The deliverance of ‘Dunkirk’

Not a spectacle of combat, but an immense story of survival.

Soldiers on the beach, as portrayed in the film ‘Dunkirk’.

The enemy is faceless in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. We know who they are—but as our protagonists, the Allied troops, are gunned down on land, their ships sunk at sea, their planes shot down from the sky, all we see of the enemy are the bombs they let fall, the holes their bullets puncture, the war machines their air forces fly.

Clearly, this is not a war film where combat is the spectacle; it is a survival story. On land, the Allied armies are fighting for a shrinking patch of territory, against the vicious foe surrounding them. At the shore, the troops await evacuation and form lines, in defiance of the featureless, infinite beach, sky and sea. But neither is the water any refuge. The merciless enemy delivers setback after setback to our protagonists on the English Channel: bombed ships, flooded decks, burning oil. From the sky, they rain bullets, and propaganda.

The escape from Dunkirk took place in the early years of the Second World War. It saw the Allied armies rushing out to sea, a movement in reverse of what would happen on Normandy, on D-Day years later. Normandy would be an invasion: the soldiers would storm the beaches from the sea, with a mission to reconquer Europe. The soldiers who waded onto land on D-Day had a mission, and they were prepared for it. It was not easy, many men would fall; we have seen its brutality in films like Saving Private Ryan. But Normandy would not have been possible if not for the miracle at Dunkirk—where the escape from disaster was met with further disaster, where the weary soldiers had no mission but to survive.

Where’s our bloody air force?, the soldiers cry as they survive another air raid on the beach at Dunkirk. Where are the ships?, they ask as they watch the evacuation dwindle to a single vessel. Their commanders tell them: at home, saving their numbers, reserving strength for the battles to come. Even in the darkest hours, war involves such cold but necessary calculations. The commanders have to choose between saving one wounded soldier, or the seven standing men who could take the space of a single stretcher on a ship. A fighter pilot must guess, when his fuel gauge has been shattered, the number of gallons he has left and his chances of safely returning home—or make the heroic choice of going forth, risking his one life to defend many others.

In the end, the deliverance of Dunkirk was accomplished through the valor of common people as much as it was by the legendary perseverance of soldiers. The Little Ships came, many of them piloted by non-uniformed men, to take the armies home. At Dunkirk, the civilians were as heroic as the soldiers themselves.

Finally reaching home, our protagonists are cheered on by the people. But all we did was to survive, they complain. That is enough, an elderly man says.

But it was not. The war was young. Who knows who among them would take up arms again, years later, and journey back onto the battlefields of Europe.

Dunkirk is the latest picture to be made on film stock by Christopher Nolan. His insistence on the old technology is matched only by his mastery of the craft. But the choice of format is appropriate for this immersive movie, where the warmth and texture of film matches the historicity of old British uniforms and authentic Spitfire aircraft. The stark expanses of the film’s settings deliver an immersive spectacle, one that is distinct from the sentimentality of the famous Dunkirk scene from Atonement.

Nolan’s auteur touch permeates this film, not just in the nonlinearity of the narrative (a pleasant though arguably non-essential aspect of the story), but also in the presence of some images hearkening to Nolan’s previous work. For instance, the abandoned helmets scattered on the beach at the closing of the film: it recalls the field of hats in The Prestige. But whereas the hats alluded to the deadly costs of pursuit and obsession, the helmets signify the salvation of lives, and deliverance from Dunkirk.

Film still taken from the official film trailer.


4 thoughts on “The deliverance of ‘Dunkirk’”

  1. I really enjoyed Dunkirk. Harry Styles was surprisingly good in it. I wish I watched it in a really large theatre, because the smaller screen of the VIP theatre reduced the impact of those wide shots and the Zimmer score on me.

    1. Yeah, the story goes, that Nolan had no idea how famous Styles was when he casted him. So he saw genuine acting talent there.

      What’s a VIP theater? The kind with recliners and unlimited popcorn? Then at least it must’ve been comfortable for you. 🙂

      1. At least in Toronto, VIP theatres have bigger seats, in-seat service (order food and beverages from your seat that gets delivered to you as well before the show starts). It’s a smaller theatre too, which means fewer seats. Definitely more comfortable and less chaotic than a normal theatre.

  2. PS Some movies work in a smaller theatre. At least that’s what I think. I think Tarantino movies work well in smaller theatres.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: