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Epic in Scope, Intimate in Nature
By Carl Schultz on October 25, 2017
The evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II is one of those stories that’s almost too incredible to be true. Should a Homeric epic poem ever be composed about the global struggle between good and evil which was the essence of World War II, the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France would be as central to that epic as the Tale of the Trojan Horse is to Virgil’s Aeneid.
In May of 1940, virtually the entirety of the British Army, augmented by troops from France, entered Belgium to counter the German invasion of the Netherlands. The Germans in response engaged and flanked the Allied Army, drove them back to the western coast of France, and placed themselves in a position to capture the French ports before the retreating Allied forces could escape across the Channel to Britain.
The Allied Army, including over 300,000 British soldiers, were trapped with their backs to the English Channel outside the French town of Dunkirk, faced with either capture or annihilation at the hands of the German Army. The shallow water prevented British naval vessels from entering the port to evacuate the troops. Many of the soldiers waded into the sea in an attempt to reach the warships, standing shoulder-deep in water for hours to await rescue.
At home, the British government organized an effort to secure the loan of privately-owned boats with shallow-water capability—pleasure craft, launches, sailboats, private yachts, fishing vessels, ferryboats. The plan was to launch the vessels from the British port of Ramsgate and set sail for Dunkirk to rescue the Allied troops. Some 700 such small craft were secured, and manned by either British naval personnel, experienced volunteers, or the boat owners themselves.
Newly-elected Prime Minister Churchill hoped to rescue perhaps one-tenth of the British Army, 35,000 troops, to continue to protect their homeland against German invasion. In the end, the entire army—some 338,000 Allied soldiers—was evacuated, either by the small craft entering the waters and ferrying the troops in relays to the British naval vessels waiting offshore, or by actually transporting the stranded soldiers all the way back to Ramsgate, a distance of 28 nautical miles.
The civilian rescue of the Allied troops from Dunkirk was one of the most selfless and heroic acts in military history. And the event is recreated in Christopher Nolan’s eagerly-awaited new picture, “Dunkirk,� produced by Syncopy Films and released to American theaters on July 21 by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Director and screenwriter Nolan makes the decision early on to depart from the traditional structure of big-budget Hollywood war movies, from 1960’s “The Longest Day� to 1977’s “A Bridge Too Far� to Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line� in 1998—namely, the use of an all-star cast in cameo roles distracting the audience’s attention from the essence of the story, and including long, boring exposition scenes of military officers discussing the intricate details of military operations, in futile attempts to provide historical contest for the viewer.
Instead, Nolan distills the historical background into a tersely-written prologue to the picture, almost a telegram—defeated Allied soldiers are stranded on the beach, waiting for salvation, praying for a miracle. Then, without warning, Nolan throws the viewer by the seat of his pants into the meat of the story.
Epic in scope but intimate in nature, a “Dunkirk� viewing is akin to examining an intricate mosaic, tile-by-tile, and only after memorizing the details drawing back to view the impact of the artwork in its entirety. From the first scene forward, “Dunkirk� is a film filled with details, both a tapestry of humanity and a series of snapshots of life itself during wartime, with each tiny nuance contributing in the viewer’s mind to the epic scope of what is still known to historians as the Miracle of Dunkirk.
Nolan’s screenplay, reportedly decades in preparation, depicts the Dunkirk evacuation from three basic perspectives—from the land, the sea, and the sky. The narration of events on land cover one week, the events on the sea depict one day, and the events in the sky one hour. Individual scenes blend into others, and characters from various segments interact. And with his clever manipulation of time and events, Nolan not so much reinvents the genre of the war movie as redefines it, with a spectacular degree of success.
The juxtaposition of daytime scenes with nighttime scenes is disorienting and sometimes confusing, but suggests well both the suspense and anxiety of the operation and the passage of time—the evacuation of Dunkirk actually lasted about a week, from May 27 until June 04, 1940, while the German Army regrouped its forces.
In the primary storylines, a group of young British troops on the land are trying with increasing desperation to escape to safety back home in Britain, while a British naval commander tries to surmount the problems of evacuation. In the sky, three British Spitfire pilots attempt to somehow provide air cover against the German fighters and bombers attacking the defeated forces below. And on the sea, a kindly and surprisingly resourceful British fisherman sets sail for Dunkirk with his son and a teenaged boat-hand aboard, to provide as much help as he can to the Allied forces.
Among the actors appearing in “Dunkirk,� Kenneth Branagh maintains a still upper lip as the naval commander calmly organizing the evacuation of troops from the shore. Mark Rylance is the philosophical fisherman imparting wisdom and life lessons to his young charges en route to Dunkirk, while also displaying an impressive command of wartime ship-handling. Young Fionn Whitehead is the British army private from whose perspective the land sequences are viewed. And veteran actor Michael Caine is briefly heard but not seen as the RAF flight commander radioing instructions to his pilots.
Actors Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy contribute impressive turns as RAF pilots flying against discouraging odds to provide some protection for their countrymen below. A modern incarnation of the legendary silent film star Lon Chaney, Hardy in particular etches his customarily vivid characterization without revealing to the audience his actual appearance—in “Dunkirk� his face is obscured by a pilot’s oxygen mask until a brief shot at the very end. And in the grand tradition of pop stars trying their hand at war movies, Harry Styles from the boy band One Direction acquits himself with some honor, as a British private who does not.
At 106 minutes, the PG-13 rated “Dunkirk,� despite its epic scope and intimate detail, is among director Christopher Nolan’s most compact films—of his recent pictures, “The Dark Knight Rises� from 2012 ran 165 minutes and 2014’s “Interstellar� ran 169. The shorter running time might be partially attributed to the sparse dialogue written by Nolan to be spoken by the actors—“Dunkirk� is a film of images and actions rather than explanations or conversations.
At the end of the picture, a brief statement is projected onscreen dedicating the film to all those whose lives were effected by the events at Dunkirk. The poignant reality is that—in one way or another, and whether or not we realize the fact—we all were effected by the heroic events which occurred during that historic week. We continue to this day to be effected by those events, in ways we barely realize.
Possibly only the historians and survivors are most aware of why that is. The vastly impressive “Dunkirk� now shows us how it occurred.