Posted on August 13, 2017
When I first saw the trailer for Dunkirk a month or so ago, my first reaction was to say to my wife, “No way. That is one of the most depressing moments in WWII history.” I had a change of heart, obviously, over time as people began to talk about the move in terms of outstanding Christopher Nolan’s film making. I didn’t want to miss this generation’s Lawrence of Arabia, after all.
My response on exiting the theater was: “That was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, but I wish I hadn’t seen it.”
Spoilers for Dunkirk follow
Nolan’s movie is so well done that seeing Dunkirk makes you feel like you were at Dunkirk. It’s basically two hours of British soldiers suffering a series of Nazi atrocities and war crimes. It details the last few days of that harrowing time when the British Army, having been defeated in France and chased all the way to the beach, has to wait for the Navy to come and save them.
Unfortunately, the Navy is actually not coming. Churchill has made the (prudent) decision not to throw good forces down the hole of a lost cause. Those forces would be needed for the thing that will obviously be coming next: The Battle of Britain.
As a result of the Navy bowing out, England mounts the largest flotilla of private civilian watercraft in history and sends them across the Channel to fetch as many soldiers as they can.
If you believe the movie’s depiction, only a single wing of three Spitfires was tasked with providing air cover. In fact, the RAF lost 106 planes shooting down 262 Luftwaffe aircraft in over 2,000 sorties. But for the purposes of dramatic narrative that has been wisely whittled down to what we’ll call the last three RAF pilots in the fray.
The movie follows several characters, an RAF pilot, a British infantryman, an Army officer, and the civilian captain of a private pleasure boat. And by pleasure boat, I mean it was just for weekend sailing, not filled with hookers and blow. .
It is the infantryman’s story that is the most grueling as he is one of those lucky/unlucky survivors who manages to stay one step ahead of certain doom only to get into ever more sticky predicaments. He is aboard three ships that are sunk by the Germans, nearly drowned on multiple occasions, covered in oil and almost set fire to before finally getting aboard the pleasure craft for a ride back to England.
The pilot’s story is typical of RAF hagiographies. Those men garnered a deservedly heroic reputation for winning the air war over Britain. They are portrayed here, as they are literally everywhere else, as the last of the chivalrous warriors, gentlemen knights on 400 mph steeds. It’s a fine image, but not a compelling story.
The shell shocked officer picked up by the pleasure boat on the way across the Channel to Dunkirk is also not very interesting and the story of George, the boy who wanted be useful even though he’s not very good at school, seems to have been tacked on just for the tearjerker of an ending.
The most interesting thing about the story is that the survivors of Dunkirk thought they were returning as failures who would be mocked and derided in the streets. No one was talking about the “Miracle of Dunkirk” until after it happened. It’s not until the soldiers finally get home after this agonizing journey that they discover they’re being hailed as heroes.
That’s how menacing the Nazi army was at the beginning of WWII. Just not being killed by them was considered heroic. Actually, once you see what the soldiers persevered in their struggles to get off the beach, you understand the true depth of their heroism.
The movie ends with Churchill’s famous “Never surrender” speech. It’s a stirring moment, especially when you realize how much hell these people have left to go through before they reach the other side of the previous Nazi uprising.
It’s beautiful. The story is told with Hitchcock levels of tension. The main story is compelling. The acting is all top notch. But it’s not a summer movie. It’s a fall movie. No one wants to go in out of the sunshine and be assaulted with suffering for two hours when they should be on the sand playing volleyball.
So the final line is: It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, but I wish I hadn’t seen it… until November.