‘Dunkirk’ tells the story of a war-time miracle that was not a victory

The evacuation of Dunkirk succeeded well beyond expecations. This film does the same

Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles and Fionn Whitehead in ‘Dunkirk’
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We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations – Winston Churchill in a speech delivered to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940

“I was standing on the beach looking across at England when I heard a voice say “are you coming? It’s your last chance”. I saw a sort of fishing boat that was picking up stragglers and I boarded it and lay back with my hands dangling in the water. I fell asleep and the next thing I knew I was at Dover” – Romeo Jenkins, a British soldier who survived the Dunkirk Evacuation

Writer/Producer/Director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) is not the first filmmaker to tell the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation (code-name Operation Dynamo).  Bernard Lee, best known for playing “M” the head of MI-6 in the first 11 “official” Bond films was one of the stars of the 1958 film, also titled Dunkirk.  More on those other movies later but one thing is certain.  Of all the films made about the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk, Nolan’s film is the best to date.

Following a non-linear structure, Nolan tells the tale using three sections.  The Mole.  The Sea.  The Air.  What differentiates them is the time involved in making the journey from the beaches of Dunkirk to safety in England.

The Mole refers to the large pier at Dunkirk where one could board a large vessel via a ramp. We are shown extremely long lines of soldiers waiting to be saved by the arrival of those ships.  “Tommy” (Fionn Whitehead) managing to make it to Dunkirk is a miracle and once there he tries desperately to get onto a ship at the Mole.  So does “Alex” (Harry Styles).  The timeframe for a soldier to get home from the end of that long line leading away from The Mole is one week.

“Mr. Dawson” (Mark Rylance – Bride of Spies) owns a small boat.  He and the owners of many other such small boats are pressed into service to sail to Dunkirk and rescue as many of the soldiers of the BEF as they can.  His journey to Dunkirk represents The Sea and the timeframe of one day.  The Royal Navy is using their personnel to take these commandeered vessels across the Channel but Mr. Dawson takes his son “Peter” (Tom Glynn-Carney) and teenaged deckhand “George” (Barry Keoghan – Traders) as his crew before the Royal Navy sailors can board.

Barry Keoghan and Mark Rylance in ‘Dunkirk’

On the trip to Dunkirk they rescue a survivor from a German U-boat attack.  “Shivering Soldier” (Cillian Murphy – Anthropoid) is in shock but comes completely unglued when he learns the boat is bound toward Dunkirk rather than heading home.  A scuffle ensues and George is severely injured.  Later the boat rescues “Collins” (Jack Lowden – A United Kingdom) a Spitfire pilot who was shot down.

The Air refers to those Spitfire pilots, who could traverse the distance to Dunkirk in only one hour.  Because the Germans had halted the advance of their tanks toward the BEF (a major error by the German High Command, and part of the events at Dunkirk omitted from the film), the air cover provided by those Spitfires to the troops on the beach was critical to their evacuation.  “Farrier” (Tom Hardy – Lawless) is a Spitfire pilot whose face is not seen until the movie is ending.  His efforts and those of the other British pilots are one of the factors in the success of the effort to evacuate.

Character development is limited, dialogue is minimal and that’s just fine.  In this case, the story unfolding before the audience is being told visually and the visuals are amazing.  Having seen the film in 70mm and an “ordinary” theater I can state with confidence that the extra effort and expense required to see Dunkirk is 70mm is worth it.

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Brian Milinsky

Brian Milinsky has served in the military, been an FM D.J. and an award-winning radio news reporter/anchor/writer/editor. He is presently a screenwriter and currently lives in Los Angeles.

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