‘Dunkirk’ Explores How To Stay Nationally Unified During A Politically Fractured Time

‘Dunkirk’ Explores How To Stay Nationally Unified During A Politically Fractured Time

The two countries Nolan calls home experienced political tumult during the filming of 'Dunkirk,' so it’s hard not to view the film through a political lens.
Collin Garbarino
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Christopher Nolan made a name for himself with his gritty “Dark Knight” trilogy, which one could argue catapulted the superhero genre to its current place of box-office domination. But Nolan’s also known for his inventive storytelling. In “Memento,” he told the story backwards. In “Inception,” he told stories within stories, to the point where we didn’t know if we’d ever climb back out again. He’s the rare auteur who has a track record of creating blockbusters.

With his latest movie, “Dunkirk,” Nolan creates a first-rate World War II movie that showcases his traditional approach to filmmaking and offers audiences an inspiring message of hope.

“Dunkirk” tells the story of 400,000 allied troops cut off from home during the beginning of World War II. At the end of May 1940, the German army surrounded the British and some of their French allies and pushed them back to the resort town of Dunkirk on the coast. During a brief lull in which the Germans consolidated their position, the British managed to safely evacuate over 300,000 allied troops across the English Channel. The British press promoted the evacuation of Dunkirk as a miracle, and part of the event’s fame comes from the participation of hundreds of small, private craft that aided in the evacuation. The evacuation seemed so wondrous that Churchill had to remind the British that survival is not the same thing as victory but that they could find an element of the victorious in the defeat.

What Makes ‘Dunkirk’ Different

“Dunkirk” is different from Nolan’s other films. It’s not a dark movie focusing on the brokenness of humanity, and its story isn’t overly complicated. Nolan interlaces three distinct timelines of land, sea, and air into one narrative arc, but the straightforward plot moves to an inspiring salvation.

In the case of “Dunkirk,” Nolan has created a summer blockbuster that blends his personal vision with traditional techniques. The movie feels real because it is real, which is a rarity these days. Nolan shot the film on actual film. He used large format cameras instead of digital cameras, showing that the old methods still work. Not only did he shoot with film, but he eschewed computer-generated effects. The planes that you see in the movie are really flying, and the boats that you see are really floating.

Of course, this means that the RAF’s spitfires don’t bank at impossibly steep angles. We get dogfights that play out like real WWII-era dogfights instead of dizzying aerial CGI which, while cool, is unbelievable. Many people die, but we’re saved from ridiculous blood splatter and over-aestheticized violence. The visual immersion is impressive, and Nolan’s sound design perfectly complements it. The score is understated, but Nolan makes sure the audience feels the rumble of the engines and the report of gunfire.

The sights and sounds of this movie tell the story, and the sparse dialogue is almost unnecessary (though the actors deliver some stellar performances—but what else would you expect from Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hardy?). We don’t need to know where these characters come from. We don’t need to know about their preferences or their politics. We just know they need to get home.

The Historical Accuracy Of Dunkirk

“Dunkirk” is more of a disaster movie than a war movie. Except for a very brief scene, the audience never sees the Germans in the flesh. The movie revolves around a group of men in a bad situation and another group of men doing their best to help. The lack of context coupled with the vastness of the cinematography universalize the peril. It’s as if the story of Dunkirk becomes an allegory for the story of humanity.

The moviemaking quality is excellent, but how historically accurate is Nolan’s “Dunkirk”? For all its realism in the filming process, the movie distorts some of what went on during the evacuation. Most of the distortion occurs because of Nolan’s tight focus on his three timelines. By the time the one week on the beach converges with the one day on the sea and the one hour in the air, the audience will believe that this moment is the culmination of the evacuation. In fact, it’s the culmination of this one small story involving one of the “little ships” that heeded the call for help.

Audiences will likely leave “Dunkirk” thinking that the British troops waited on the beach a week for salvation, that their salvation of little ships arrived on one day, and that only three RAF spitfires covered their evacuation. In fact, both British and French troops were rescued from the mole and beaches, and the operation took a solid week, with tens of thousands of men evacuated every day. The RAF flew constant cover for the operation, and lost about 150 aircraft to the Luftwaffe. One aspect that’s hinted at in the movie’s beginning, but forgotten by the movie’s end, is that on the ground a French rearguard covered the evacuation. The Germans eventually captured these French soldiers who helped save hundreds of thousands of others.

Perhaps the most misleading bit of the “Dunkirk” is that it reinforces the notion that hundreds of little ships sailed across the channel, picked up waiting British soldiers, and brought them home to England. In some cases, this is what happened. But it was far more common for the little ships to pick up soldiers off the beaches and ferry them to waiting destroyers which would then take them home. The little ships’ job was to get the soldiers to the big ships, and the miracle at Dunkirk wasn’t quite as spontaneous as it’s often portrayed. The Royal Navy organized the salvation, but the British stiff upper lip enabled them to pull it off.

‘Dunkirk’ Reminds Us What It Meant To Be English

In spite of these distortions, the movie does an excellent job capturing the spirit of the event as interpreted by the British people. “Dunkirk” is less a recreation of the event itself and more a reminder of what it meant to be English. Patriotism, self-sacrifice, courage, determination. All these things pervade the film, but the virtue that shines most clearly is hope. Nolan wants his audience to remember that when things look their darkest, there’s still hope.

This hope is a special kind of hope. It’s not hope in oneself. Rather, it’s hope that salvation is external to us. Britain and America, the two countries that Nolan calls home, experienced some political tumult during the filming of this movie, and it’s hard not to view Nolan’s message through a political lens. The lesson of “Dunkirk” seems to be that when things are bad, we must depend on each other for survival. “Dunkirk” is the antithesis of his earlier movies, which often emphasize the darkness and inescapable brokenness of humanity.

Though one could find elements of religious salvation in this movie, Nolan’s intention is for us to keep our focus on the here and now. The miracle at Dunkirk didn’t deliver Britain from the Nazis. Nolan ends the movie with Churchill’s words, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” The Battle of Britain was still in their future, and then the British (with America’s help) would need to invade the continent to end the German threat.

Conservatives should heed Nolan’s (Churchill’s) message. Conservative principles and values are under attack from both sides of the political aisle. Where is the party that stands for virtue? There isn’t one, but we have hope that virtue will survive even if it becomes unpopular. However, the survival of truth and virtue is not the same thing as victory. Persuading minds to the truth is a hard task given the darkness and brokenness of the human heart, but we can’t give up. After all, there’s always hope.

Collin Garbarino is an associate professor of history and the director of graduate programs in humanities at Houston Baptist University. He has written about history and pop culture for a number of publications. You can follow him on Twitter @@collingarbarino.
Photo Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk (2017)

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