SHORT TAKE: An intense and powerful but still intimate experience of the historic Operation Dynamo rescue at Dunkirk of over 300,000 desperately trapped Allied soldiers by mostly civilian volunteers told from all three perspectives of land, air and sea.
LONG TAKE: We’re all the way back home and I’m sitting behind my computer but my heart is still pounding. Dunkirk is one of those films, along with the likes of Hacksaw Ridge, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and Lone Survivor which you owe to those who endured the experience to bear witness to what they endured.
I THINK I HAVE AVOIDED ALL SPOILERS – I’m only referencing things you could see in the trailer.
Dunkirk, lest you not know, was the "Miracle" of Operation Dynamo in which one-third of a million soldiers were rescued from advancing German forces from the sandy shores of the bombed out and abandoned seaside French town of the same name. The rescue took place primarily not by a military cavalry, nor by a charismatic leader or even by the Avengers, but by….civilians in over 700 private vessels including yachts, fishing boats, personnel ships, tugboats, hospital ships, fireboats, trawlers, lifeboats, pleasure craft, a paddle steamer, the River Mersey Ferry, and other small ships, the smallest of which was only 15 feet long, several of which have been preserved in museums and a dozen of which are actually used IN the movie! These unnamed intrepid incredibly courageous crews all made their way across the channel from Ramsgate, England to either bring their boys directly home or ferry them from the beaches to the destroyers waiting offshore. Many were simply weekend sailors, fishermen and other private citizens – including older men, boys and women – who responded to the call for help. All braved death to bring their own home. The tagline is quite accurate. When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them – literally.
Directed by Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight, Interstellar and Inception), this incredible 10 week episode is told in telescoped perspective, hopping back and forth in time to accommodate the fact that the three main dovetailing stories cover different spans of time. A week in the case of the soldiers stranded on the beach, a day for the sailors who came to pluck them away from death and mere hours for the few air force able and allowed to provide air cover. As a result some events are told once and then retold from a different character’s perspective. It can be a little confusing but if you pay attention, as you should, this challenging POV is artfully and satisfyingly crafted by Nolan to tell the story with a depth you might not otherwise have been able to get.
Some background is needed to understand the scope of desperation created by the situation. 400,000 men were surrounded, hopelessly outnumbered, gunned and flanked by the Germans. German planes straffed and bombed the helpless men on the beach. America was not yet in the war. Most of the Allied air force were either otherwise committed or held back in anticipation of the Battle over Britain to come. The destroyers were held back for the same reason. But without these men, England was done for as they made up the bulk of their army.
Although placed in harm’s way by a disastrous military defeat, the fortitude and courage required by these brave people to face imminent brutal death to rescue their own was testament to the British Spirit required to win the war and inspirational world wide. And even though they were only three-quarters successful these civvie sailors managed to multiply the most optimistic predictions of the Operation Dynamo organizers by TEN TIMES! Headquarters hoped to save 30-45,000. The British citizens rescued over 330,000.
I do not believe any of the individual characters represent one individual person but each represent an amalgam of heroes. Kenneth Branagh puts his stamp on the military leadership who stayed behind to provide order to the soul destroying chaos as Commander Bolton. Tom Hardy (Inception and Dark Knights Rises) and Jack Lowden are air force Spitfire pilots who provide what protection they can against the German Stukas for the "Little Boats" and the men on the beach. Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) as Mr. Dawson comes closest to portraying an individual – a thinly veiled Charles Lightoller, the second officer from the Titanic, who with his son and his friend insisted on taking his own ship across. Much is seen through the eyes of Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, a young soldier cut off from his company, terrified and stranded, risking everything but his own conscience to get home. Cillian Murphy (Inception and Dark Knight) portrays a shell shocked young officer plucked from the sea by Dawson. Michael Caine does a voice cameo you have to have a quick ear to catch and there’s a point of film trivia which gives this a bit of poetic symmetry.
Although merely referenced in Atonement, the classic Mrs. Miniver, Their Finest (Hour and a Half), and The Snow Goose – the latter a very old Hallmark Show starring Richard Harris and based on a short story by Paul Gallico (Poseidon Adventure), the story of Dunkirk was only filmed once before. Appropriately enough it was called — Dunkirk. Made in 1958 it follows, on the Dunkirk end, much like Desperate Journey, a small group of soldiers led by John (Swiss Family Robinson) Mill’s character Tubby, who trek from a mission to blow up a bridge to the shores of Dunkirk. On the British end we root for two weekend civilian pleasure sailors portrayed by Bernard Lee and a very young THE Sir Lord Richard Attenborough (acted in Jurassic Park, Doctor Doolittle, Sand Pebbles, the Great Escape, and Branagh’s Hamlet, directed Chaplin, Magic, Gandhi, A Chorus Line, and Shadowlands, and a life long friend of the previously mentioned John Mills). The 2017 Dunkirk cast includes none other than Sir Attenborough’s grandson, Will.
If I have only one gripe, it is that Nolan's personal take blunts the vastness of the Herculean effort that was required. At no time did I really get the sense of almost half a million men stranded on the beach or the hundreds and HUNDREDS of ships which answered the call to aid. What Nolan has done is show a portion of it from the point of view of a few people. A few shots show a LOT of people but does not really convey the scope of almost a half million men trapped on a beach. I can't help thinking that even one aerial shots of beaches showing the enormity of the task and the sheer number of boats who came to their aid might have hit the right "awe-ness" aspect this event deserves, much like the railroad scene in Gone With the Wind where Scarlett walks through the sea of wounded.
But that's enough of the quibbles. I have only mentioned the highlights of the movie’s virtues. There is much more to credit it in the visuals, the storytelling, and the performances.
This film is a hour and 45 minutes of unrelenting tension but goes by like a snap of the fingers as you are drawn into these historic events through these characters’ experiences. As one of the characters alludes – if they have done nothing else in their life but this they will have contributed much.
I’m as big a fan of comic book heroes as the next geek, but every generation should have real heroes to look up to like these men and women who risked their lives to pluck their own from the gates of Hell and bring them home. And Nolan does a beautiful job of giving homage to them all.