To mark Remembrance Day 2020 with our COVID-19 reality in mind, it seems only fitting to showcase the extraordinary true wartime story that epically recounts the crushing despair felt by 400,000 British, French, Belgium (and Canadian) troops when hopelessly trapped in isolation on the beaches of Dunkirk. I love this film as it really sets the tone of how essential it is to protect our protectors! Written and directed by filmmaking virtuoso Christopher Nolan, this movie (one of his best ever) is broken down into three parallel yet intersecting stories by land, sea, and air that successfully delivers a powerful message of individual grit, civil bravery, and military unity. With eight Oscar nods and three wins to its credit this movie has solidified its place as one of the top military movies of all time and holds the record as the highest-grossing WWII film in history, raking in a whopping $526 million worldwide. It is also one of few WWII films made without the presence of American soldiers as its set in 1940 before Americans were involved in the war.
The film opens with menacingly leaflets falling like confetti declaring ‘We surround you!’ as several British soldiers quietly walk through the empty war-torn costal city of Dunkirk on route to the seafront. Though within seconds the men are under siege as rapid gun fire erupts leaving the young fighters fiercely fleeing for their lives dodging enemy laden bullets. The agony of battle explodes from the onset of the film and never lets up, with the ugliness of war portrayed in a very real way. As the movie quickly unfolds the starkness and severity of the problem becomes piercingly clear. The entire British Expeditionary Army and other allied forces have receded to the French beaches of Dunkirk, after gravely underestimating the superior might of the German forces. Now stranded like sitting ducks, their demise will ultimately cost Britain the war. It’s an overwhelming and demoralizing sight. With allied forces cut off, the troops are surrounded, and driven to the brink as their strategic German enemies slowly pick them off. With the sea too shallow to accommodate naval battleships no proper big-scale evacuations can be carried out. Therefore, imminent death is a certainty – it’s just a matter of time. By all accounts this ‘colossal military disaster’ as labelled by Winston Churchill is going to take a ‘miracle of deliverance’ to save these cornered comrades. Enter Operation Dynamo (aka The Miracle of Dunkirk) an extremely dangerous yet tactical military plan to assemble 850 civilian boats (yachts, barges, fishing boats…) of all shapes and sizes to sail across Britain’s famous moat, the English Channel, from Ramsgate England to Dunkirk France. Only a 21-mile journey this short distance seems beyond reach due to heavy enemy-fire. The movie painfully relays just how dreadful it must have been for these waylaid soldiers who were so close to safe territory yet no way to cross the divide. A poignant fact compellingly translated by stoic Naval Commander Bolton (Sir Kenneth Branagh) who sadly says, ‘you can practically see it – home’. How heartbreaking.
As small privately owned vessels are welcomely requisitioned by the government with many operated by naval officers, some boat owners insist on manning and operating their own unarmed watercraft in an effort to help the hemmed in brigades. While on the subject, this film does a superb job highlighting this extremely notable aspect of history. Case in point, even though this film frames the story using an ensemble cast approach rather than focusing on a few key characters, one role given ample screen time is steadfast Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance). A resolute caring selfless citizen that risks his own safety to sail into the abyss in his ‘pleasure craft’ to help those in-need. It always amazing me what inspires people to engage in random acts of kindness and bravery. Spoiler Alert: it turns out Mr. Dawson is spurred to action by the death of his own military son to warfare. As many of us do when faced with loss and grief, we wish for a second chance to get it right. Perhaps Mr. Dawson’s inability to keep his own son out of harms-way served as a catalyst motiving him to instead rescue other people’s sons. At any rate, this factual narrative has a few other side stories that viewers also become quite invested in. Namely young privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) whose sense of fairness and integrity are tested more than once in their quest to survive. On this point, as the story unravels viewers grow increasingly fond of Tom Hardy’s character, Spitfire pilot Farrier, who when faced with his own demise (e.g. running out of fuel, being shot down at sea, faulty gauges, burning alive, being captured…) admirably sacrifices everything to help others by charging toward danger not away from it. I true test of character. Just the kind of person you want on your team! By the way, the aerial dogfights in this flick are an added exciting element.
