Of all the battles of World War II, Dunkirk is among the most important—and least discussed. While the German invasion of Poland, the attack on Pearl Harbor, Stalingrad, D-Day, and the bombing of Hiroshima are all well known, the dramatic events at Dunkirk—outside military historians and the people of Great Britain—are less so. Thanks to writer-director Christopher Nolan, that will no longer be the case.
His superb new Dunkirk is a film for the ages. Riveting and beautifully acted, it is a war movie like no other, and may be the best of its kind.
The movie tells the story of the 400,000 Allied troops—mostly British, but also French and Belgian—who, in late May and early June of 1940, were caught on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, with Germans ferociously bombing them from the skies and encircling them on land. A string of military setbacks had left the troops in that perilous position, and there was no way out but by sea. Dunkirk’s waters were too shallow for Britain’s war ships to stage a rescue, and with Germany’s air superiority, it looked like a catastrophic defeat for the British, just eighty miles off their homeland, across the English Channel.
As a last gambit, the British launched “Operation Dynamo,” a daring plan to evacuate the stranded troops, employing a flotilla of some 700 British fishing and “pleasure” boats, agile enough to reach the shores of Dunkirk, and bring the troops back home, in coordination with Britain’s Royal Navy.
This is the background to Nolan’s gripping film, which opens with a deceptively quiet scene of young British soldiers, groping their way toward Dunkirk, before being whipped into a maelstrom that never relents, and envelops the moviegoer just as intensely over the next two hours.
The film interweaves three narratives—covering the land, the sea, and the air—and the time-scales for each are depicted very effectively. For the airmen, time is compressed into crucial, fleeting minutes, because of the fuel capacity of their planes, and their constant need to return to base, if possible. For those on the beaches, time passes with agonizing slowness, compounded by nerve-racking uncertainty about the German bombings and which soldiers will be killed next. The latter is also felt on the British warships, which wait, in fear and trepidation, as Britain’s impromptu flotilla tries to rescue the men on Dunkirk, then return to England with the larger navy protecting them, before it’s too late.
Unlike other recent war movies, which often focus on excessive gore, Dunkirk is comparatively restrained (earning a PG-13 rating), but it is no less terrifying, thanks to Nolan’s taut direction, which recreates the battle with an authenticity that surviving veterans have praised.
In this hallucinatory atmosphere, death descends upon the Allies frequently and capriciously, from the enemy Nazis, who are never seen up close but are paradoxically feared all the more. Survival is paramount, except for the most heroic and selfless characters, and Nolan conveys the desperation of individuals in a way that may never have been surpassed in a war film. The terror is so unbearable that some resort to extreme measures. In one heartbreaking scene, a disoriented British soldier takes off his helmet, drops his gear, and walks straight into the roaring ocean, presumably to swim to an imaginary refuge, only to drown. Such tragedies occurred during the war, even if they are not much spoken about today. Nolan does not let us forget them.
In crafting his film, Nolan has made two bold decisions, which—though questioned by some—pay off brilliantly.
The first is to have a minimum of dialogue, allowing other elements—the characters’ expressions and movements, the dramatic war scenes, and the heart-pounding score by Hans Zimmer—to guide the film. The visual suspense Nolan creates is so visceral that Dunkirk doesn’t need more dialogue than it employs. Nolan’s decision is aided by the performances of his cast, particularly Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, a typically inexperienced but gallant British soldier doing everything he can to help his mates, even as he tries to help himself; Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, who fully expects the evacuation to fail but carries on with stoic determination; Tom Hardy’s Farrier, a Royal Air Force pilot who fights heroically, even as German aircraft threaten him and his Spitfire’s fuel evaporates; and finally, most memorably, Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson, who sets out on his private boat for Dunkirk and becomes a symbol of the brave British civilians who volunteered for Operation Dynamo, at great danger to themselves.
Nolan’s second, more controversial decision is to exclude any political scenes involving Churchill or Hitler and the people around them. But there is a very good reason for this. Dunkirk is not about the British politicians and Nazi madmen of World War II (who have already been depicted in voluminous documentaries and films); it’s about Dunkirk, and what ordinary people experienced there in the most intimate and harrowing way. Nolan’s aim is to put the viewer right on the beaches, inside the cockpits of the RAF pilots, and aboard the British ships being torpedoed and bombed. Far from diminishing wartime history, Dunkirk brings it to dramatic life.
Critics who have accused the film of shortchanging history appear not to have noticed the abundance of discussions, articles, and books now springing up, precisely thanks to the interest Nolan’s film has provoked. Because of Dunkirk, many young moviegoers will now learn how the vast majority of troops there (almost 340,000) were successfully evacuated; and this will doubtless spur curiosity about the larger dimensions of the war. In addition to his likely slew of Oscars, Nolan should be awarded a few educational and historical awards.
Nolan has been described as a director with a secular outlook, but in fact many of his films have deep moral and religious undertones, and his latest is no exception. The film begins with a brief description of the dire situation at Dunkirk, and mentions that what the men needed there was “deliverance” by a “miracle”—which is exactly what they received. In between, there are scenes depicting stark moral choices, such as when soldiers are forced to decide how many people can survive on a lifeboat, who can be trusted not to act selfishly in a life-and-death situation, and the compassion needed to treat shell-shocked soldiers.
For a person of faith, it is difficult not to think about God while watching Dunkirk; and in fact, for the people of Great Britain at the time, God was very much on their minds. As the Reverend David Gardner—a veteran of the Royal Navy himself during the War—pointed out:
Seeing the situation developing, His Majesty King George VI requested that Sunday, 26 May  should be observed as a National Day of Prayer. In a stirring broadcast, he called the people of Great Britain and of the Empire to commit their cause to God. Together with members of the Cabinet, the King attended Westminster Abbey, whilst millions of his subjects in all parts of the Commonwealth and Empire flocked to the churches to join in prayer. . . . In its hour of deep distress a heart-cry from both monarch and people alike was going up to God in prayer. And, that prayer did not go unanswered.
To see Dunkirk is to understand why.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.