It is May 1940. World War II has been raging for less than a full year so far. Nazi Germany had already taken Poland and the British Expeditionary Force along with the Belgian and French armies were busy trying to stop them. When the Germans began their invasion of France and Belgium, they went through the Ardennes Forest and split the Allies into two while also bypassing the positions of the Maginot Line that France had spent years reinforcing. Such was the speed and precision of the Germans that the Allies were forced to slowly retreat back towards the English Channel. This was going to leave them surrounded on all sides by enemy forces. General John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, the man leading the BEF, realized that the only way to escape the Nazis was for his forces to be evacuated back to Great Britain. The nearest location that was capable of removing his men? The port of Dunkirk.
Christopher Nolan goes for a smaller, less verbose introduction to his adaptation of the Dunkirk Evacuation. But the gist remains: there are thousands of British and French soldiers trapped against the English Channel who are desperate to get away from the enemy approach. The expected Nazi invasion of the British Isles — what would become the Battle of Britain — has made Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Parliament reticent in putting more ships and planes than necessary at risk. This means the Luftwaffe owns the skies against a small force of Royal Air Force (RAF) fighters who patrol and try to give cover to the ships trying to escape Dunkirk. In order to accelerate the rescue, the Royal Navy sent out an order requisitioning every small vessel available in the south of England — from pleasure boat to ferry — to head to Dunkirk and assist. Given the shortage of manpower, many of these vessels were crewed by their own civilian staffs, who were asked to head into an active war zone with little time and no means of defending themselves. In the meantime, the soldiers across the Channel had no choice but to wait and wait and hope that they would be rescued.
Dunkirk splits the story into three equally-important elements, each of which take a different length of time. First, there’s the men on the beach at Dunkirk. They’re represented by Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles amongst others. These are soldiers led by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Col. Winnant (James D’Arcy) who are desperately trying to find any way off the beach and across to England. Their story covers the span of a week. Second, there’s the civilian rescue flotilla AKA “The Little Ships of Dunkirk.” They’re represented by Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan. A dad, his son and his best friend, all locals who opt to take their requisitioned boat and head towards Dunkirk to assist. Their story takes course over a day. Finally, there’s the RAF flying above and trying to give the ships a chance by stopping the Luftwaffe’s bombing runs. They’re represented by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden. Their story is but one hour.
You’ll notice that I have not really mentioned names or characters for most of the actors listed above. That’s by design. Whitehead may be named “Tommy” in the movie, but it’s rarely used and secondary to proceedings. He’s the soldier we follow from the movie’s start as he seeks any way — some more underhanded than others — to get out of Dunkirk. Teaming up with other soldiers, like Barnard’s Gibson and Styles’ Alex, his desperation is punctured by the absence of food, the absence of sound but the wind and the waves at the beach and the absence of dialogue. All these men have one desperate mission: to survive. And he alongside Bonnard, Barnard and the rest are able to be great stand-ins for the men who all they wanted was to live. Sometimes their story becomes hilarious in a dark comedy sort-of-way — they try to find any way off the beach only for it to fail spectacularly. They then have to dust themselves off and try again.
We get to know Mr. Dawson, his son, Peter, and his son’s best friend, George, a bit better. They’re the civilians who choose to take their boat into Dunkirk. Peter and George are on the cusp of manhood, worrying about what mark, if any, they’ll leave on the world. For his part, Mr. Dawson is someone who has served in his time and knows the dangers the boys in Dunkirk face. Along the way they’ll find a marooned soldier (Cillian Murphy) who needs rescue. Their part of the story focuses on the heroism of the civilians who braved the treacherous waters of the Channel as well as the Luftwaffe’s bombing runs and the U-boats patrolling beneath. All four do a good job of juxtaposing their mission against the larger issues at play — why do some run into burning buildings while everyone else is running away?
Finally, there’s Hardy’s Farrier and Lowden’s Collins; the two RAF pilots who patrol the skies above the Channel and try desperately to give the flotilla a fighting chance. Their single hour of combat is focused on finding the Luftwaffe while not running out of fuel. It’s interesting to see Hardy and Lowden have to act with only half their faces visible for the bulk of the movie. They do rather well and manage to represent the heroism of the out-manned pilots fighting in the air. At what point do they turn back for home and leave the stranded men to their fate? Or do they risk their chance to be back home themselves by sacrificing every ounce of fuel to give the ships a fighting chance?
