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Dunkirk: Reading Nolan’s War Odyssey

September 3, 2017 | By

The dreadful story of the betrayal at Dunkirk is told from three perspectives: beginning with land, moving to the sea and then to the air, the latter two been acted out almost simultaneously. The three perspectives are interconnected, although quite different substantially, for each, the stakes are different. A review by Devapriya Sanyal.

Dunkirk (2017)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Dunkirk poster (Pic: IMPawards)

Dunkirk is cinematically a grand tale of a war that Nolan believes shaped our history, rather western history and Nolan’s presentation too is on a grandiose scale. The establishment shot looms large over us onscreen as we follow one lone soldier trying to make his way out of a trapped city of men and machinery. Nolan informs us that the Axis forces have successfully driven both the French and the British literally to sea and intend to finish them off there. It is interesting to see that instead of calling Hitler’s forces as Allied Nolan chooses to call them as ‘The Enemy’ and my overactive imagination prone to reading too much into situations and things can’t help but think of it as an influence of Tolkien’s magnum opus Lord of the Rings on Nolan. For there too, the various characters refer to Sauron, the villain par excellence as ‘The Enemy’ and one can’t help but recall that Nolan too has a degree in English Literature.

Putting aside such stray thoughts one begins to get slowly drawn into the world of Dunkirk – desperation writ large on their faces the soldiers wait in long queues waiting or rather longing to be rescued. The ships taking them back home are few, for this film, Nolan depends much on visuals rather than dialogues. Possibly reading or studying about this event before making this film has indeed left Nolan speechless. It is almost as if he had left the film to his audience’s imagination. His Indian audience might have felt disappointed for this event in history is nothing that Indians can relate to easily. For almost the first half of the film one finds it extremely difficult to focus on the story, for nothing much is happening. I mean nothing much compared to other films by Nolan where they are infused with action right from the word go. Was Nolan being foolish when he decided to film this one off event in the history of the Second World War? It is also one of the Nolan films which does not feature a non linear narrative. It is a straight forward narration with many sub plots but all that drives home one message: that of betrayal by Winston Churchill when he refused to send ships to bring home these soldiers from Dunkirk. And this is done very subtly with no one any the wiser unless you begin to put two and two together.

The dreadful story of the betrayal at Dunkirk is told from three perspectives: beginning with land, moving to the sea and then to the air, the latter two been acted out almost simultaneously. The three perspectives are interconnected, although quite different substantially, for each, the stakes are different.

As Tommy, a private in the British army manages to reach the beach having successfully skirted off attacks by the Axis forces he comes across another young soldier apparently burying his comrade. The two then decide to stick together and it is here that we encounter the enormity of the situation. The film shot in IMAX 65 mm large format film stock help bring to life Nolan’s vision very clearly. He employs a lot of aerial shots as well as long shots, panning and trolley shots that cover land, air and sea. Tommy’s as well as Gibson’s bid to live drives them to take cover again and again as the German air force bombs the beach time and again. It is almost as if death sweeps over them in the form of the Luftwaffe. As the ship bearing the symbol of a red cross prepares to sail away to England with a bunch of evacuated soldiers and wounded ones too, they try to carry past the long queues a soldier wounded by a bomb on the beach to the ship. While the soldier gets a chance at life the two eager stretcher bearers Tommy and Gibson are driven off the ship. They hang on the underside of the mole and they are witness to the ship sinking pulling down a part of the mole with them, this extinguishing the last chance to reach home.

Even in the air it seems that the German forces have the advantage as they bomb down one of the RAF planes and to the disbelieving eyes of the other two pilots in a squadron of three it goes down. This is all that Churchill has sent by way of reinforcements or rescue as they believe it to be. The shots inside the cockpit as well as those depicting the fight in the air are magnificent to say the least. One is almost visited by the sheer helplessness of the pilots as they find themselves unable to tackle the German fighters and the sense of euphoria in the last as they watch one of them go down.

The Royal Navy instead of sending out their own fleet finds it easier to commandeer small sailing boats and assign them the duty to evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk. Dawson, an owner of such luxury yacht-Moonstone, rises to the occasion magnificently as they set sail across the English Channel to Dunkirk. Their teenage help, George too hops on in a bid to do something heroic for the country. They rescue a shell shocked soldier floating on the remains of a destroyer torpedoed by a U-boat who fights with Dawson and tries to take control of the boat when he hears that they are actually trying to make way to Dunkirk, a place he’d rather leave behind. In the ensuing scuffle he pushes George rather too hard who falls down a flight of stairs, hits his head and dies a rather painful death later on.

