For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with World War II. I’m reasonably sure I read every book on the war in the library of every school I attended. Some of them multiple times! The aviation of World War II has always been my focus, but I find it all interesting. I suppose it is just natural for me to love World War II movies! I grew up watching the likes of John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Lee Marvin save the world from the dastardly Nazis and Japanese and preserve democracy for us all. Those movies were great, full of patriotic themes and unbridled pride in America and the American soldier. In my opinion, the release of Saving Private Ryan in 1998 changed the war movie genre. This movie certainly had its moments of pure I-love-America goodness, but it made the soldiers human. It showed you their stress and their fear. It showed you the moral dilemmas faced by soldiers in combat, who often had to make agonizing decisions as they tried to survive on the battlefield. It was emotional, gritty, and at times, hard to watch. In my opinion, Saving Private Ryan is the pinnacle of the World War II movie. It was soon followed by Band of Brothers and The Pacific, both epic series which further humanized our heroes, making them that much more heroic.
Dunkirk is the newest movie set during World War II. It is a different sort of movie. The movie is set during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France in late May and early June 1940. Over 300,000 British and Allied troops were pushed to the French port town of Dunkirk by the advancing German army. Boats ranging from Royal Navy destroyers to private fishing vessels were used to pull the troops off the beach and the breakwaters at Dunkirk to transport them back to England. The troops were subjected to constant air raids by the Luftwaffe while totally exposed on the beach or crammed onto the decks of ships. It was a desperate time, and it is no stretch to say had the Germans been able to wipe out the British, the war in Europe would have turned out differently.
The film focuses on three separate groups of people over different, but converging, periods of time. A pair of soldiers trapped on the beach are the central characters. Over the course of a week, it follows their herculean efforts to get on a boat and survive. In order to get as many men off the beach as quickly as possible, the British government put out a call for civilian boat owners to travel across the English Channel and pick up as many as possible. Dunkirk features the owner of a small yacht as he and his son make their way toward Dunkirk over the course of one day. The third set of characters are two Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots who are trying to protect the ships in the harbor and the men on the beach. Their story covers one hour. The non-linear timeline takes a bit to grasp, but it plays out well and comes together nicely in the end.
I won’t go into specific scenes as I’m sure many of you have yet to see the movie. I don’t want to be the spoiler! I will tell you, however, there were numerous times when I found myself holding my breath! The movie is tense throughout, but that is appropriate and accurate. Put yourself in the boots of a young British soldier at Dunkirk. You’ve been beaten back by the German army, which seemed unstoppable at that point in time. You’re hungry, exhausted, and stuck on a beach in full view of marauding Luftwaffe bombers. You expect the Germans to arrive at any time. Your only hope of seeing home again is getting on a ship or a boat which could still be sunk by a u-boat or bomber. The movie captures that stress as much as any movie could. The soundtrack plays a large part in conveying the tension, both with music and sound effects. At times, the music is a heart beat. At other times, it is a clock ticking. It is always effective. The terrifying shriek of the siren on the Stuka dive bomber added a satisfying realism and convinced me that the director and his staff did their homework.
This brings me to the technical aspects of the movie. One of the things I really hate is when the wrong equipment and machines are used for a movie set at a specific time. It would be like watching a western with the hero carrying the latest polymer frame semi auto pistol! Anachronisms make it very hard for me to enjoy a movie. Dunkirk avoided this as near as I can tell. I’m no expert on early war British equipment, but they were all shown carrying proper Enfield rifles, their helmets were correct, and their kits at least looked appropriate. Another thing which displeases me is when aircraft are portrayed breaking the laws of physics. High performance aircraft such as the British Spitfire were capable of amazing things in the hands of a skilled pilot, but some things are just not possible. For example, watch Red Tails sometime (if you can stand it) and you’ll see what I mean. In contrast, the flight sequences in Dunkirk were extremely well done. It appeared they were able to use real aircraft rather than computer generated ones. I suppose it is harder to make a real aircraft do impossible things than a computer generated one!
As you have probably determined by now, I think Dunkirk is an excellent movie. It is entertaining, compelling, and tells the story of human beings doing heroic things. The characters are not flawless or larger than life, but they are relatable and believable. Given the political climate in Hollywood these days, I am always concerned when a new war movie comes out. There was no need to worry about Dunkirk. It tells the story with obvious respect for those who were there. I detected no effort to revise the history or insert any particular agenda, which is as it should be. If you are a fan of war movies in general, you will definitely like this movie. Even if you’re not, you will still enjoy it. Go see it on the big screen. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!