In a summer of box office disappointments, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was an unexpected hit, since nobody thought that an epic film about the evacuation of British troops from Europe in the early days of World War II would be much more than a money-losing Oscar contender, meant to open deep in autumn.
This would be the popular image of what was known as the “miracle of Dunkirk,” where the line between soldiers and citizens was erased just before the nation would fight for its survival during the Battle of Britain, joined together with the bonds of “Dunkirk Spirit.” It was revisited again in 1958 with the Ealing Studios film Dunkirk, which told the story of the evacuation in more rigorous detail, foregrounded with the usual scenes of generals talking in front of maps.
The Ealing film was made for audiences who had adult memories of Dunkirk, though it’s still a very British telling – tentatively heroic and careful to show characters suffering from self-interest, doubt, and cowardice. It’s the same sort of grimness and mild masochism that you find in British war film of the same period, like The Cruel Sea and Ice Cold in Alex.
The generation that lived through World War II is dwindling today, and veterans of Dunkirk are in their 90s, so Nolan’s film, coming 50 years after the Ealing version, is understandably very different. Set on land, sea, and air, and with a plot that, typical of the director of films like Momento and Inception, twists back on itself like a cat’s cradle, Nolan’s Dunkirk is an experience first and history second.
There are no generals pointing at maps and the enemy is barely seen except for the German planes that appear suddenly in the sky to strafe and bomb mostly defenceless soldiers and boats. Nolan follows around a small group of characters in a vast landscape filled with people. He made the film on the actual beaches where the evacuation took place and filled it, practically or digitally, with thousands of soldiers. In the air he made sure he had a trio of Spitfires true to the period and on the sea there are actual boats that crossed the channel in 1940.
Nolan’s camera jumps back and forth in time, catching the same moment over and over, seen from the cockpit of a plane, the deck of a boat and from soldiers struggling in the water. He makes the concept of the “fog of war” more keenly felt than any other war film I can remember, where nobody has any idea of a bigger picture than what they can see with their own eyes. It’s a fantastic bit of filmmaking, and it’s bitterly telling that it was made now, at a time when we’ve never had more access to information, albeit with a wholesale absence of reliability or honest interpretation.
In a companion book to the film, military historian Joshua Levine writes that Dunkirk is “a cultural event, an icon, whose significance has changed over the last 77 years as society has changed. And we are now approaching the point where Dunkirk turns from living memory into history. Soon there will be nobody left who can tell us what it was really like. The politicians, historians, and journalists will be able to invoke the story completely freely, whether to confirm a prejudice, further a career, or present it truthfully for its own sake.”
At the end of the film, the soldiers who make it off the beaches finally reach England, some of them ashamed at their defeat and expecting a hostile reception. Instead, they’re met with a public that acclaims them as heroes though, having merely survived, they hardly feel heroic. In hindsight, it’s hard not to imagine that some of this public generosity came from realizing that, in a short while, soldiers and civilians would be fighting and dying together.
An audience watching Dunkirk today might marvel at the social unity they see here. I know that, 16 years after 9/11, I never would have imagined the cultural and political divisions we live with today. Whether this sustaining eruption of “Dunkirk spirit” was real or not, it’s obvious that our own political and social polarization is something that no one alive then could have imagined.
A Dunkirk today would be livestreamed and endlessly reposted on social media, and while we might be able to follow the disaster in nearly real time, our responses to it are endlessly filtered through ideology and bias. Our leaders carefully choose their response based on how it will damage their opposite numbers, while the public either joins a cheering section or – an option growing in popularity – turns away in disgust, overwhelmed not just by once-scarce information but by their access to the thoughts and actions of their fellow citizenry.
Perhaps this is the key to Dunkirk’s unlikely success. Nolan’s film, while apparently a war movie based on actual history, actually plays on the screens of our minds like a fantasy.