Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is proving to be one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2017. Based on Operation Dynamo, the film portrays the evacuation of the 400,000 strong British expeditionary Force, following Nazi Germany’s invasion of France in 1940. The director’s first historical film, Nolan strips down the basic elements of the human condition to survival, instead of making a film about the glory of war.
Dunkirk features an ensemble cast of both old and first-time actors. Kenneth Branagh stars as Navy Commander Bolton, Mark Rylance as mariner, Mr Dawson, Tom Hardy as fighter pilot, Farrier, and Cillian Murphy as a shellshocked soldier. One Direction’s Harry Styles makes his acting debut as a British private named Alex. 19-year-old Fionn Whitehead plays the film’s lead character, Tommy.
The film is broken into three parts, the Mole, the Sea, and in the Air. Nolan opens with Whitehead’s character, planted in the Dunkirk village running for his life, just making it to the evacuation point – the Mole. Here the bulk of the British Army are lined up, some in water, waiting to be taken home. It is Commander Bolton’s task to evacuate the soldiers safely across the English Channel. However, because of the shallow harbour, the Navy is forced to requisition small civilian boats to travel to Dunkirk because military ships are unable to get to the coast. From above, the Royal Air Force protects the soldiers from Luftwaffe dive-bombers and fighters. The plot is set in a condensed story line, within a week, and an hour for the air; the average flying time for pilots.
To quote The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, ‘Dunkirk’ is No ‘Saving Private Ryan’. There is very little dialogue for a film of this length. This is intended to strip to the film to its core themes. It is mostly shot using 70 mm IMAX. Hence, it is best viewed on large screens. Hans Zimmer’s sound illusions, the shepherds tones, adds to the film’s intensity, continuously keeping the audience engaged (the effect of these layered sound waves are explained by Vox’s Christophe Haubur on this link). It makes for a constricting feeling every time Alex and Tommy attempt to escape the shore or come under attack. The effect of these shepherd tones differentiate Dunkirk from other war films.
Dunkirk has been criticised for not being historically accurate: it does not show the involvement of French and Belgian troops during the evacuation. Furthermore, it romanticises the role of British soldiers, portraying them as the sole protagonists fighting against Hitler’s empire. This has uncanny symbolism to current politics, given that Britain finds itself in embattled with Brexit negotiations. The role of the “little ships” of Dunkirk has also been questioned, because in reality the Royal Navy commanded the bulk of these boats. Yet, these are the dilemmas faced when trying to make a film which depicts military defeat rather than victory.
Nolan is to be congratulated for his little use of CGI, using vintage World War II era boats and planes to recreate battle scenes. Likewise, while Dunkirk does not go into detail behind Operation Dynamo, there are historical allegories. The final shots of the film are located on the beachheads of Dunkirk; a salute to Winston Churchill’s iconic speech “Will shall fight them on the beaches”. Tommy himself reads this iconic speech from a newspaper, as many would have read it, instead of using archival footage, adding to the films realism.
Dunkirk since its release has made itself into the list of ‘Great war’ films. It depicts the brutality of combat, the impact that it has on individuals and what they need to do to survive it.