Director Christopher Nolan creatively captures a period of World War II history that focuses less on action and more on the painful waiting that comprises much of warfare. His essentially bloodless portrayal of the Dunkirk experience contrasts with most contemporary war films. He tells the story of the land, sea and air war experience with little dialogue to capture time, anxiety and suspense. The experience of the British Expeditionary Forces along with the Belgian and French soldiers on Dunkirk beach is one of those incidents that could have been disastrous for the Allies, but became a mind-boggling feat of national coordination. Still, it involved achingly long periods of waiting.
If you didn’t know much about the situation at Dunkirk before watching the movie you may not understand the complete story even afterwards, a Nolan characteristic. A filmmaker’s job entails capturing just a piece of a complex and multi-layered story such as this one and focusing in on particular aspects. Christopher Nolan does his job well. After the German forces effectively outflanked and outmaneuvered the Allied troops in France, they pushed them toward the beaches on the Western Front. With the Germans on land and the sea behind them, the Allies were trapped. Yet, for some unknown reason still widely debated, the Germans halted their advance. The only option for the Allies was to evacuate the beach. Time was of the essence.
Winston Churchill was not about to let his troops die on the shores of France. He scrambles to send destroyers to the rescue but tells Field Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) there are only enough ships to take 30,000 soldiers across the Channel to England. With over 400,000 men to evacuate, the British people were called upon to help. Hundreds of ferry boats, personal yachts, and fishing vessels, both private and commercial, sail en masse to join the naval ships crossing the Channel to evacuate the troops. Showing the sacrifice the civilian population makes for this rescue, Nolan focuses on one fishing boat captained by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who cares for a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy). The bravery exhibited by these civilians in entering a war zone ill-equipped, leaves a mark on the pride of the British people. Almost all the emotion expressed in this film is non-verbal. Actions speak louder than words.
After German Luftwaffe bomb numerous destroyers during the rescue mission, the movie shifts to British bomber pilots, low on fuel, constantly keeping German aircraft from attacking its navy. A dizzying air battle ensues giving the viewer an intense understanding of the complex maneuvering of air warfare.
As troops are evacuated and land on British soil, citizens offer the exhausted and hungry troops food, blankets, and a welcome word. As one soldier receives a blanket from a blind man, he says, “But all we did was survive.” The man responds, “That was enough.” Truly, in a desperate situation, survival proves sufficient.
Considering the loss war perpetrates on humanity, sometimes only the will to survive keeps the human spirit alive. The soldiers on Dunkirk beach patiently waited for their evacuation. The waiting can be more deadly than the action, with grating anxiety overcoming the psyche. Nolan’s methodical, panoramic, and non-verbal capturing of this amazing feat of human history, speaks deeper than words. It expresses the determination of the human spirit to survive.