We’ve all heard stories of the war. Whether it be the beaches of Normandy, the tales of heroism, or the stories from our grandparents about how life changed as the world fought against those which sought to destroy it, no one is immune to some personal attachment to such events.
And, of course, there is no shortage to movies on the subject. Every war, from Crusades, to Civil, to World, has been retold on the silver screen. Some of which changed the way our generation saw those events which occurred decades before our birth, such as Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, and Schindlers List. There are so many perspectives to war, that there is no shortage to the way in which their stories can be told.
The latest in these memorable and view changing tellings comes from iconic director Christopher Nolan with this WWII story of Dunkirk. Leading up to its July 21 release, the anticipation and expectation for this film was like no other movie I have waited for, no matter the genre. Nolan was careful in his casting, meticulous in his accuracy, and spared no expense to tell the story not only right, but with respect to those involved.
And his work paid off. As a movie buff, and granddaughter of a WWII vet, I have to admit this film was one of the highest on my summer watch list. For me, there is no comparison to realism when it comes to film, and nothing strikes at your emotions and humanity quite like a well done war film. I already knew a bit about the Dunkirk evacuation prior to the release, and was interested to see how Nolan would bring it to screen.
His multi-dimensional approach, following 4 separate story lines all intertwining with each other was so superbly well done, it allowed the audience to see all aspects of the event from land, sea and air. The evacuation of Dunkirk was not simply ‘getting men off a beach’. It was the battle on the lines, trying to hold back the advance of the Germans determined to push more British and French soldiers to the beaches; it was those on the beach, sitting ducks, targets for the airstrikes above, with no escape; those on the ships, already rescued, being bombed back into the water with no choice but to return to the desolate sand they thought they had left behind. It was 400,000 men trapped, with an initial expectation of only being able to rescue 40,000.
But they didn’t only rescue 40,000. In the end, more than 330,000 men were plucked from the beach by the bravery and resourcefulness of British civilians choosing to take their personal pleasure boats across the channel, and save their soldiers. In the end, it was more than just soldiers fighting a war; it was a country saving its countrymen.
Mark Rylance did a superb job as Mr Dawson, and brave British pleasure boater who chooses to take his son and young apprentice across the channel to Dunkirk to do his part. Dawson has his own connections to the war, losing his eldest son early to the fight, and his calm determination in the end saves many of the main cast members from the waters. He gives a strength of character to the film, showing that despite fear and uneven odds, any man can do his part. But for me, the most gripping line from Rylance was this:
‘Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our sons to fight it?’
And in that, is the point, is it not? War is thought up by older men who in the end send young men to die for their desires, but Rylance’s portrayal of Mr Dawson puts the reality into beautiful perspective.
Fionn Whitehead’s role of Tommy leads most of the film from the soldiers standpoint, and while it was a quiet role, mostly experienced through trials more than dialogue, you still felt as though you were standing on that beach, or trying to rescue a comrade, or swimming through the waters hoping for deliverance. It was a role that was real, and bare, and relatable, even for those of us who have never experienced war. That Tommy’s only real desire through the film is to simply ‘go home’.
Farrier, a British pilot played my Tom Hardy showed you the fight from the air. Little thought is put into the role of the pilots in what is always thought of as a land and sea battle, but without the British pilots taking down many of the German planes who’s only objective was to bomb and pick off as many beached soldiers as possible, their contribution to that fight was as great as any. Hardy showed his already impressive ability as an actor, but also the difference in how war was fought from the air in WWII. Now, with so many gauges and technology, much of the art of flying has been pushed aside. For me as a viewer, I was captivated by the little things; calculating fuel after a broken gauge, and manually dropping landing gear after engine failure. Little things that were not a player in the events at Dunkirk, but their inclusion brought you back in time to truly understand how war was fought so long ago.
But of course, it is important to remember that war is not a game. It is not something that ends when the credits role, and in that comes the shivering soldier, played by Cillian Murphy. Pulled from the water by Dawson and his son, Murphy beautifully displays the realism of the aftereffects of war. Shell shocked, scared and wanting nothing more than to go home, the thought of returning to Dunkirk drives Murphy’s character to a disposition that would otherwise be unlike him. But in the follows of such events, you are never truly the same.
The way in which Nolan merged all aspects, all story lines, connecting them with subtlety and seamless transition gave you a complete picture of what the days on that beach were like. But what stood out was the absence of theatrics which always seems to come with such big budget, anticipated films. The additions of modern CGI, additional story lines to increase tension, and all the other things that make film entertainment were not present in this telling, as they were completely unnecessary. The skill of the director, the actors, and the editing teams gave you all you needed, in raw, beautiful storytelling of real events. In the end, for me, that was what I came away from the film recognizing. Not only the heroism, the events and the loss, but that it was real without Hollywood additives.
Dunkirk was by far one of the best films I have seen in years, giving new life to an old story that many may not have known before this telling. As I said, I knew some of the history of Dunkirk, and when I told my grandfather of the film, he was eager to watch it. Before writing this review, I watched it with him, and followed it by listening to his own stories of the war. My grandfather is in his 90’s and served in WWII in the British Navy, and I have many of his stories from living in Britain during that time. But after watching the movie, he told me of a friend of his who was one of those soldiers who survived the beaches of Dunkirk. That he was on that sand for days, able to see the home shores of Britain, but having no way to cross the channel.
Even now, the man will not speak of his time at Dunkirk.
I think that says much to the reality behind the story, and the portrayal Nolan and his team were able to bring forward. From my generation learning of the realities of war, to my grandfather remembering it as someone who fought, it connects to everyone with its accuracy and respectful display.