Filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, is a thrilling, relentless, and visceral human story of survival set against the backdrop of Operation Dynamo—the 1940 evacuation of beleaguered Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in the face of rapid German advances across Europe.
Despite the large scale of the Dunkirk evacuation, Nolan wisely eschews grander set pieces in favor of three intimate, subjective points of view: soldiers on the beach over the course of one week, civilian ships crossing the English Channel during one day, and fighter pilots in the sky for one hour.
The audience is not treated to a broader perspective—there are no scenes of generals huddling around a table, moving pins on a map. Instead, the characters are all direct participants of the events. They do not necessarily understand or know the larger, global implications of the event they are experiencing—they are simply trying to do their duty and survive.
Nolan shot the majority of the film using large-format 70mm cameras from his taut, 76-page screenplay, relying more on visuals than words, and the varied timelines give the story an unfamiliar rhythm. From its opening scene, dropping the audience straight into a foot chase to the beaches, the film never lets up, ratcheting up its intensity to a nail-biting finale.
Nolan’s emphasis on practical effects instead of computer-generated imagery (CGI) gives the film a distinctive look and feel. Hundreds of actors and extras line the beach, evoking the few historical photographs of the evacuation. The aerial sequences, featuring real aircraft struggling to outturn and destroy each other, are a stunning spectacle.
Furthermore, the film’s sound design further heightens the suspense. When terrorizing soldiers queued in the open, German Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers are fitted with sirens (“Jericho trumpets”) that crescendo into an ear-splitting shriek as they pull out of their dives. Long stretches of relative silence are shattered by the abrupt staccato of gunfire. All the while, Hans Zimmer’s unconventional score, using the relentless ticking of Nolan’s own pocket watch, is a constant and uneasy reminder that which each moment that slips away, the enemy draws closer. The audience can never get comfortable—and that is the point.
Films are, first and foremost, entertainment. As with any film based on a real-life event, it is impossible to get every detail right. Some may quibble about Tommy discarding his rifle in the opening scene, the yellow noses of the Messerschmitt 109s, or Farrier wearing distinctive flying goggles that were not issued until later in the war, but it is clear that Nolan and his team did a great deal of research and approached the story with a deep appreciation for history.
“We won’t say that everything in the film is perfectly accurate,” Nolan told World War II magazine. “What I can say is—we constructed a section of the mole on what’s left of the actual mole, we shot on the real beach during the actual days of the evacuation, with real little ships picking up guys off the beach. You really can’t do any more than that in terms of being faithful to what really happened. We did not try and slavishly reproduce the archival photographs of the time. We tried to be inspired by them to make a creative statement and to make the audience feel an emotional journey through the events.”
Dunkirk is a unique and masterful film—one that is likely to stand the test of time as an authentic and compelling portrayal of the evacuation—and one ideally experienced in a 70mm theater. Don’t miss it. ✯
Film Recon is a web series by Paraag Shukla, Senior Editor of World War II and Aviation History magazines at HistoryNet.
Dunkirk opens in theaters on July 21, 2017.
Check out our Film Recon interviews for Dunkirk: