Apologies up front: I was out of town on Monday, and forgot to warn y’all that I wouldn’t be posting that day. Let’s just pretend I didn’t forget it.
I don’t know about you, but in my American high school history education, I felt like there was a lot we glossed over, especially when it got to be later/closer to the modern era. My understanding of how the United States entangled itself in modern conflicts (like Korea and Vietnam) is fairly well lacking. Ask me about modern world history and chances are I’m going to draw a blank. Pretty much anything past World War II has me left mouth agog. And when the Boy recently got very excited about the movie Dunkirk, I had to admit that even that portion of World War II history had me confused. I knew that Germany invaded Poland in 1939, which kicked off a lot of the fighting in Europe. I have a vague awareness of the Battle of Britain taking place in 1940, but that’s mostly from reading “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” as a kid, and knowing that children were evacuated from London.
And then Pearl Harbor happened in 1941, and the U.S. swooped in and saved everyone, right?
Obviously not quite. But if prior to seeing or hearing about the movie Dunkirk, you found yourself in a similarly confused boat about what this battle was, and what happened, you wouldn’t be alone. You would be in such good company that outlets like Vulture published “A Clueless American’s Guide to the Battle of Dunkirk“, and I found it to be essential reading. Essential because like last year, I would be taking my Dad to the movies, and because his choice was Dunkirk, the Boy wanted to tag along. I needed to have some idea of what was happening.
Or maybe I didn’t need a deep understanding. Because going in, the movie is visceral. You have a definite idea of what things were like. You’re also given an idea of what the situation really was like, as the movie is presented in three different time scales (which is not a spoiler) – we spend a week on the beach with the soldiers trying to leave Dunkirk, we spend a day on a boat which has been conscripted into service as a ferry for soldiers, and we spend an hour with a couple of RAF pilots who are sent out to take down enemy planes which would make the tasks of the ferry boats impossible. Anyone who has seen more than a couple of Christopher Nolan’s movies will not be surprised with this creative use of time and narrative structure – think Memento, The Prestige, or Inception. But it helps to give a real idea of all the different parts that were working together, and how they were not all on the same page at the same time.
The main story itself is fairly simple – we follow a British soldier and another soldier he befriends while waiting on the beach and follow as they try desperately to leave Dunkirk in different ways. Each time they find a new avenue of escape, you find yourself hopeful for them – maybe this will be it! It just goes to show the desperation of the British army at that point. These were their main troops – they had yet to do a wider draft/conscription, so these were the lads who had joined up either before the war or early. If they didn’t get back home, things were going to be even worse. They knew it, and the leadership knew it too, hence the conscription of civilian boats to retrieve the soldiers from France.
It’s an interesting movie for focusing most on those who were in the battle itself. We don’t get the standard war movie trope of a scene with the generals and leadership all making decisions back at headquarters. The closest we have to this are scenes with the Commander (played by Kenneth Branagh) coordinating the evacuation from Dunkirk itself. Soldiers who really were at Dunkirk have said the movie is very accurate – except for the noise level. Like many other Nolan movies, it’s very loud.
Personally, I thought it was a terrific movie. It’s not very long (just two hours – but it feels like less!), and it feels like every scene is fraught with either terror of the unknown to come, or is packed with action. I cried – but then I cry at lots of things. It’s not a spoiler (because it’s history) to say that the British succeeded in bringing the majority of their men home. But because of the way the movie is structured, we are still curious as to the how and why the three stories we are shown will intersect. And that’s one of the brilliant bits. Am I being too coy? It’s a great movie. Essential viewing this year. And if you, like me, have been fed too much of an American-centric view of the U.S.’s involvement in WWII, perhaps this will start to open your eyes (like mine) that there was a lot going on before we got involved.