The ghost of Dunkirk has been a constant presence in Britain’s consciousness ever since the events that played out in this French coastal town in the spring of 1940. It scarred us but it has also provided a benchmark for endurance and stoicism, the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. But it’s easy to forget what exactly happened on that French beach. Now, 77 years on, we have Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk.
The tension kicks off within the first minute. It then doesn’t let go until the last. But before we get to the film, a quick paragraph of history…
Dunkirk – the background
On 10 May 1940, German forces launched their attack against France. Their advance was spectacular. By the end of the month, over a third of a million Allied troops were trapped in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, subject to German shells and attacks from the air. It was only a matter of days before the full-blown assault would come. Losses were heavy but by 4 June, the evacuation had brought back to Britain 338,226 British, French and other Allied soldiers. Plus 170 dogs. Soldiers put much store by their mascots.
Dunkirk is a very visceral experience. You experience the fear and the vulnerability of the men stranded with little more than their rifles. Usually, whenever we have a film based on a huge event, for example, Titanic, there has to be a romantic subplot in there somewhere. Not so with Dunkirk, and it’s all the better for it. It’s also a very British experience. Although we catch a brief glimpse of a few French and colonial troops, we do not see a single German. The German is the unseen enemy, unseen but still too close for comfort. And when he does appear, hurling in his Messerschmitt towards our brave boys on the beach or on a vessel, the sound is frightening. It’s a film with surprisingly little dialogue. It’s also a war film with surprisingly little blood – there are no close-ups of limbs being ripped off, of men being blown to smithereens or in their death throes. Nolan was certainly chasing the lower age certificate here. Yet he manages to achieve this without diminishing his stranglehold on us.
The film has three distinct viewpoints – which act almost like a triptych. The first is from the ground as we follow a young British Tommy called Tommy, funnily enough. And it is through Tommy, we meet Alex, played by Harry Styles. And let’s be honest here – most of us watching this film will be on tenterhooks looking out for Harry.
The sea plot follows a man in his late fifties, a Mr Dawson who, along with his son and his son’s friend, form part of the civilian armada who, sailing from England, braved the choppy waters of the English Channel to do their bit and help rescue the stranded men.
Lastly, we see it from the air, from the point of view of three, soon to be two, RAF pilots, one named Farrier. And they’re all terribly upper crust, unlike those ruffian army boys, with their fine uniforms and Spitfires. The aerial combat scenes are stunning. Almost eighty years on and the sight of those Spitfires ranging through the air can still stir the heart.
These three points of view represent the three main elements of what constituted Dunkirk so Tommy, Mr Dawson and Farrier are each in their own way an ‘everyman’ for what happened there. We get to learn a little of Mr Dawson’s backstory but we don’t get to know them as characters, as people. Their role here is to tell the bigger story. The only additional subplot that was entirely unnecessary but still effective concerned the friend of Mr Dawson’s son.
The cast is stellar – Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson to name but a few. And yes, to answer the big question – Harry Styles can just about act.
CGI and Nimrod
As a director, Christopher Nolan is known for eschewing CGI and special effects. Understandable perhaps, noble for sure, but perhaps a bit of CGI here may not have gone amiss. We are told early on that there are some 400,000 men on the beaches of Dunkirk – yet often we see shots of an almost deserted beach. Likewise, with the civilian ships – there were hundreds of them but, watching the film, you get the impression that only about half a dozen had come across. But this is a minor quibble.
The music, by Hans Zimmer, plays its role perfectly – it’s effective, it enhances but it never distracts. It comes to the fore towards the end, naturally, with a strange mash-up of Elgar’s Nimrod Variation, the famous one, the one that stirs the patriotic heart in all Britons. Now, had it been a straight-up Nimrod, people would have decried it as too obvious, too unoriginal. Yet somehow, Zimmer does something to it that is fantastically effective.
With our boys finally and safely back in England, we have Churchill’s famous post-Dunkirk speech, the ‘we shall never surrender’ one. But, cleverly, we do not hear it from Churchill’s mouth nor in any way presented in a Churchillian manner, but from the lips of Tommy, who reads it, mumbling, from a newspaper.
I felt a little uncomfortable with the ending – it seemed too upbeat. Alex, the Harry Styles character, fears they will be spat on but despite this caveat the ending felt a little too triumphant. Yes, these 338,226 men had survived but we had failed. Churchill referred to Dunkirk not as a victory but merely a ‘deliverance’. And the French saw it in very negative terms – with the Germans closing in on Paris, they considered the evacuation of Dunkirk not in terms of an heroic rescue, but as a huge betrayal. The British had betrayed them.
On 14 June the swastika was flying from the Arc de Triomphe and on the 22nd, France surrendered to the Germans. Four long years of occupation lay ahead for the French.
I’d been looking forward to this film for a year – and it did not disappoint. But if you want to see it, it’s one of those films for the big screen. Don’t wait for the DVD.