As the story drifts along three time points (week/day/hour May 26-June 4 1940) all three independent yet entwining stories are effectively tied together. Given this movie zeros in on the number three there is probably some significance attached to the digit. Brits are largely of the Christian faith so ‘three’ could represent the father, son, and the holy ghost. After all this mission was declared a ‘miracle’. To this day the mystery of why German tanks halted twice and did not go in for the kill when so many soldiers were in retreat is still unknown. For the record I do not believe Hitler’s account that he decided to give Churchill ‘a fighting chance’; clearly the favor would not have been returned as Churchill stated, ‘I’d form an alliance with the devil himself if helped defeat Hitler.’ Churchill, who had only been in office as UK’s Prime Minister just over two weeks before the Dunkirk Ops, had a bit of a spotty military record according to some, but he was spot on about Hitler. That said, let’s stay on track with the story at hand. This film does a fantastic job evoking the dejection and danger these men faced without using gratuitous violence. In its place director Nolan meritoriously induces emotion and trepidation by letting scenes run for long periods of time with little dialogue. A methodology that really works as it allows audiences the time to settle into the anguish and gravity of the situation. In short, this wartime drama is exceptionally moving more-so in its quieter moments. That said, intensity dominates throughout this picture, generously helped along by Hans Zimmer’s sorrowful yet conquering musical score. All in all this film has the power to make you cry and express delight at the same time. With the telling tale of Dunkirk now outlined, what life lesson is this movie trying to teach us?
Normally I do not gave-away the meaning of the movie up front but in this case (if you caught it) I did in the opening paragraph. But let’s go through it in more detail. On the surface, this film’s main message seems relatively clear-cut; demonstrating how a near military catastrophe transformed from ultimate failure into a tremendous morale booster by showing how impactful and significant comradery and a collective effort can be. Truly, those who survive wars survive so much and that alone is enough. If audiences are left with only this impression that’s fantastic! Though I would expand this swarthy statement beyond such moral implications as I believe the veritable take-away is much more than this. To the point the real message dives deeper than mere teamwork. It’s about role reversal and the necessity to defend our defenders! Champions ascend when helping becomes a two-way street! This film surreptitiously exhibits just how the strong become weak and how underdogs become heroes. In the end 336,000+ British/ French/Belgium/Canadian soldiers were saved by Churchill’s ‘civilian fleet’ with the assistance of the Royal Air Force who protected the evacuation efforts by warding off air attacks from the Luftwaffe. Yes the guardians became the guarded. Action vs. Inaction – Dunkirk taught us that we must always honor, assist, and fight for our countrymen who selflessly put their lives on the line for us every day. ‘Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: “This was their finest hour… Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts…never surrender.’ – Winston Churchill. Amen to that. Let us never forget to remember our civic duty to support our blessed troops before, during, and after their service.
Fast fact: Canadian soldiers were not only rescued at Dunkirk but also assisted with evacuations, namely Vancouverite Robert Timbrell a 20-year-old sub-lieutenant who later received the Distinguished Service Cross. Canada also provided four Royal Canadian Navy destroyers to help with the mission. Note: Dunkirk is a wartime extravaganza (by air, sea, and land) and is best seen in theatres as to appreciate how visually spectacular the widescreen shots are. As cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema touts, ‘We have a big love for the big format.’ FYI another magnificent historical drama on the harrowing events at Dunkirk is the Darkest Hour. In fact I recommend watching Dunkirk and Darkest Hour in tandem. Electrifying!
Happy Remembrance Day Canada & All.
P.S. Personally I have always been a big supporter of our military and our veterans. Ever since I can remember I have gone to the Memorial Park Library on Remembrance Day when in Calgary to leave poppies and flowers. Even when my kids were very young, and the weather was extremely cold we would go to pay our respects. Circling back to the movie, I have crossed the English Channel many times and have visited a number of war memorials worldwide including sites in France, England (Churchill’s Bunker, Imperial War Museum Duxford – a historical WWII RAF airfield near Cambridge where I lived and where WWII airplanes still fly in airshows, which I have attended), and Germany. Once I was even in East Berlin for D-Day Ceremonies and that was most interesting indeed. War is truly awful and should only be an option of last resort, though sometimes it’s necessary. However, what’s even more necessary is that we remember our veterans who have honorably and bravely served our country and whose selfless service should always be revered. On that point, bless belated family member Rosino Gagliardi who proudly served in the Canadian Army during WWII and who was shot in the head on the frontlines of battle but survived and continued to serve until his death at age 88. What an amazing patriot. In the same vein, my very dear friend Dave Howard, concerned not enough was being done for our military veterans started the Canadian Legacy Project over a decade ago to assist very deserving new and older generations of Canadian Veterans in so many ways (e.g. basic needs, housing, financial support…).To support this amazing cause as the OHF always endeavors to do please donate to them at: www.canadianlegacyproject.org