The most significant WWII battles were Pearl Harbor, The Normandy Invasion, Battle of the Bulge and Iwo Jima. Hollywood has celebrated these campaigns with glorious stars, such as John Wayne, Tom Hanks, Ben Affleck and others of each day. Interestingly, “Dunkirk” might be one of the most critical, yet unfamiliar battles ever.
At the time, this battle was generally regarded as the worst defeat in British military history. In spring of 1940, Hitler had driven back and surrounded 400 thousand British and French troops on the shores of Northern France. With America not yet involved in the conflict, the inevitable surrender would likely have lost Great Britain and the rest of Europe to Germany and changed the course of history forever.
Acclaimed writer-director Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”) had long wished to make a movie about this infamous event, but only now felt he had the experience and earned the credentials to do so. A Ken Burns documentary would have been more informative and easier to understand, but Nolan chose to do it much differently.
The approach is “You are there!” The audience feels as if they are caught in this desperate, helpless and relentless situation along with the troops. It is fiercely intense and frantically terrifying as we even found ourselves looking in desperation for some way out. To complicate the storyline but adding to the full immersion of the skirmish, Nolan presents the story from three perspectives: land, sea and air.
On land, the audience is brought alongside a couple of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard) stranded on the exposed beachhead waiting for rescue boats that might never come. In lines even longer than the DMV, the defenseless soldiers are being strafed and bombed in a turkey shoot by passing German aircraft.
Of those that do eventually make it on board, the ship’s quarters are cramped. In this mass evacuation, history tells us 200 of the rescue ships were sunk at sea, some barely as they left the shore. With their naval destroyers rapidly being depleted, a call was made for every personal pleasure craft in England to be available for the evacuation.
In the overwhelming response of 700 private watercrafts, there are not enough navy personnel to crew the vessels. Private citizens joined the flotilla, including an aging Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance). Along the way to his mission, he rescues the lone survivor of a sunken ship (Cillian Murphy), who refuses to return to Dunkirk.
As most of the Royal Air Force is elsewhere dispatched, only a few pilots and their Spitfires are available to fend off the attack on the helpless soldiers during the evacuation. We join two of those pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) as they and their fellow aviators shoot down 240 German fighter planes during the evacuation.
Spoiler alert: not everyone makes it. The interminable suspense is gut wrenching. It is uncomfortable to watch and sometimes difficult to follow, but everyone understands the gist of survival. Nolan studied numerous silent movies in order to minimize the amount of dialog. Oscar nominee Tom Hardy has less than ten lines. The Hans Zimmer score is terrifying as it joins the assault with a reverberating dissonance in the midst of the action.
“Dunkirk” is 106 minutes and rated PG-13 for intense war experience. Winston Churchill turned this horrendous defeat into a decisive moral victory for the allies. As 338 thousand troops returned to fight another day, Churchill inspired his countrymen, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!”
This apocalyptic combat thriller is so credibly lifelike; we initially sat in a fatalistic stupor, struggled our way through and then were exhausted. Whether you appreciate Nolan’s film or not, you might not want to return to “Dunkirk.” It is haunting and unforgettable. Even with the momentous message of resilience, this very unconventional war movie still concludes, “war is hell.”
Ron’s Rating: B+ Leigh’s Rating: D