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We're a week away from the Oscars, so while I'm trying to avoid back-to-back posts on the same historical periods, I wanted to write a little about one of my favorite films of the last year, a nominee for eight Oscars, and a stunning World War II film—Dunkirk.

He’s shell-shocked, George. He’s not himself. He might never be himself again.
— Mr. Dawson

The history

World War II began with German invasion of Poland in September 1939. On April 9, 1940, after months of "phoney war" in which Germany and Britain—which had guaranteed Polish sovereignty—were at war but not actively fighting, the Germans invaded Denmark and Norway. The British committed to the defense of Norway, with off-and-on land and sea combat around Narvik. A month later, on May 10, with Nazi and Allied troops still tied down in Norway, the Germans invaded the Low Countries. Their ultimate target was France.

A German tank just before the surrender of France in June 1940.

A German tank just before the surrender of France in June 1940.

The Germans inverted part of the previous war's opening moves by attacking through the Ardennes Forest (the site, four and a half years later, of the Battle of the Bulge) but, instead of striking for Paris as they did in 1914, they swung to the right in a carefully planned Sichelschnitt—"sickle-cut"—to the English Channel. This lightning stroke would split the Allied forces defending France and entrap them in defenseless pockets, which would then surrender or be reduced. 

With the benefit of hindsight, the much-vaunted German "Blitzkrieg"—a term almost never used by the Germans themselves, who spoke of Bewegungskrieg, maneuver or movement war—was a costly gamble. Because of Germany's geographically vulnerable strategic position, Hitler and his armies had to strike hard and fast or be overwhelmed from multiple directions. The rapid invasions and conquests of 1939 and '40, while impressive and calculated for maximum psychological impact, resulted in heavy losses of infantry, armor, and—perhaps the most critical new branch of a modern arm—air power. 

British troops awaiting rescue on the beach at Dunkirk.

British troops awaiting rescue on the beach at Dunkirk.

Nevertheless, the Germans did succeed. They broke through in northern France, severed the British Expeditionary Force and some French and Belgian units from the main body of the Allies, and drove them back against the Channel. There, the British and their allies were trapped in a rapidly shrinking pocket of French and Belgian coastline. By May 20, only ten days after the initial invasion, the British were planning an evacuation by sea.

Dunkirk, a small port city on this stretch of French coast, became the focus of the evacuation efforts, codenamed Operation Dynamo. Dunkirk had good port facilities and spacious beaches. Unfortunately, the German air force bombed the port into uselessness, leaving the beach and an artificial breakwater—"the mole"—as the only points of departure. Furthermore, the beaches sloped so gently into the channel that Royal Navy destroyers could not approach closer than a mile to shore without danger of running aground. This left the mole as the only practical embarkation point, loading one or two boats at a time with men queuing along its length, exposed to enemy air power. Fewer than 8,000 men out of 400,000 were evacuated on the first day.

At this point, the famous "little ships" came through. Either through volunteers or commandeering by the Royal Navy, about 850 private boats ranging from pleasure yachts to barges and fishing boats made the hazardous crossing from Kent to Dunkirk. For over a week, they ferried batches of troops from the shore to the waiting destroyers, or even all the way back across the Channel to Ramsgate. By June 4, nearly 340,000 men had been rescued, preserving a nucleus that would allow the Allies to carry on resistance and, if Hitler waited long enough, rebuild.

The film

Christopher Nolan first conceived Dunkirk during a cross-Channel trip to the town aboard a sailboat. He had known the story of the little ships since childhood, but only by making the crossing himself did he come to realize how hazardous the voyage was. 

Christopher Nolan directs Kenneth Branagh

Christopher Nolan directs Kenneth Branagh

Dunkirk, as scripted by Nolan, is not a traditional war movie—to the great annoyance of some reviewers. In the publicity campaign leading up to the film's release, Nolan emphasized that Dunkirk was a survival film, and that he had constructed it as such. Where a traditional war movie would focus on the risks of combat, with generals or other officers framing the battle in terms of strategic aims and geography and possibly even giving time to both sides, Dunkirk focuses on the attempts of ordinary British soldiers to escape.

