Runtime 106 minutes
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, it tells the story of the remarkable rescue of 338,682 Allied soldiers who were stranded between the ocean and the Nazi army on a beach in Dunkirk in 1940 by an armada of 933 ships, approximately 700 of which were “small” private vessels, the smallest of which was the Tamzine, a 14ft open-topped fishing boat, now in the Imperial War Museum. It does so by inventing totally fictional characters and totally fictional events to capture what actually happened.
It does not strain credulity to say that this was an event that saved the world as we know it. Because if Hitler had been smart enough to annihilate the British Army at this time, it is pretty safe to say that the Nazis would have easily invaded and conquered Britain before America entered the war. Had that occurred, how could we have defeated the Nazis?
But Hitler allowed the British Army to escape. It was not easy because Britain did not have the ships to spare to evacuate the troops. So an armada of private boats disembarked from Britain and spirited most of the troops to safety.
Nolan tells three fictional stories, one of the spitfires (piloted by Tom Hardy) who were trying to protect the groups, an episode which only lasted about an hour. The second story is of one small boat owner (Mark Rylance, in another terrific performance) who took his ship from England to Dunkirk, an episode that lasted no more than one 24-hour day. The third is of the soldiers on the beach, which lasted a week (May 24-June 4).
Nolan interweaves these stories, cutting back and forth among them, so that each lasts for the entire film. As readers know, I’m a stickler for accuracy when movies try to tell an historical story. But Nolan has done a terrific job of capturing what happened by fictionalizing three plot lines to represent what actually happened. Bravo!
The story is made even better when seeing it on the huge IMAX screen with its incredible clarity. Even better, there is very little CGI used in making the film. Verisimilitude is added in that the scenes on the beach were filmed at Dunkirk and at the same time of year that the actual event took place.
Why did Hitler let them get away? Here’s what Michael Epkenhans, a German military historian who specializes in the German Imperial Navy, and is director of research for the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt der Bundeswehr in Potsdam, says:
“On 24 May Generals von Kluge and von Rundstedt issued the order for a halt of the German 4th Army. Hitler, as is often overlooked, only sanctioned it the same day. The reasons for this halt were manifold.
“Both generals had fought in World War I and realized that, like at the Marne in 1914, a sudden Allied counter-attack could change the course of the whole war. In their eyes this risk still existed, because the British and French still offered resistance in neighboring areas. At the same time, they wanted to give their armies time to rest, repair and replenish after a thrust whose speed and distance had taken everyone by surprise.
“The decision by generals von Kluge and Rundstedt did not go uncontested. The army’s chief of staff, general von Brauchitsch, disagreed and tried to repeal it at once, though without success. Hitler, for the time being, remained firm. His reasons have been a matter of much controversy.
“German historian Karl Heinz Friedser, after close scrutiny of all available documents, has convincingly argued that Hitler did not, in fact, call off the attack as an olive branch to Churchill. In fact his decision was the result of his intention to, once and for all, make it clear to the military leadership that he was in fact the supreme commander of the German armed forces, and not them.”
The story of Dunkirk is well known in England and celebrated. In the rest of the world, it takes a back seat to the Normandy Invasion. This film might help put it back in the limelight.
My few criticisms are that it would have improved the movie if some of the information I include in my opening paragraph had been included before the end credits, the number of troops saved, how many were killed, how many private boats participated, etc. And it never shows the magnitude of almost 400,000 men stranded on the Dunkirk beaches or the magnitude of the flotilla of almost a thousand boats crossing back and forth across the English Channel to rescue them.
It’s a good movie for a movie, but it missed the big picture.