“Dunkirk” starts at a seminal moment early in World War II — when 400,000 British and French soldiers have been driven by German forces onto the last scrap of land before the English Channel.
Traditional Dunkirk stories focus on how the English rescued most of those men, how the Allies rallied from there to fight another day and how the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, pledged his country to persevere until the war was won.
This movie takes a different view, that of the trapped soldiers who understand they are vulnerable to infantry and armored tanks behind them, to naval bombardment in front of them and to bombs and bullets dropped and shot from airplanes above them.
The movie is not a war story but a story of survival.
The soldiers are virtually indistinguishable as they dive into the sand, hands covering their heads, when bombers and fighter planes appear overhead. They wait in endless lines for rescue ships that take too long to arrive. After the soldiers have boarded the ships, they try to block leaks created by bullets that have pierced the ships’ hulls. As ships sink, they jump to escape and then dive underwater as fuel slicks on the surface catch fire.
These struggles are the meat of the movie, which was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the talented Englishman best known for the blockbuster Dark Knight Batman trilogy.
Interestingly, this film is light on computer-generated imagery but generates more in the way of suspense and dread than the usual horror or superhero movie because it feels so real.
Several recognizable actors play low-key parts around the edges. Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies,” “Wolf Hall”) is a civilian who pilots his personal boat across the channel to assist in the rescue. Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare, etc., etc.) has less to do as an admiral who stamps up and down a long dock and scans the horizon with his binoculars, a concerned look on his face.
More movingly, Tom Hardy (“Dark Knight,” Revenant”) is a fighter pilot who chases down German aircraft as his Spitfire runs low on fuel.
The context of the 10-day Dunkirk evacuation is shared at the film’s end and without huge emphasis. Again, it’s a survival story, and moviegoers arrive knowing how it ended.
It took the English 10 days to rescue almost 340,000 of the trapped soldiers on that beach in 1940, a great triumph but one that still left 40,000 behind to be taken prisoner and as many as 20,000 dead.
–Finlay Greig of the inews.uk website filed a thoughtful interview with historian James Holland, author of “Duty Calls: Dunkirk,” who analyzed the film for historical accuracy. It’s an interesting read.
–It’s worth noting, as “Dunkirk” does only very briefly, that many French soldiers also were stranded on that beach. In fact, French heroism at Lille is believed to have prevented the German Wehrmacht from reaching Dunkirk and slaughtering all the Allied soldiers there.
–Citizens in the U.K. remain divided about Brexit, which was approved narrowly in a vote last year. There appears to be some concern that noise about Dunkirk and Winston Churchill is playing into pro-Brexit jingoism.