To do and die
Dunkirk tells WWII story from troops’ standpoint
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is remarkable, a suspense film that sustains its tension for nearly the entirety of its 106- minute running time, relenting only for a few moments of uplifting relief at the end. It is as much of a thrill ride as any of Michael Bay’s Transformers toss-abouts.
It’s also a very smartly positioned product — it doesn’t require its audience to do any intellectual heavy lifting. You don’t need to know a thing about World War II or the British Expeditionary Force, and there are no boring expository scenes of politicians talking about the stakes. Hitler is unmentioned, and the German forces who have trapped the British and French soldiers on the beach are identified only as “the Enemy.” While Royal Air Force fighter pilots refer to Messerschmitts, I’m not sure the word “German” is heard once. One thing Dunkirk is not is a history lesson.
Some people will probably have problems with that, because they would prefer that sides be demarcated and historical penances renewed. For the record, in 1940, after Hitler’s invasion of Poland caused England and France to declare war on Germany — and some months of virtual inactivity on the Western Front known as the “Phoney War” — Hitler’s armies blitzkrieged through the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg and began rolling into France.
Beginning in September 1939 the British had sent its
Expeditionary Force to guard the French-Belgian border. While they prepared to engage the Germans at the border, they were cut off from the main French forces when the Germans executed a pincer move, driving west from Luxembourg toward the English Channel. Then the Germans drove north along the beach, isolating the outflanked British in the northernmost tip of France, stranding some 400,000 British and French soldiers in a northern seaside town six miles from the Belgian border. Some people think that if the Germans had not halted their advance, that if they’d pressed into Dunkirk instead of stopping and laying siege to the city, the British would have been mortally wounded and the next major battle of World War II would have been fought on English soil.
I apologize to history buffs who realize how I’ve just oversimplified the conditions that led to the Dunkirk evacuation — I didn’t talk about the Maginot Line or the Dyle Plan because I’m a movie critic with a limited amount of space and I need to get on with discussing the movie. So maybe Nolan’s choice not to clutter his film with discussions of history and strategy is defensible, even though it opens him up to charges of political correctness. (On the other hand, at least one critic lamented that the movie didn’t have more roles for women and people of color. Sigh.)
What Nolan does with Dunkirk is attempt to put you in the middle of the action, waiting on the beach for rescue, beating over the waves to be of service, squashed into the cockpit of a Spitfire. It’s an attempt to reproduce the visceral experience of the battle from the perspectives of those caught up in it. Telling the story of the Dunkirk evacuation is secondary, or even tertiary to his cinematic purposes — for that you could (and should) read a book.
... Re-creating the sensation of battle on screen is tricky, and maybe even more problematic when the one doing the creating hasn’t experienced combat. A lot of combat veterans dismiss the way the movies depict the sensation of warfare. No matter how careful the reconstruction, the fact is a movie occurs in a delimited field on a wall. It’s not the same as being in country. No matter how tough and bloody the special-effects people make it, it can still be dismissed as only a movie. You can always walk out into the lobby.
Still, it may be worth the effort to try to imagine the horror our kind inflicts on itself. I once witnessed a select audience of Vietnam vets reduced to tears by an advance screening of Oliver Stone’s Platoon. The 25-minute long Omaha Beach landing sequence from Saving Private Ryan ought to be shown in every high school classroom in America. The criminally underseen Men Go to Battle (2015) never opens up beyond the circumscribed personal perspectives of the brothers who wind up on opposite sides of the Civil War.
But no, the hell of war does not translate to the screen any more than any other full-felt emotion, and Nolan’s admirable attempts to envelop his audience in the sights and sounds of desperate struggle work only to a point. I’ll take the word of those who tell me his shooting it in (mostly) large format film allows for greater resolution of detail than digital formats. More impressive is the use of actual locations and vintage planes and some boats that were part of the original civilian flotilla requisitioned to rescue the troops from the beach. Dunkirk may skimp on the historical context, but it tries to get the details right.
Still, by focusing on the perspective of a few characters, some of the larger picture is obscured. In the movie it seems as though the British have only a couple of large ships available. In fact, they had the largest navy in the world, and more than 200 destroyers participated in the evacuation. World War II historian and Dunkirk: Duty Calls author James Holland told the British newspaper The I that the role of the little ships in the film is “massively exaggerated.” It’s not hard to understand why — one of the three stories Nolan set out to tell involves the journey of one of these little ships.
Holland points out that a British Spitfire only carried enough ammunition to last about 15 seconds; in the film the Spitfire pilot played by Tom Hardy seems to have unlimited ammunition and is able to shoot down four planes during his hour aloft. ( Holland pooh- poohs the beach landing brought about by Hardy after his plane runs out of fuel; he says the plane’s landing gear — which Hardy desperately hand-cranks down — would have dug into the sand and caused the plane to crash. If anything, the pilot would have attempted to land the plane on its belly.)
These “mistakes” didn’t take me out of the movie simply because I didn’t recognize them as mistakes; I’ve never tried to land a Spitfire on a beach. (On the other hand, during the film my wife leaned over and whispered that Hardy sure seemed to have a lot of bullets at his disposal.) And even Holland allows that the film did a good job with its presentation of the soldiers: “All the men looked right,” he said. “They’re all nice and thin and young and they all look filthy.”
... “Dunkirk” means something different in the U. K. than it means here; had someone asked me about the battle a year ago I would have described it as a disaster, a narrow escape that was humiliating for the British. But apparently it’s seen overseas as a moment of national pride, a shining example of British “muddling through.” Here it’s a battle you might read about, that occurred before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and roused the mighty United States.
In the U.K. it’s a cultural touchstone that has been revisited many times — from the 1942 homefront melodrama Mrs. Miniver and Leslie Norman’s 1958 version ( also called Dunkirk) to Joe Wright’s remarkable 5- ½ - minute tracking shot in Atonement, in which a world-weary British soldier (James McAvoy) is led by a Virgil-like Scottish corporal across the beach and through the blasted town as the French slaughter their horses and a makeshift choir sings a hymn to England. ( You can find Wright’s tracking shot here: tinyurl.com/y8mo6lug.)
Winston Churchill certainly mined it for propaganda value. But the boys on the beach were likely just happy to get home.
Not all of them did. The B. E. F. lost 68,000 soldiers (dead, wounded, missing, or captured) and an astounding amount of equipment — 20,000 motorcycles, 445 tanks and 65,000 other vehicles along with more than 2,000 heavy guns. Some 40,000 French soldiers were killed or captured. (The French newspaper Le Monde has objected to the way the French are portrayed in the film, a complaint that might seem niggling unless you’re French. I’d hold that while a director working with historical material has a duty to the truth, he also has the right to select what parts of a story to present. Dunkirk isn’t history, and people who get their history from the movies get the history they deserve.)
Some people have called Dunkirk “the best war movie ever made,” and while I’m still more inclined to Apocalypse Now and Platoon, there’s no denying its technical precision and moral purpose. Nolan’s stubborn insistence on focusing on the troops, the grunts who can see only a few feet in front of their faces, rather than the elites who plan and order wars, makes us all present in their struggles. They do what they do for various reasons, but mostly because they must: Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die.
The evacuation of Dunkirk has been portrayed on film before — notably in a 5 ½-minute tracking shot in Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement.