tommy wanders the beach, in line to board after thousands of others before him, he comes across another soldier, a Frenchman (Damien Bonnard) burying a dead soldier, taking that man’s belongings and dog tags. Their eyes meet, without animosity, just a resigned comradeship, around the misfortune of death. As Tommy tramps amongst the stretchers of wounded men who are each attended by two soldiers, he spies a stretcher with a wounded man unattended. Suddenly, he sees Frenchie desperately divesting himself of weighted belts, etc. and realizes: they can exploit the stretchered man to immediately get on the next ship! In wordless communication, they do just that! (Another great beauty of this film is the economy of dialogue.)
Meanwhile, Commander Bolton is overseeing the boarding of ships. An air attack on the medical vessel. It starts sinking. Bolton screams, “Push her off! Don’t let her sink in the bay!” The heartless command, to abandon all hope for that ship, while making way for other ships to pick up the living!
2: The Sea | One Day
Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) preps his weekend fishing boat for the Dunkirk rescue with his teen son (Tom Glynn-Carney). School friend Georgie (Barry Keoghan) hops onboard, insisting he can help, against the wishes of Mr. Dawson. Innocently optimistic, Georgie tells Dawson, “I’ve never done anything in my life. Maybe I can be a hero…”
Like many others, Mr. Dawson would cast off for the rescue before British soldiers could get onboard and formally requisition his vessel. It was 28 miles he could handle himself.
In a heartfelt moment in history, we see a fleet of disparate tiny craft plying the waves to pick up their boys… Nolan has admitted there are many liberties taken with DUNKIRK (as there are with ALL historical movies), the one over-arching element being the magnitude of the aid provided by the “Little Boats of Dunkirk.” They are this movie’s subject matter, so they seem like they save the day, but they were a small plug-in to the actual military effort, which was coded “Operation Dynamo”; with their inclusion, the event was informally known as “The Miracle of Dunkirk.” William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) notes their achievement as considerable (if you count that some of them ferried troops to larger vessels at sea). As one video notes, “their role cannot be understated, but it CAN be overstated.” (7 Times DUNKIRK Got History All Wrong.)
Mr. Dawson rescues a soldier (Cillian Murphy) from the hull of a sinking ship, taking him onboard. And his PTSD. Called “shell shock” in those days, Dawson tries his best to calm the anxiety-ridden soldier when he protests violently upon hearing that Dawson is headed towards Dunkirk. In a scuffle, young Georgie sustains a fatal head wound. The dilemma: does Dawson return home for medical help, or does he serve his country? “We’ve come too far to turn back…”
So much can happen in just 28 miles…
3: The Air | One Hour
Three Supermarine Spitfires, the sexiest of warplanes (Dawson notes as they skim the skies above his boat: “Rolls Royce engines – sweetest plane ever built!”), take to the skies from Britain, in a journey that was so quick they would have enough fuel to arrive at Dunkirk, dogfight, and then fly back to Britain.
