Saturday at the Movies: A Review of Dunkirk

I took it into my head to see Dunkirk in a movie theater on the opening weekend. I don’t think I have done since the early nineties (when we returned from Spain, where movies showed at the base theater six months to a year after premiering.) The last time I saw a movie in an actual theater, instead of at home on DVD or on streaming video was – if memory serves – The Kings’ Speech, in 2010, or it may have been The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in 2013. We saw the latter in an Alamo Drafthouse cinema, notable for being set up in a civilized manner to serve tasty adult beverages before and during the showing, as well as equally tasty entrees. They also have a positively Soup-Naziesque attitude about talking, texting, ringing cellphones and children disturbing the movie experience – an attitude of which I regretfully approve. One toot on yer flute, or on your cellie, and you’re oot, as the saying about the woman in the Scottish cinema with a hearing horn used to go. Adding to the charm of the experience – you can book a ticket for a specific seat and showing through their website, and pay for it online in advance. Print out your ticket on your home printer, waltz into the theater at the appointed time – and yes, this is one thing I do like about the 21st century.
Back to the movie. The necessary trailers for upcoming releases reminded me powerfully about why I have not been to a movie theater for a movie since 2010 or 2013, especially a trailer for a superhero concoction called The Justice League. No, sorry; so much my not-cuppa-tea that I wouldn’t move two feet off a rock ledge to watch it, or anything else there was a trailer for. Fortunately, the pre-feature features were few and relatively brief.
Then to the main feature, which began very quietly, with a half-dozen British squaddies wandering down a narrow street on the outskirts of Dunkirk, under a fluttering of German propaganda leaflets … which set the situation as it exists, and supplies one of the young soldiers, appropriately named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), with a supply of toilet paper.

Tommy is a luckless lower-ranks Candide, foiled numerous times in his efforts to get away from Dunkirk, the first of three different yet congruent stories told by the director, Christopher Nolan. Some viewers may have difficulty in following them, as they weave and intersect with each other. I did not – although how daylight and tide conditions changed abruptly from shot to shot and episode to episode in the narrative may baffle some viewers. Tommy’s soggy epic journey (he damn near gets drowned three times by my account) alternates with two other narratives: an account of the civilian boat-owning volunteers – epitomized by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his younger son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s school chum, George (Barry Keoghan). The Admiralty, under emergency orders, has begun requisitioning civilian boats for service shifting English and French troops off the beaches held in a pocket between Dunkirk and Bray Dunes.
This is historically accurate – the main harbor of Dunkirk was composed of an inner and an outer harbor. The inner was essentially unusable through German bombing by the time of the evacuation. The outer – a long sheltering mole-and-walkway – was difficult to moor large sea-going ships against, and hideously vulnerable to German bombing and strafing attacks, both to the ships and the ranks of soldiers drawn up to board them. Mr. Dawson’s substantial motor-sail yacht is one of those requisitioned to serve – because of their relatively shallow-draft – in taking troops directly off the beach to the larger ships at anchor in deeper water. (This character and account is clearly based on the experience of Charles Lightoller.) Mr. Dawson doesn’t want to turn his yacht over to the Navy and he heads out of the English harbor, (after ditching all the civilian accoutrements and taking on a load of life-preservers) with a crew composed of a pair of teenaged schoolboys.
The third element, after land and sea, is in the air; a pair of RAF Spitfire pilots, Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farner (Tom Hardy). They start on their mission to provide air cover to the evacuation, lose their flight leader even before they even get mid-way – and thereafter Farner, with a busted fuel-gage on his fighter-plane (which was top of the line in 1940) is on a tense countdown. Make his goal, achieve his mission of providing air cover for the evacuation before he runs out of fuel…
The countdown is one of the elements which makes this movie consistently suspenseful: the countdown of Farner’s fuel tanks, the countdown of Tommy’s ability to hold his breath, the arrival of the ‘little ships’ in time to do any good, the ability of Mr. Dawson’s crew to haul drowning soldiers out of the water before the oil from a sinking ship cooks off. This is punched up in the soundtrack, which is not so much music but the effect of a clock ticking, occasionally broken by a terrifying silence which means that the German dive bombers are about to attack. The soundtrack is mostly sound design, with very little music as we usually hear it. The only conventional and hummable bits are a version of ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations in about the last five minutes. The acting is likewise impeccable from the cast, especially Tom Hardy, who as Farner, had the challenge of spending most of the movie with his face covered by his oxygen mask and goggles.
Those are the laudable elements – now the severely critical comments based on the various books on Operation Dynamo. This is one of the historical events that I was obsessively interested in as a teenager. The movie vision of the smoke column on the horizon is lame. From all reports and photographic evidence – it was huge. Really huge – as could be seen from across the channel, covering a good quarter to half the horizon as one got closer to the French side. The crowds on the beaches were also much more substantial, if the historical record is any guide. The long tracking shot in Atonement gives, I think, something more of an idea of how chaotic, crowded, and desperate the situation in the Dunkirk-Bray Dunes pocket must have been. I was also thrown out of the story a couple of times by how many times the ‘stuck under a barrier and drowning’ trope was brought out and inflicted on key characters. Really, do this no more than once per character a movie. A lovely shot of all the ‘little boats’ coming to the rescue; they all looked so pristine. It was a fantastic touch to use some of the real surviving Dunkirk ‘little boats’, but only a few were shown, out of 250 or so known to have participated. As a matter of fact, many were towed across the Channel to the evacuation zone, most of them crewed by Naval reservists (as was shown in the initial scene with Mr. Dawson’s boat), and they bustled back and forth from the shallows, ferrying troops out to the deeper-draft ships standing off-shore, rather than make the cross-channel journey independently and loaded with troops. (The largest portion of troops rescued from Dunkirk were transported to safety on destroyers – not on the ‘little boats’.) The bit about the British Army engineers kluging up a pier by driving trucks into the sea at low-tide to create a makeshift pier to load from at high-tide – that did happen. I do wish that the incident of one particular ship-captain deliberately grounding his own ship to serve as a temporary pier and floating it off again at high-tide had been included – but that act of desperate improvisation was one of many.
On the whole, Dunkirk is well worth the time and cost to see in a theater, especially this summer. Regarding the previews of coming attractions, though, it looks like it will be another four or six years before I bother going to the theater to watch another one.

