Very few of those who will see the new film ‘Dunkirk,’ opening tonight July 20, were alive when 338,226 British, French and other Allied soldiers were rescued from certain death during WWII. But, everyone should see and be touched by this film.
A miracle happened over the course of a week from the end of May to beginning of June in 1940, on the beach of Dunkirk, France. That’s where 400,000 Allied British, French, Belgian and Canadian troops were stranded, trapped by the surrounding Nazi Germany forces and facing certain slaughter. And that’s where director Christopher Nolan begins his epic, soaring film, Dunkirk, about a true historical event during World War II.
If you have never been on a war battlefield, which thankfully, most of us haven’t, then Dunkirk will plunge you into that terrifying experience from the moment the film begins. In the opening scene, director Nolan follows one of the very young Allied soldiers as he runs for his life under German gunfire, while all of his fellow soldiers are picked off one by one. But when he escapes the initial hail of bullets and scrambles over fences to make his way to the Dunkirk beach, it is immediately clear that he has simply exchanged on life-threatening scene for another.
There, on the beach, are hundreds of thousands of fellow soldiers, all desperately awaiting rescue to get across the English Channel to England — just 26 miles away. So near, yet oh so far. Our first scenesoldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) embarks on what feels like a hopeless journey to try and survive. Nolan does a brilliant job of conveying the horror and hopelessness endured by the mass of these mostly teenage men. They are sitting ducks for the German snipers and warplanes which strafe and bomb them from overhead. There is literally no protection from either. All they can do is duck under their metal helmets and simply pray that the bombs and bullets tear into one of their compatriots, not themselves.
Tommy joins this mass, stealthily sneaking onto one of the few British Navy boats evacuating soldiers, where he meets Harry Styles‘s character, Alex, another British soldier, desperate to escape. But let me just state, that there is no safety for the soldiers aboard the British battleship. They, too, are easy targets for the German planes. Time and time again, Tommy, Alex and others attempt to make it off the Dunkirk beach, only to be forced back on. That’s when the real-life, historical miracle happens. Without the naval resources to rescue the trapped soldiers, Britain’s determined Prime Minister Winston Churchill hatches a brilliant plan — Operation Dynamo — enlisting ordinary British boat owners to sail, motor and ferry across the channel to pick up and rescue as many men as possible.
It worked beyond the British military’s wildest dreams. Brave civilians manned 800 boats and evacuated those 338,226 trapped souls. Dunkirk, the film, personalizes these every day heroes by following the journey of one father, played by Mark Rylance, his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s young friend, George (Barry Keoghan), who succeed in their mission to save as many desperate men as they can.
Meanwhile, Nolan also takes us up into the skies above the channel as just a few courageous pilots risk their lives to pick off the German planes reigning death down on the soldiers trapped on beaches or on boats. There is very, very little talking during the film, and it makes sense. after all, what did the exhausted, trapped and starving soldiers, have to say? Every ounce of energy they have is channeled into survival — there is nothing to discuss. For the pilots, there is only small talk about fuel running low and targets that must be hit.
My only gripe with the film is that while it captures the scale of human disaster that is about to happen on the beach and it fully captures the individual terror of every man facing death, it doesn’t capture the scope of the miracle. There is never an “OMG” moment when hundreds of small boats appear in sight and the doomed soldiers see hope on the horizon. The rescue doesn’t feel like the monumental moment that it was. We see 10 boats in the rescue scene and that’s about it. Maybe that’s the way it happened historically — that the 800 boats arrived a few at a time over the course of days, but I don’t think so. In reality, on May 31st, and June 1st, 68,000 and 64,000 men were rescued. There had to be loads of boats. In a film of epic proportions at all other times, Nolan misses the chance to make a full scale euphoric, endorphin-producing, kick-ass scene. It’s a little underwhelming.
Nevertheless, the rest of the film is big enough to convey the monumental miracle that the Dunkirk rescue mission was. It’s a film that you should see and not just for Harry Styles’ fine performance. It’s a film that will remind you of the innate goodness and courage in so many ordinary people, as well as determination from a heroic leader in cataclysmic times. That’s worth remembering when we aren’t seeing any of that example set from the top here, today.
HollywoodLifers, will you run to see Dunkirk this weekend?