Of all the big movies on the release slate this year I’m most looking forward to is Dunkirk.
Partly it’s because Christopher Nolan is giving it the big licks, eschewing CGI for old-time physical effects, using cardboard cut-outs to represent far-off squaddies on the beaches and populating it with pukka actors and not vapid stars for cynical box office allure.
But the real reason is because my grandfather Bill Barraclough was one of the 338,000 troops snatched to safety via Operation Dynamo, the rescue mission that saved the British Expeditionary Force and gave us the chance to catch a breath. Bill was an old man of 39 when war broke out. He celebrated his 40th birthday – if ‘celebrated’ is appropriate – in France around the time our lads were being pushed back to the English Channel by the Germans.
His was just one story; it was replicated 300,000 times over by his comrades, as well as by the civilians on their little ships and the Royal Navy. But the shared experience of Dunkirk, and the sheer enormity of the job at hand, requires a mighty canvas. And that is what Nolan is providing.
He’s made the film on
Panavision Super 70 and IMAX – that’s widescreen to you and me. Think about that vast expanse of beach, those seemingly endless lines of forlorn troops snaking from the sand and into the waves and beyond, and one has to admire Nolan for taking the tools of his trade and grasping them to his heart with hoops of steel.
The story of Dunkirk has been filmed before, with John Mills, Bernard Lee and Richard Attenborough. It was a modest affair but it rattles along. That was back in 1958. More recently Joe Wright incorporated elements of it into Atonement, notably a roaming single take of the chaos of the beaches as seen by James McAvoy. Nolan’s unenviable task is to embrace and harness that pandemonium and present the discipline, bravery and sheer bloody-mindedness that turned potential annihilation into something close to victory. If anyone can do it, he can. The stars of Dunkirk are Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy. So I’ll be paying close attention to Dunkirk. Somewhere in that thronging mass of misery 77 years ago was my grandfather. He stood in line until he was dragged aboard a ship, which was promptly sunk. He swam through the malodorous soup of battle to another ship and clambered aboard minus the bottom half of his uniform and his boots. When he disembarked in England his nakedness was covered with a blanket. It’s the personal stories that inform the legend of Dunkirk. It should mean something to all of us.
One has to admire Nolan for taking the tools of his trade and grasping them to his