The historical, technical and military inaccuracies aside, Christopher Nolan’s new war movie Dunkirk is worth the price of the ticket. It’s a big movie, beautifully shot on location, that tells the story of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from three different perspectives: land, sea and air. However, the epic scale of the film, and Chris Nolan’s preference to use real men, ships and planes over CGI wherever possible, often left the screen strangely underpopulated. Operation Dynamo might have been something of a military and logistical miracle, having rescued around 340,000 men between May 26th and June 4th, 1940, instead of the original estimate of just 35,000. Nevertheless, Dunkirk was a major defeat, and no amount of propaganda about the armada of little ships could hide the fact.
Dunkirk features a great cast including Harry Styles, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Fionn Whitehead and Kenneth Branagh. I think Nolan has to be applauded for his all-Brit and Irish cast. I’m sure the studio’s money, marketing and PR people would have been screaming for a Hollywood A-lister to give the film more box office appeal across the Atlantic. I think Fionn Whitehead did a very credible job as the central character, and possibly the unluckiest Tommy to put on a uniform. Of course, the real stars of the movie were the three Supermarine Spitfires (two Mk.Ia’s and a Mk.Vb according to Warbird News) and the Hispano Buchon doing a credible job of playing a Messerschmitt Bf 109E. I think I’ve seen all of these planes at shows like Flying Legends in recent years. Duxford’s Bristol Blenheim (the only one still flying) also put in a brief appearance. The movie’s Heinkel He 111 is a large, radio-controlled model.
To my mind, Chris Nolan missed a trick, no embracing and integrating CGI with live action and genuine kit for Dunkirk. I think Director Joe Wright did a much better, in fact, an extraordinary job with his continuous, five-minute tracking shot of the Dunkirk beach in Atonement (2007). In this one scene, Wright successfully conveys a much more believable account of the chaos, absurdity and tragedy of the retreat and evacuation. We see masses of dishevelled men, wrecked and burning vehicles, a French officer shooting horses, soldiers singing and playing football while others drink, and above it all, the sky is black with thick, oily smoke. Of course, all the CGI in the world won’t save a badly written, acted and directed piece of nonsense such as Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016). Like just about everything else in the film, the CGI is used with no skill or finesse, and so looks fake and totally unbelievable.
Miracle of Dunkirk
Films like Hacksaw Ridge take amazing true stories of courage and sacrifice and turn them into shameful pantomimes. In contrast, Christopher Nolan uses the historical events of May/June 1940 as the stage for a story of courage, hope and redemption. Dunkirk might not be technically or historically quite on the money, and I’m sure Tom Hardy knows you’d be lucky to walk away alive if you really tried to land a Spitfire like that, but then it isn’t a documentary. To me, Chris Nolan’s film is both a question and a reminder. What would we do with our backs against the wall and defeat starring us in the face? Once upon a time, our parents and grandparents faced an implacable enemy, refused to surrender, and turned defeat into victory – maybe then and now that is the miracle of Dunkirk.