For a movie that’s very involved, having a large cast of actors of various levels of fame, that is supposed to take place across three different time periods, it is surprising that it is quite straightforward and simple. Nolan is very direct and clean in his shots, establishing both the geography and the stakes for these men. He engages in very few tricks and allows the lighting, the cinematography and the sound to do a lot of the heavy lifting in those moments where tension is ramped up. In one instance, Tommy, Alex and Gibson have finally gotten aboard a destroyer headed for England. They’re passing the time drinking tea and eating bread with jam. Until one of them hears something streaking in the distance, the fog lights come on and a torpedo is sighted. In these moments, the work of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, composer Hans Zimmer and editor Lee Smith really comes through in building, keeping and not releasing the tension of the moment.
And tension is something that Dunkirk has in spades. These are men fraying after a week of shelling, shooting and desperation. By cutting the three separate story-lines and presenting them one mixed with the other, we are allowed to see similar moments from different angles and know what each person is going through. The desperation of the men trying to escape is combined with the tense rush of the pilots trying to give them a fighting chance mixed with the flotilla’s crews rushing to render aid even as they know they’re out-manned. We might see someone swimming in one moment and then the movie will go back to moments before that person was in the water, showing us how he ended up there. While at first, it was a tad disorienting, you find that you adapt and come to understand why Nolan cut his movie the way he did.
Writing an entire movie for the first time since 2010’s Inception, it is interesting to focus on what Nolan is after and what he is not. This is not a traditional war movie as we know them. There is no sequence like Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy Beach assault here. In fact, but for a few out-of-focus figures at the end, you see no German soldiers whatsoever in Dunkirk. Their presence is limited to fighter planes and bombers over the English Channel that Farrier and Collins have to shoot down and off-screen shooters taking aim at the English and French soldiers barricaded in the port city. They exist as a threat as existential and present as the vacuum of space in Interstellar — they’re there and they’re a threat that never goes away, but the greater threat is within.
Because the more immediate danger for the soldiers in Dunkirk is to lose hope. And you see it. By the time the movie is rolling, the men of the beach have begun to lose hope they will be rescued. They begin to come up with whatever scheme can get them away. Some turn on one another and start accusing each other of being German spies. Others, once rescued, refuse to go back to help or are angry when comrades who appeared to be leaving are forced back by the Luftwaffe. With food and water growing scarce, with no sight of ships to take them away, morale sinks, discipline falters and an army can quickly devolve into an angry mob. It is surprising how much the actors on the beach do with very little dialogue. It’s as if the very act of talking would zap whatever tiny hope they had remaining. The leadership of Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant can only do so much in stemming that tide.
At its core, Dunkirk is a study of men under the greatest of stress and how they respond to it. As you can imagine, not everyone rises to the challenge. But many do. Many keep faith and keep hope. They are helped by those who rise to aid them — the pilots above them and the sailors headed towards them. But those two groups are also forced to come to terms with their own limitations and own willingness to sacrifice themselves. Are they willing to lay their own lives on the line to save men they do not know? For some, the sacrifice is worthwhile. For others, it may not be. It is this struggle within each and every character that fuels the conflict in Dunkirk.
When the expected disaster at Dunkirk turned into a miracle, Churchill was forced to calm the English people’s triumph by reminding them that the war was not over and that Dunkirk had been not been a victory. Churchill had to follow by proclaiming they would defend the British Isles “on the beaches” and “on the hills” and that they “would never surrender.” In many ways, the spirit of the Dunkirk Evacuation permeated throughout all of England and allowed them to stand while the Battle of Britain raged above them. For his part, Hitler and the Nazi High Command considered Dunkirk a triumph that would ensure the British would never set foot again on European soil.
Dunkirk is a war movie where the victory is much more internal than it is external. The battle is one for the spirit of people pushed to the ultimate brink of despair. War dehumanizes people. This is obvious. But we expect that to happen only when bombs and bullets are being fired. However, Dunkirk shows that, in war, even the silence can be treacherous and that stillness can be a mask covering desperation and anguish. In that, it ensures it will remain relevant for years to come.