37 thoughts on “Saturday at the Movies: A Review of Dunkirk”

  1. “I haven’t gone to a movie theater since 2002”: stick-in-the-mud! We last went in 2006. It was good. We’d go again if it weren’t for the noise and the people.

  2. On our last night in London, my wife and I decided to do something British by making a rare visit to a movie house to see Dunkirk. We are glad we did. It is entertaining, troubling, suspenseful (even though we know the ending), uplifting, and an important slice of history. Hopefully millions will see and learn the history of ordinary people making incredible sacrifices to help others.

  3. Funny you should mention the King’s Speech. That may also have been my last theater experience also. We had a trailer for Darkest Hour about Churchill at the same moment of history. Looks like it may also be a good one.

    One outstanding thing about this movie was the audience. It was old, like me. And quiet and well behaved. The audiences have kept me away from the theater as much as the fare.

    I did not like the film as much as Sgt. Mom. For those who know about Dunkirk, it is a good movie. For those who don’t, the film is presented virtually without context. You never know who has surrounded the Brits, and I’ll bet a lot of younger viewers, if any, don’t know. There weren’t visible swastikas or crosses on the German planes. Several of the boat models bore little resemblance to ships of the era. This seemed more like a detached war is hell movie than a story about a historical event. Only the arrival at the train station redeemed it for me. Great understatement and portrayal of the spirit the Brits displayed. Overall, a great piece of art if you look on it at that level.

  4. It’s hard to believe that even well into the 1980s WWII movies were ubiquitous on weekend TV. I think it wasn’t until cable became so common that they got banished. Who knows where kids these days get their recent history from. Actually, we do know, and it ain’t good. Nolan actually seems to be in the tiny minority of politically sane Hollywood figures, so I trust him on this one. (Can I just say that I HATED Saving Private Ryan, mostly because I do not believe anyone ever said anything like “Earn this..” Ugh. Makes me vomit just thinking about it.)

  5. I wonder if the apparent popularity and the devastatingly good reviews for Dunkirk are a subtly nostalgic thing – for when Britain was a proud and cohesive society, before the ruling and intellectual class sold them out for a mess of politically-correct multi-culti pottage.