The Moonstone, “Little Ship” with fictitious name, on the shooting of the film “Dunkirk”, in Dunkerque, with on board Christopher Nolan, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn Carney and Barry Keoghan. (Pic: Foxy59, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the sea, the drama continues and Tommy and Gibson manage to get a place in a destroyer planning to sail away to England but Gibson prefers to sit outside rather than go down with the rest of the soldiers to the hold where they are served tea and toast with marmalade or jam. Gibson’s very decision saves his life as the destroyer goes down having been torpedoed by a U-boat. Tommy’s instinct to live also serves him well as he swims away to safety having managed to be rescued by Gibson.

Of the two remaining RAF spitfires one goes down and the pilot is rescued by Dawson while oil spills from a destroyer and they make it out barely by the skin of their teeth as the oil catches fire. The lone spitfire pilot shows dogged determination as he begins to hunt the Luftwaffe. The spitfires sent out to back the rescue operation have but limited fuel and which makes their situation as desperate as the ones they have to rescue.

This claustrophobic enactment of the situation lends Dunkirk much of its dramatic moments at the same lending the film an atmosphere of suspense. Can they or can’t they, will they or won’t they are the questions which drive this film post intermission. The pace too automatically picks up and one is almost driven to the edge of the seat. The last remaining spitfire even as its fuel gauge shows dwindling fuel manages to take down another Luftwaffe fighter plane as it wreaks havoc below, both on land and sea and leaves us in a dazed state as it floats high overhead having seen the end of the battle for survival successful. We are also told by commander Bolton that Churchill would rather have his 30,000 men for the battle for Britain than rescue larger numbers if possible. And to this end he does not send out any help.

Dunkirk is not only a war movie, or the tale of a battle almost lost then won but of the minor heroes of history who till date had remained unsung. For instance, the RAF pilot who risks his own life on a fighter plane with dwindling fuel try and rescue as many lives as possible, or of Dawson who lost his elder son in the first few weeks of the war but still finds enough courage in himself to rescue the lives of many other sons, or of young George whose story Peter shares with a local newspaper on his return back to England and who becomes a war hero when the story is published.

It is also a tale, a subtly told one though of criticising the British as they very un-heroically refuse to accommodate French soldiers on their ships. To this end perhaps Nolan never mentions them as the Allied forces for they actually refuse to act as one. Nolan finds it worth to evaluate the role that Britain played in the Second World War and I feel that he is especially critical of Winston Churchill. This is relayed through the visuals and in a dialogue or two by Commander Bolton.

The last few shots of the RAF spitfire as it gracefully floats fleetingly onto the beach remain long after you have exited the theatre as well as the ones in which Tommy and his comrades find themselves in a train, making their way home as the locals rush about fussing over them, handing them cold beer to welcome them home, as also those of desperate soldiers walking into the sea to die.

More to read in International Film Reviews

Suffering of Ninko: Clash of Restraint and Libido

‘Because God Didn’t Win the War’ – The Imitation Game Review

Spotlight – A Great Film

The Exterminating Angel – A Surrealist Treat

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Devapriya Sanyal has a Ph.D in English Literature from JNU. She is the author of From Text to Screen: Issues and Images in Schindler’s List and Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer: The Biography of Soumendu Roy, which has recently been published by Harper Collins. When she is not teaching she is usually busy writing and watching world cinema, Bollywood and Bengali cinema. She also loves reading and has a lively interest in photography, travelling, and sketching.
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One thought on “Dunkirk: Reading Nolan’s War Odyssey

  • Janhvi Kapil

    I don’t think a better review exists out there. I personally agree with all of it. And I did not know Nolan had a degree in Eng Lit! That explains so much. The thing about Indian audience is true, as well because I personally saw people discarding Dunkirk as a boring movie, because they do not understand it. Probably because Nolan relies on visuals… and also yes, because we can’t connect to it. I loved the movie though! The review grasped me in, and I saw so many different perspectives. I see the movie in a different way now.

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