I won't spend much time on the film's structure—there's plenty about that elsewhere, and the high-concept structure of Nolan's films may prove to be a detriment in the long run, since they offer so much distraction from the story to internet pedants. It's the story I want to focus on.

Dunkirk follows three major characters: a private in the infantry (appropriately named Tommy), a Spitfire pilot, and the captain of a sailboat making the crossing from Ramsgate. While their stories interweave in creative ways, and eventually tie together at the end, they offer three perspectives on the crisis and the evacuations—one might almost say three dimensions, with one character trying to get away from Dunkirk, another crossing to Dunkirk, and the third flying above Dunkirk.

Offering commentary and a minimum of exposition are Kenneth Branagh as a Royal Navy officer and James D'Arcy as an infantry officer coordinating the evacuations at the mole. The film occasionally pulls back to these two in order to explain the crisis; otherwise, the film—by intention—is an exercise in almost exclusively visual storytelling, operating much like a silent film. Tommy's story specifically has almost no dialogue; we understand what is happening to him, what he wants, and how he means to escape through looks and actions. It's masterfully done.

Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy in  Dunkirk

Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy in Dunkirk

Despite the film being an ensemble piece with no characters significantly more prominent than the others, the performances are excellent. The heart of the film is Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, the captain of the sailboat Moonstone. Mr. Dawson sums up the film in two moments: when, after being told to turn back by a shellshocked evacuee, he replies "We've a job to do," and at the end when, the job done, he quietly puts on his hat and disappears into the crowd. Dunkirk honors quiet heroism and duty in terrible circumstances.

The film is also technically brilliant. The majority was shot on IMAX film, with the rest—mostly the sequences aboard the Moonstone—on 65mm. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is beautiful, and the aerial sequences in particular capitalize on the immersion that IMAX offers. (One of my first memories of seeing an IMAX film was watching a movie about flight and space travel as the Kennedy Space Center.) The sound effects are brutal—the gunshots at the beginning of the film are a shock, actually violent, and the sound of the divebombing Stukas is terrifying. The special effects are almost entirely in-camera as opposed to CGI, and are excellent. The film feels real because most of it is—a vanishingly rare quality in modern cinema.

The film as history

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940 , by Charles Ernest Cundall

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940, by Charles Ernest Cundall

The filmmakers went to extraordinary lengths to do things practically and as authentically as possible. Over a dozen of the real "little ships" that helped in the evacuations were used in filming for added authenticity, for instance. But they did have to reckon with the limitations of their medium and the method they had chosen to tell the story. To provide just one example, the German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter planes have a distinctive yellow paint scheme on their nose, despite that not being introduced until several months later in 1940. Furthermore, the Messerschmitts are, in fact, Hispano HA-1112s, licensed copies produced by Franco's government.

But there are three reasons for this "inaccuracy" (which I would classify as a nitpick). First, the yellow nose was a concession to the visual nature of cinema as a medium. The filmmakers knew that the audience had to be able to distinguish the German planes from the British immediately, and a bright yellow nose, despite being early by a few months, was the solution. Second, there are very few operational Bf-109s left in the world, and, third, Nolan wanted real planes, really chasing each other on camera. These are completely justifiable reasons related closely to the medium of the story; they're choices by master craftsmen, not errors.

But despite the best efforts of the filmmakers, critical praise, and audience approval, Dunkirk took some flak from historians, including a number I respect. Victor Davis Hanson, after praising the film's many strengths, criticized its lack of strategic context. James Holland nitpicked the film, saying that there wasn't enough smoke and apparently even bringing a stopwatch into the theater to time the Spitfires' machine gun fire. Andrew Roberts, in addition to criticizing the film's "tin ear for the Anglo-French relations of the time," savaged Dunkirk for its

clichéd characterization, almost total lack of dialogue, complete lack of historical context (not even a cameo role for Winston Churchill), a ludicrous subplot in which a company of British soldiers stuck on a sinking boat do not use their Bren guns to defend themselves, problems with continuity (sunny days turn immediately into misty ones as the movie jumps confusingly through time), and Germans breaking into central Dunkirk whereas in fact they were kept outside the perimeter throughout the evacuation.