  6. We had a similar theater in Mission Viejo called “Cinepolis” with the same characteristics.

    I’ve not found anything like it in Tucson. I’ve seen a very few modern movies there. We saw, “American Sniper” and “Zero Dark Thirty” there. “Gravity” was not too bad.

    I can’t remember any more.

    I also did not like “Saving Private Ryan” for a number of reasons, the most important that idiotic Tom Hanks speech about “Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess.”

    Six million Jews and a few others might disagree,

  7. Sgt Mom: From Nolan’s interview with Time, an astonishing statement that almost no other celebrity would say, making clear where his politics clearly are:
    Why did you make this movie now?
    This tale is about the idea of home. It’s about the desperate frustration of not being able to get to where you need to be. We live an era where the idea of too many people piling onto one boat to try and cross difficult waters safely isn’t something that people can dismiss as a story from 1940 anymore. We live in an era where the virtue of individuality is very much overstated. The idea of communal responsibility and communal heroism and what can be achieved through community is unfashionable. Dunkirk is a very emotional story for me because it represents what’s being lost.

  8. Saw it last night with my wife. Told her that it was so much worse than they can show; crowded, bloody, vastly more messy. Explained that Hitler’s stop order probably saved the Brits. Technically, it was probably the best that they could do.

    I did not mention, and probably should have, that if something similar happened to our country today, half of the country would be arguing to leave the army there so as not to further aggravate the enemy. Or preparing welcome feasts for the Nazis.

  9. “Or preparing welcome feasts for the Nazis.”

    Saw a few comments in that vein today on facebook. “Churchill was the real traitor, etc.”

    Nobody under 50 know any history.

  10. I’ve got to say that when I feel irritated with the Brits, their ability to tell a story like The King’s Speech helps me stop and think of how much my feelings are touched by a sense of Anglosphere identity.

    And then my own superficial, heavily influenced by pop culture feelings always come back to Mrs. Miniver. You all clearly know the war – but that movie must have resonated. Its sense of the community, of dignity and self-respect, of tradition – that seemed so well represented by Dunkirk and that family and that community. Pop culture does have influence and I’m sorry so little of it leads us to that understated heroism of Bogart at his best, Stewart’s quiet everyman gentleness – those were the movies of my youth as well as ever after because they played over and over on the local television station when I was in high school.

    Oh, well. We’ve started going to movies lately (want to stay out of the house for 4 hours every other week – a bizarre reason) and I’ve found neither Wonderwoman or whatever nor the planet of the apes as bad as I feared. The heroine is breathtakingly lovely and the human willingness to sacrifice as well as decimate is there. And the apes, well, the relatively devastating nature of a virus, its attack on what makes us human, etc. posed a problem we are as likely to confront as any. Actually, when I think of all the Bergman and Antonioni and Goddard I thought were profound in college, I’m not trusting my taste at all. John Ford and Hitchcock, Bogart and Robert Ryan and Mitchum and Stewart, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – yes, those high school years in front of a television may not have been any more wasted than that year when I practically lived at the Clark Theater in Chicago.

  11. I have a large collection of DVDs and watch a classic movie every few days. We have been working on the house for six months and my movie watching has declined but, once things are finally settled, I expect to go back to old habits.

    Today, we are putting in the tile floors in two bedrooms. The tile man should arrive any time. Fortunately, since the bedroom furniture will go on the outside patio, rain is not in the forecast for the first time in 2 weeks. The patio is covered and the furniture will also be covered with a tarp.

  12. What’s the classic WWII movie with the scene where a couple of kids are debating whether the plan bearing down on them is a Stuka or a Messerschmitt? Battle of Britain, maybe?

  13. I agree Private Ryan was mostly dumb, but there was another war movie that year I recall liking a lot more called The Thin Red Line.

    If I had to pick my biggest childhood cinematic wartime influence it was probably not a movie but reruns of the TV show Combat(!). We used to reenact the episodes around the neighborhood. There was a small bridge that crossed a brook/drainage ditch that we constantly blew in order to thwart the feared German counter-offensive.

  14. I finally went back to a movie theatre to see “Wonder Woman” after abstaining for several years. The time before that I was sandwiched between a fat guy who kept rocking his chair and a juvenile who must have kept sucking on the straw in his empty soda glass for a good half an hour. I left well before the movie ended.

