The Blitzkrieg (lightning war) of the Nazi war machine had caught the allied forces by surprise in May 1940. In a rapid push through the Ardennes, the Germans isolated the British, French and Belgium forces, back into a small pocket around the port of Dunkirk. It is here that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk opens with scenes of a small group of British soldiers fighting their way through the streets of Dunkirk, before Nolan sweeps his camera across the large expanse of beach filled with exhausted allied forces. The sight of ten of thousands of stranded troops on Dunkirk’s beaches is mind-boggling and thanks to Noolan’s ingenuity as a filmmaker, he successfully illustrates the sheer scale of the danger of that is about to take place at “the Miracle of Dunkirk”.
The idea of one of my favourite contemporary directors making an epic World War Two about Dunkirk, could have gone either of two ways. It could have ended up being an exercise in indulgence by director Christopher Nolan, turning the “Dunkirk spirit” into a bigger mythological beast than it should be, or he could have stripped it back to truly recall the danger and growing alarm faced by the thousands of men trying to evacuate and survive in the midst of the hopelessness. In the end he chose to ultimately focus on the latter, but for the most part I think he created an intimate epic, focusing on a handful of individuals seamlessly switching the story from land, sea and the air.
By recounting the events of Dunkirk, Nolan helps us understand how the British Royal Air Force, together with a makeshift flotilla of destroyers, cargo ships, ferries and fishing boats, helped evacuate the besieged exhausted allies at the end of May, 1940. History tells us that over 340,000 British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain by the 4th June, including an estimated 120,000 French troops, which unfortunately Nolan fails to mention. He also fails to depict or mention how thousands of other Frenchmen, who had protected the evacuation in their rearguard action against the Germans (this actually would have been interesting to see in some detail), were unable to embark those British transports. Sadly, they were all taken as prisoners.
In Nolan’s defence, this story or his vision, is a very British one. Is it a failure of story telling? I don’t know. My only other complaint is related to the overall depiction of British airmen in this film, whose reputation seemingly suffered greatly through the years, for not doing enough to defend the stranded forces on the beaches of Dunkirk. In reality, the British Royal Air Force carried out an invaluable service inland over the skies of France in aerial battles, unbeknown to those being evaluated on the beaches of Dunkirk.
Nolan’s Dunkirk is a personal and impressionistic view of Dunkirk and that fact doesn’t make it a failure as a film. It’s impossible to cover every aspect of all the important events without it turning into a three or more hour film. By tightly editing and focusing Dunkirk in the manor that he did, it makes it a gripping and at times an edge of your sit experience. It is truly a wonderful achievement in filmmaking.
Photo credit: The header movie still image from the film Dunkirk (2017) is courtesy of Warner Bros. I make use of it under the rationale of fair use because no free equivalent seems to exist and it helps serve as the primary means of visual identification of the films in question here above. I am not the uploader of the You Tube clip embedded here.