Farrier (Tom Hardy) is lead pilot, dubiously eyeing his fuel gauge after a dogfight. It is damaged and stuck on Empty. He has to resort to hurried pencil calculations on how much fuel he might have left – and every time he throttles forward, we see a shot of his hand on the throttle, near the damaged fuel gauge… And in Farrier’s ongoing anxiety, one of Nolan’s brilliant cinematic devices: Every time we see the throttle from that angle, it is visual shorthand for “using up fuel.” (Nolan uses the same cinematic device in INTERSTELLAR to signify various spaceship functions, like the grappling hooks.) Thus, when Farrier’s calculations show he is approaching the point of no return, while flying above a German bomber that is approaching the ragtag group of civilian boats, he looks longingly back at Britain, at his fuel gauge, and then makes a decision to dive at the bomber – and we see that shot of the throttle and gauge! And now it means more than just fuel; it means sacrifice…
It takes us awhile to realize just how brilliant Christopher Nolan is: Cutting between three segments of action that are not taking place at the same time, but converging with each other in DUNKIRK’s final act! Only then will it become apparent what “One Week,” “One Day,” and “One Hour” truly mean. The Mole’s events are taking place over the course of a week before the final act; likewise, Mr. Dawson has set course for Dunkirk one day before the final act, and Farrier has taken to the skies merely one hour before the final act. And even then, we see events from many different perspectives: Farrier’s Lieutenant goes down, and we see it from Farrier’s point of view; later we would see it from the Lieutenant’s point of view, stuck in his sinking plane, as a civilian boat hoves to his rescue; and later still, we would see events from the boat’s point of view – as Mr. Dawson, dealing with the madman onboard and a dying boy, rushes to help the sinking pilot! Likewise, Mr. Dawson sees the approaching German bomber early in the movie, and only in the final act, Farrier, having checked his fuel and pushing that throttle forward, dives his Spitfire out of the sun to handle it… Like MEMENTO, like INCEPTION, Nolan is once again playing three-dimensional chess, while we’re trying to keep up with our Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Speaking of youthful silliness, appearing as a young soldier on the beach at Dunkirk – Harry Styles from the boy band One Direction. If not noticed, he might easily be regarded as just another great middle-foreground actor pulling a somber, subdued performance at The Mole. He’s not whining nasally [I think you mean ‘singing,’ Poffy – Ed. Note] nor gadding about in that heterosexually-challenged manner known as “marketing to preteen girls,” so fades into the fabric of this striking film, as he should, as an ensemble player.
With production values that rival SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s grit and PEARL HARBOR’s dogfights, DUNKIRK is a visual tour de force! Epic and intimate: from claustrophobic cockpits we see the Earth spin, from tiny boats we see the fearful grandeur of gargantuan man-made objects of war – a bomber breaking through clouds and tilting towards us, a warship sailing alongside us with iron sides as high as a building, a medical frigate slowly dragging her cargo of lives and pharmacopoeia under the waves…
Synapses firing our animal survival instincts, with Hans Zimmer’s Shepard-Risset glissandos twisting centipedes into our brains, DUNKIRK more succinctly purveys the blinkered perception of men in war than any war film ever made. Taking a different approach than all those war movies that try to portray all the politics and strategies and personalities behind the battles, we are as in the dark as our protagonists; each singular soul in these three vignettes (Tommy, Mr. Dawson and Farrier) is isolated and unaware – or not displaying the knowledge of – the macro war effort, they each only know what their next step must be, towards the ultimate goal – bringing the boys back home. The impact of this simplicity hits us like a bomber breaking through clouds…
When the orchestra swell eventually comes, we realize how our cheeks have been clenching the edge of our seats like gymnasts…
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.
— Winston Churchill, 4 June 1940
It was a retreat.
And British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had to rally Britain after this seeming ignominious capitulation. It almost feels as if Nolan inserts Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches” speech as dramatic license (as narration under a final montage of soldiers returning home) but Operation Dynamo is, in fact, the actual event that spurred that slurry speech on June 4, 1940. In that jowly manner that has gotten more pronounced as imitators do him no justice.
As the Dunkirk troops return in myriad transports into the British towns, they believe they will be scorned as fleeing cowards, but the combination of the military-civilian rescue, Churchill’s speech and the Movie Orchestra Swell ensures they are touted as returning heroes. A country united by jowls.
Of the 400,000 troops stranded at Dunkirk, the British High Command hoped to evacuate 45,000. They got 360,000.
The ragged fleet of civilian boats did not all arrive at once at Dunkirk – as they do in the movie – although it does make for another tearful moment when Bolton sees them through his binoculars.
Colonel asks: “What do you see?”
Bolton: “Home.” And dramatic license.
And Churchill said, “We shall go in One Direction – home!” That word “home” still chokes me up though–wait – what?!–