  15. Brian – I think that may be John Boorman’s Hope and Glory.
    SB – I linked to the Atonement segment because I think that gave a better notion of the sheer chaos. There are troops doing their methodical duty, some attending a church service — and others just passively or drunkenly waiting for the end. It probably depended on where and what day they arrived on the beach. Some arrived in well-organized sections where the evacuation went as if by clockwork, and some … well, into chaos.

    I did meet a veteran of Dunkirk, on my first trip trip to Britain and Europe. We were doing the back-pack, BritRail/Eurail Pass and youth hostel thing when I was sixteen. We learned very early on that anyone who helped us off with our packs by holding it steady while we wiggled out of the straps had been either a Boy Scout or a soldier. In a train carriage in Britain, an elderly gentleman did just exactly that, for my buddy Esther and I – and when we thanked him for the assistance, he remarked that he had always felt fondly about Americans, since he had been liberated from a POW camp by Patton’s forces, at the end of WWII. My buddy Esther’s dad was a career Army veteran, who had been in Patton’s force — so that was an immediate connection. I asked him where he had been taken captive, and he replied, “Dunkirk.” Which was one of my historical obsessions at the time – and I asked him what unit he had been in. When he replied, I recognized it (Yeah, I was really obsessive about this stuff at the time) and I said, “That was one of the units holding the perimeter!” And he replied, “Well, if I had known that at the time — I would have made Jesse Owens look like a turtle!”

  16. I’m sorry to see so many comments about people refusing to go to the movies. I understand why, but I think you may be missing out. Great example, the movie Lincoln. A terrific movie. I went the first night, and it was jam-packed. I will never forget the silence and the way the adult crowd was transfixed on the part where Lincoln was laying in that bed dying. That moment will stick with me forever, and I would not have understood the gravity of that scene and that movie had I waited for the DVD. And, I love being there when people cheer the sight of Chewbacca, Han Solo, and even the Millineum Falcon.

  17. As I recall, the last time I visited the kinomategraph, they were exhibiting a newsreel announcing the relief of Mafeking.

  18. A good enough movie, but the story of Dunkirk is epic, and this movie was not an epic. Aside from the historical inaccuracies (Spitfire Mk V were not ordered for production until well after the evacuation) and the flat stupid / wrong things (the destroyers anchored (?) offshore, while being attacked, without having steam up / weapons manned (?), etc.

    And what was up with the squaddies standing in formation in the ocean, for hours on end? I know discipline, but even if ordered by some subaltern twit to do that, a NCO should have had more sense.

    Finally, Dunkirk happened just a couple of weeks after Churchill became PM. Imagine what would have happened had the troops not been evacuated, and was forced to step aside: Who would have taken his place?

    The ultimate story of Dunkirk is compelling and as I said, epic. This movie is not that story.

  19. It was one of the better movies I had seen in the last couple of years – the last decent one for me was The Imitation Game.

    I was struck by how little dialogue there was – and the result of that was to me at least me feel that I was a witness – not an audience viewing it.

    Some have claimed that had this been a complete failure Britain would have had to come to accommodation with Hitler – do you believe that to be so?

    I am not so sure.

    One thing for sure – if you are going to see it on an IMAX theater, buy your ticket at least a day in advance so you don’t end up like me – craning my neck ever skyward in the 3rd row looking at the 6 story screen ;-)

    I would recommend the movie. Will probably see it in a conventinal theater tomorrow. Again.

  20. Ginny,

    You might enjoy Five Came Back. It shows how Wyler went from Mrs. Miniver to The Best Years of our Lives. Most impressive was the transition of George Stevens by the discovery of the concentration camps from Gunga Din, Penny Seranade, The More the Merrier to A Place in the Sun, Shane. Giant and The Diary of Ann Frank. More pathos filled, but not pathetic, is Capra’s return to make It’s a Wonderful Life, and how it ended his career. Also covered are John Ford and John Huston. Fascinating stories of how they covered the war and how it affected them afterwards.

  21. Every Sunday in the summer of 1953, on a little farm in South Dakota, I urged my mom to drive home really fast after church, because Oliver tractors was sponsoring “Victory at Sea” on the black and white television. Thus, every Sunday, I got three doses of religion: Lutheran theology, (near) classical music by Richard Rogers, and American greatness.

