In a new blockbuster film, director Christopher Nolan faithfully captures for the big screen the frantic chaos and desperation of the Allied forces at Dunkirk in 1940. It is another vivid reminder that, as so many throughout history have reminded us, “War is hell.” Those who know their history understand that on the French beaches of the Strait of Dover, the Allied forces are thrown once again into another world conflict, this time to protect Western freedom and its democratic ideals.
It’s hard not to notice and champion a realistic and true to life film amid a sea of escapism with today’s super hero and comic book tales. Instead, the viewer is placed into the panicky carnage on the beach, sea, and air, given unpredictable and suspenseful editing, coupled with immaculate cinematography.
Dunkirk is being acclaimed as a different kind of war movie. Largely because it eschews the kind of character development and heavier dialogue viewers are more accustomed to experiencing. The scaled back dialogue serves to elevate the conflict, choosing to tie the fate of the soldiers as one of many in a group instead of merely individuals. Ultimately, this overarching theme take precedence over the singular and sometimes formulaic heroes that stand out from the crowd in other films. Nolan captures this forlorn spirit of togetherness well with panoramic shots of young men huddled on the beaches. Bombs and artillery sometimes obliterate them. They wait for what can only appear to be a grim fate.
Besides the opening scene, Nolan too forgoes telling the heroic and bloody resistance put forward by the British and French forces against the German Blitzkrieg as hundreds of thousands waited for evacuation. Without that resistance, the retreat would have turned into an utter debacle, and there would be no chance to fight again another day for the men at Dunkirk.
The viewer will neither see the kind of gory wounds now more popular in today’s war films. Emphasis is placed on the scale of the desperation considering the hope for a free Europe is trapped on a beach. There is nothing but the sea between them and a rapidly advancing German Army. That is the focus of this film. Besides some shots of German fighters and bombers, there is no depiction of the human face of the enemy either.
One of the strongest performances in Dunkirk is by Mark Rylance. He plays a civilian who captains his own sea-going vessel to help rescue those stranded. His role encapsulates the close to a thousand smaller ships put into service by the British to help ferry men across the channel. The lighter civilian vessels are essential not only because the sheer size of the retreating army, but they are more equipped to navigate and reach the beachhead.
Bravery and the quintessential stiff British upper lip is a central theme of his character. “The Dunkirk Spirit,” which refers to the unwillingness to surrender and help others at all costs, is still a term that is part of the British lexicon today.
If there is a more technical criticism for moviegoers, it would be that, at times, it is difficult to follow some of the main characters awaiting evacuation, given the similar appearances of the actors. There is so much shifting between characters and sequences one can lose track of what is happening. The soundtrack and special effects are so loud too; it often drowns out the little dialogue that seems essential.
The aerial dogfights and British Spitfires, still one of the most aesthetically beautiful looking and sounding planes, with their single Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, adds much to the film. The Royal Air Force, which received plenty of criticism from the troops on the continent and at Dunkirk, were ultimately instrumental in the rescue. Their service in the darkest days of the British Empire is rightly lauded as one of the most heroic and self-sacrificial endeavors in the history of Western freedom. Their bravery is given its due through the portrayal of one pilot in this film.
The Battle at Dunkirk is rightfully seen as a monumental failure for the Allied Forces of Europe, still months and months before the United State is forced to enter World War II. As Winston Churchill reminded his people at the time, “war is not won by evacuations.” Only those who lived it can understand the sheer desperation of the Allied nations and forces.
The last 20 minutes of the film is spectacular, as the unfolding fate of several main characters culminates in a grand climax. The cheers of the soldiers on the beaches evokes a natural emotional response for viewers when the cobbled together sea armada comes into view. It was particularly effective to have a common soldier read the closing of Churchill’s infamous “We shall fight on the beaches” address at the end.
The grand question for viewers and our 21st century Western world is whether we have the internal fortitude to suffer and sacrifice like much of Europe did under the Nazis onslaught, particularly in the steely way that Great Britain did when it stood alone. It’s hard to answer affirmatively given the rise of secularism and a declining moral culture. Even the ludicrous criticisms of the film, which include a lack of multicultural and gender diversity in the characters, provides enough evidence of an emptying of our culture.
In the end, Dunkirk is superb because it’s a visually powerful tribute of what it took for the Allies to pick itself up from a great debacle, and return to liberate a continent. This bullish commitment and resolve to human freedom is desperately needed again in the Western world.
Photo: British Army in the UK- Evacuation From Dunkirk, May-June 1940 H1621.jpg English: The British Army in the UK- Evacuation From Dunkirk, May-june 1940 French (Wikimedia).