We all know the story – or do we? It was one of Britain’s great wartime triumphs. With the British Expeditionary Force driven back to the French coast by advancing German armies, thousands of Allied troops were stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, and the call went out from Winston Churchill to rally the little ships and bring them home. Countless small craft – fishing boats, launches, dinghies, even rowing boats – crossed the Channel to gather survivors and ferry them home for joyful reunion with their families.
Actually, it wasn’t quite like that, but it’s more or less how the story is remembered. And it’s been told that way in many a Dunkirk movie. William Wyler’s Mrs Miniver (1942) was one of the key films of my boyhood – a glorious combination of romantic drama, patriotic flag-waving and heroic fable. It won a swag of Oscars, and I’ll never forget the scene when Walter Pidgeon sets out in his little boat for Dunkirk, leaving Greer Garson at home to confront a lost German paratrooper and hide his gun behind her teacups. How many British troops did Walter Pidgeon ferry to safety? Hundreds? How many other small craft crossed the Channel to Dunkirk? Thousands?
Well, not so many. One of the virtues of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is that it doesn’t overplay the story or exaggerate the scale of the achievement. According the British military historian Jeremy Black, some 338,000 men were rescued from Dunkirk, but only about 5 percent of them were brought home in small boats. The vast majority were loaded onto warships. Far from being a triumph of British seamanship, Dunkirk (in Churchill’s words) was a military catastrophe, creating a false sense of Allied invincibility in the face of the German onslaught. Wars, said Churchill, were not won by evacuations.
It’s an unusual film for Nolan, best known for his extravagant sci-fi adventures and comic- book fantasies. Watching Dunkirk, I half expected Batman to swoop on a German destroyer, or Heath Ledger to appear in lurid facial makeup to vanquish the Dark Knight as she hovers on the horizon. Instead, Nolan focuses on a handful of British soldiers on the beach, with brief cutaways shots to their commander (Kenneth Branagh). Nolan works with minimum dialogue, having reportedly toyed with the idea of dispensing with a script altogether, and the result is often sketchy and confusing. No strategic conferences, no meetings of senior brass, no animated maps to explain what the campaign is all about, or how Dunkirk fitted into the overall pattern of strategic defence. In the aerial dogfights it’s hard to tell which are the German fighters strafing the beach and which are our friendly Spitfires.
The main character – if we can call him that – is a certain Mr Dawson, a British civilian stoically played by Mark Rylance, who heads off in his small boat with his son, eventually rescuing a downed Spitfire pilot. We are told almost nothing about Dawson, and even less about the handful of men on the beach whose exploits are followed. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is a young man encountered in the opening scene when the streets of Dunkirk are showered with German leaflets. We care for poor Tommy on the beach, but it’s Branagh who gives the story some much-needed focus and cohesion about half-way through. Standing on a pier and surveying the horizon through binoculars, he is asked by a fellow-officer what he can see. His reply – “Home!” – is an emotional turning point in the movie. In the distance we can make out an approaching British warship and a handful of small craft. At last, I thought, something is happening.
Yes, it’s realistic enough – at times compelling – and best seen in the wide-screen IMAX format if you’re keen to savour all the sound of fury of battle. I thought of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – his devastating account of the Normandy landing, with its harrowing urgency and realism. At its best, Nolan’s film achieves something of the same power and immediacy. A pity, I think, that it ends on a note of sentimental patriotism, with Churchill’s most famous wartime speech heard distantly on the soundtrack. When Churchill talked about “fighting on the beaches” he wasn’t referring to Dunkirk (that was a different speech). He was talking about all the battlegrounds of the war.
Perhaps a better comparison is with another Dunkirk, a much-praised 1958 film directed by Leslie Norman. It’s coming out soon on a Blu-Ray DVD and I’ve ordered my copy. One of the protagonists is a young Richard Attenborough, who went on to direct the classic musical satire Oh! What a Lovely War – one of the great anti-war films of all time. I watched it again after seeing Dunkirk. And if anyone needs reminding of the waste and horror, the sheer madness and sadness of war, Attenborough’s film is the one to see. But Christopher Nolan’s has much to offer in the meantime.
Dunkirk, rated M, is in national release.
Evan Williams reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry. In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascal Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.