  22. I saw it too, in Seoul. I liked the attitude but it lacks plot and dramatic development. I know, it was history, but the drowning parts were cheap tricks for tension and thrills, albeit historically realistic. The air battles were the best part.

    The audience in Seoul was also polite and well-mannered, just as they were when I saw “American Sniper” there.

    “Dunkirk” was subtitled in Korean but sometimes I wish the English had American subtitles too!

  23. Good one CapnRusty. I can still greatly enjoy Victory at Sea, The narration is epic and the action real. Being a soldier, I have always had the greatest respect for combat sailors (and flight crews of the air forces). Especially the iron men in wooden ships, but that tradition lived on through the the WW II navies. Das Boot still stirs me deeply as well.


  24. Fighterdoc – the troops really did line up like that and for hours – those at the front of the line up to their chests in water. It was to make an orderly loading of the smaller boats which did come into the beach. It absolutely astounded those rescuers coming in from England for the first time, as it looked at first like long, dark piers, stretching across the sand and into the water. Only whey they came closer, could they see it was four men abreast, in a very tidy formation.

  25. I did not realize that many of the “small ships” simply ferried the soldiers out to waiting ships – thought they all crossed the channel

  26. Maybe on their last trip, Bill – rather than return empty. A great number of small boats were absolutely necessary when it came to evacuating troops from off the beaches. The water is very shallow for a long way out, the harbor was a huge target and terribly dangerous – so the bigger transports stood offshore, and the troops were ferried out to them in boats with a shallow enough draft that they could get close in.

  27. “Wyler went from Mrs. Miniver to The Best Years of our Lives.”

    He was left deaf from filming in the bomb bay of a B 25. That is an excellent book.

  28. The movie is always in the present – there’s no backstory, nobody has to explain to somebody else what’s going on. Nolan squeezed 2 or 3 weeks of Operation Dynamo into 2 or 3 days. And he doesn’t explain anything – even the first caption, “The Mole”, assumes you know that’s the name of the pier, and not a spy. And there’s no scrolling text, at the end, over heroic music, about what happened to the main characters, or what happened next in the War.

    Another military reviewer noted that all the equipment was authentic – the pilot’s oxygen mask, the sound of the German guns were made by actual German guns, etc.

    My only question is about the Spitfires: they call out the fuel in gallons (I assume Imperial gallons…). Today, aircraft fuel is measured in pounds (not English pounds…). I can’t believe Nolan got that wrong… maybe the RAF thought it was better to connect gallons to flight time. Second, the plane runs out of fuel in the air, and then seems to coast for over 10 minutes. Could a Spitfire really hold a controlled glide that long?

  29. A quick look around doesn’t reveal the Spitfire’s glide ratio, but I’d be surprised if it’s more than 15:1. So at 2000 feet, that would give you 30,000 feet horizontally, or about 6 statute miles. Don’t know best-glide speed for this airplane either, but probably 90 mph at least. So at that altitude, you’d get about 4 minutes.

    One thing I wondered about was the low altitude of the operations in the movie. Unless there was a low cloud cover, don’t understand why you’d want to be that low if you were the RAF.

  30. @David I was thinking the same thing watching the movie – thought that was better than a Schweitzer ;-) But then attributed it to “artistic license”.

    I’d love to discuss more but don[‘t wish to be branded a “spoiler”

    But I liked the movie – certainly one of the year’s best…

  31. It’s a minor miracle that there are any Spitfires at all at this date and not at all surprising that there are none from the early models that survived both the war and cannibalization.

    As far as the glide ratio, high performance is not compatible with the sort of aerodynamics that produce good glide ratios. A Spitfire pilot that lost power at low altitude probably had no more than a few seconds to choose between bailing out and riding it to the ground. The possible landing area pretty much limited to whatever was straight ahead and not more than a couple of miles away. The watch word was “crash straight ahead, wings level and aim between the trees”.

    I also haven’t seen a movie in a theater for donkey years. I’m thinking about going to see this if only to encourage the idea of movies without comic book super heroes or vampires, although vampires might be passe by now. Nice chairs and adult beverages sound good but what I really want is a volume control. I find that many years of neglecting hearing protection still hasn’t made me deaf enough to enjoy the average sound track.

  32. Nice review, and enjoyed the commentary.
    I always like to read what those who have experience and expertise have to say.

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