If you majored in history in college as I did, this film teaches you more about an event in World War II than you will ever learn in a textbook.
If you are not much of an historian, I’m not sure how you will feel after seeing Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. A dramatic action film that functions as a documentary, it concentrates on 400,000 English soldiers trapped on a French beach in late May, 1940. Mr. Nolan immerses the audience to the point where you feel like one of the desperate soldiers seeking a way to get home to England.
To begin with, I had the pleasure of accompanying three friends to Europe 15 years ago where we traveled to various battlefields that included Normandy, Verdun and Dunkirk. It remains a memorable experience, and I have a picture of me and my colleagues as we stood before a famous Dunkirk memorial.
Let me say that a couple of films have focused on Dunkirk, the last being Their Finest released earlier this year. However, the most memorable is William Wyler’s Oscar winning film in 1942, Mrs. Miniver. Greer Garson won the Oscar for best actress and Teresa Wright for best supporting actress, and the film concentrates on the English countryside during the Dunkirk evacuation and later events.
Mr. Nolan’s film takes a different approach, focusing almost entirely on the soldiers as they fought for survival. It only returns to England for a few brief moments, and you learn next to nothing about English families praying for the survival of family members and friends.
In addition, you will seldom see a film of this magnitude having so little dialogue. A powerful musical score is substituted, and it serves as an electrocardiogram measuring the pulse of a large group of soldiers wondering if they will live another day.
This poignant film functions on three different levels. The first is the long dock on the beach where Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant, the British officers trying to maintain order as various soldiers line up to leave on the available boats. Intensity fills every moment as you watch German fighters strafe the beach and bomb the boats. What is inferred and not seen is the fact that French fighters were sacrificing themselves as they held off Nazi storm troopers from bringing more destruction to the exposed British soldiers.
Mr. Nolan then has his camera focus on three British Spitfires as they try to provide some cover for the troops at the clear risk of their own lives. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden play two of the pilots, and you will find your heart inevitably thumping as these two brave men risk running out of fuel as they dart through the skies to save their comrades at sea.
The third segment is one of the most dramatic, as it concentrates on a private boat owned and operated by Mr. Dawson, a British civilian accompanied by his two sons, George and Peter. Mark Rylance gives a startlingly moving performance as Mr. Dawson, and he is willing to risk his own life to travel to Dunkirk and provide a passage home to a few of his countrymen fighting for the survival. In addition, the two boys never waiver in the support of their father and the performance of Barry Koeghan as the 9-year-old George will hold you captivated as you once again wipe tears away from your eyes in the theater.
Additionally, the film is also helped by the performance of Cillian Murphy, who plays a soldier rescued at sea by Mr. Dawson. The experience has left him shell shocked, and you learn a lesson of war, namely that some heroes are emotionally incapable of acting like heroes.
Ironically, a strength and weakness of the film is that all of the soldiers tend to blend together as one as they are shot at on the beach and bombed at sea. While the camera concentrates on the efforts of two Brits played by Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles, they serve as an amalgam of the 400,000 young men who escaped to fight again in this tragic war.
As I walked the beaches of Dunkirk on my visit, it was impossible not to imagine the hundreds of small British boats manned by civilian men and women risking their own lives in this epic escape. The British lacked destroyers to provide meaningful assistance, and it was these civilians who turned out to be the actual heroes.
This is a powerful film that needs to be seen at an IMAX theater if possible. Whatever your feelings are on the movie, the important thing is that you will leave the theater understanding what it was like on the beaches of Dunkirk.