All three of these historians misread the purpose and the form of Dunkirk

Again, Nolan conceived of Dunkirk as a survival film, and one that focused on the panic of entrapment. That panic, that claustrophobia, would disappear with the introduction of top-down strategic map-room scenes like those Hanson wishes for and, at worst, reduce the ordinary soldiers of the story to bit players. Compare the soldiers in Dunkirk with the cannon fodder of The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far if you want to see what I'm talking about. Dunkirk belongs more to the tradition of Saving Private Ryan, a narrowly focused film which, lest we forget, thrusts the viewer immediately into D-day with no opening explanation or context.

Holland, who also praises the movie before getting down to his nitpicks, seems to be bothered by the film's limited scope as well. But this is a limitation of the medium—there just isn't room in one film for 200 destroyers.

Roberts, on the other hand, is difficult to answer. I can only assume he wasn't paying attention to the film and went into it blithely uncurious about its purpose, technique, or artistry. The continuity errors are caused not by carelessness, but by shifts in time across days and hours. The trapped British soldiers don't shoot back because they're hiding and don't want to give away their position. And, in a criticism from later in his review, the little boats aren't evacuating all of the 330,000+ soldiers from Dunkirk, but taking them out to the destroyers to be evacuated. All of this is made abundantly clear by the characters themselves—especially Branagh and D'Arcy's officers on the mole—or by just paying a little attention and taking the film on its own terms.

Dunkirk is a movie, and, as a result, gets some things wrong. But it's a strong film that does perhaps the most difficult job a historical film takes upon itself—putting the viewers into a world that has long since vanished and making them feel what actual people at one time felt. Nolan and his team worked at the peak of their skills in their medium and produced an excellent movie. 

More if you're interested

An important book if you're interested in both the film and the history is Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture, by the film's historical adviser, Joshua Levine. Levine offers not just a good short summary of the events leading up to and following Operation Dynamo, but also gives good coverage to the making of the film and Nolan's approach. 

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Walter Lord, most famous for A Night to Remember, a book about the sinking of the Titanic, published The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo in 1981. The books has been reissued for the film's release. I haven't read this one, but Lord's work is pretty highly regarded popular history and it has some good photographs and illustrations.

For a fuller strategic and historical picture than the film provides, there are a lot of places to look. I'm just going to list a few.

Alistair Horne's To Lose a Battle: France 1940, is a readable, well-researched, but slightly dated (published in 1969) history of the German invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940. This is the final volume of a trilogy on French military history; I recommend it. The Duel, by John Lukacs, is a book I've mentioned before, and I recommend it again.

James Holland, who was critical—bordering on pedantic—about the film, has a couple of good books. For a lavishly illustrated, very short narrative of the invasion of France and the following Battle of Britain, his Ladybird book The Battle of Britain is an excellent read. For more detail, his Battle of Britain: Five Months that Changed History is a comprehensively and exhaustively researched book that includes the fall of France and the evacuations from Dunkirk. The Rise of Germany, the first volume of his ongoing trilogy The War in the West, covers the fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk in detail, with a great deal of up-to-date research.

Finally, Sir Max Hasting's book Winston's War, which narrates World War II from the point of view of Churchill, begins with Churchill becoming PM during the fall of France and covers the evacuations from Dunkirk—as well as Narvik and elsewhere—in good detail from a top-down strategic perspective, knowing what Churchill knew when he knew it.

Next week

Despite saying that I'm trying to avoid back-to-back posts from the same period, next month I'll dedicate Historical Movie Mondays to the Middle Ages. Call it "Medieval March." But first, I want to honor an important anniversary that will fall next Monday, and consider the 2004 film The Alamo.