Dunkirk: A Missed Calling

Mark Thomas

Dunkirk, 2017. Directed by Christopher Nolan.

In the opening title card of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan unfolds his prologue: 400,000 people, fleeing a failed Allied attempt to hold out against Hitler’s occupation of France, are stranded on the beach at the edge of a little French seaside town. Some historians speculate that Hitler was in no hurry to send in the Luftwaffe to finish them off because, to his mind, these people were good as dead, trapped between his guns and the sea: fiery doom in front and watery doom behind. He never imagined that the English, rather than seeing themselves as up against a wall, saw the sea as a way out. And no one, neither Hitler nor anyone else, could have predicted that, in the place of the over-taxed English navy would come an armada of tiny civilian vessels manned by ordinary men and women who made the extraordinary choice to set sail for hell to bring their boys home.  

The rescue at Dunkirk became an iconic event for an entire nation, not only because of the success of the rescue, but also because it became the occasion for Winston’s Churchill’s famous declaration: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields, we shall fight in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender.” Churchill ended his rousing call to arms with an appeal to the New World to rise up and rescue the Old World from the forces of tyranny, which call was eventually heeded, meaning that Dunkirk is an event that arguably changed the world.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has provoked two sorts of reactions among those with long-standing devotion to Dunkirk’s world-historical significance. On the one hand, there are those who are grateful for this intimate portrayal of both the soldiers’ struggle for survival and of the heroism of those who served and sacrificed that day: the nurses who went down with their patients on sunken naval vessels; civilian sailors like Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who braved enemy fire and fished men out of oily, fiery waters; officers like Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) who kept his post overseeing the evacuation to the end, a beacon of hope and even cheer in the midst of profound darkness; Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) who with unwavering courage and dedication refused to give up the pursuit of a deadly German bomber despite the fact that, at any moment, his plane might run out of fuel.

On the other hand, there are those who are disappointed that Nolan’s film failed to capture the full scope of the actual event. At the actual Dunkirk, there were hundreds of battles in the air, whereas Nolan shows us only a few planes engaged in combat. There were also more civilian boats, and more men on the beach, than Nolan portrays. Nor does the film explore any of the events preceding and surrounding the rescue at Dunkirk which made that rescue possible (e.g., the delay in Hitler’s kill order).

One answer that Nolan has given to these critics is that he would have had to make use of CGI (computer-generated imagery) in order to have treated viewers to the full scope of the massive undertaking at Dunkirk: because he wished to convey the reality of Dunkirk as vividly as possible, he confined himself as far as possible to photographing real planes, real boats, real people. But the principal defense that Nolan has offered for his version of the rescue at Dunkirk is that he was not setting out to make a “war film,” but rather a film about survival. And there are certainly defensible artistic reasons for making such a choice. We can all relate to the struggle to survive. Few of us are free from any threat to our physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. One of the taglines used to market Dunkirk was “survival is victory.” I am reminded here of the scene in which Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the young man whose struggle we have followed most closely through the course of the film, is handed a sandwich before getting on the train for home by an old vet whose apostolate is handing out sandwiches to the returning troops and telling them, “Well done. Well done.”  “But all we did was survive,” Tommy demurs. “Well done,” repeats the wise old man. It is a deeply touching scene, for it is all too true that, for many of us, merely surviving the things in life that threaten to take us down—abuse, pain, mental illness, poverty, addiction—is the only victory we will ever win. Never mind honor, never mind glory—or even recognition. 

But for me, Nolan’s answers only raise more questions. If his aim was to make a film about survival, could he not have shown us just a little more of what had to be survived at Dunkirk? I’m not a big fan of heavy reliance on CGI, but there are definitely occasions that warrant using it judiciously. Would it really have been so offensive to dot the sky with a few dozen digital suggestions of planes engaged in combat? How about even just a few more real-life planes strafing the beaches with machine gun fire as well as dropping bombs? People have expressed their gratitude that Dunkirk is not “war porn,” does not indulge in explicit imagery of bodies blown to bits and such. But this film seems to go too far in the opposite direction: It is more like a vague dream about war in which only a few bombs are dropped and there are only about a half-dozen planes in the air. I went into the film expecting, even looking to be overwhelmed with the impossibility of life in this world. I left feeling a bit like I felt at the end of Interstellar: strangely detached from life, as one might feel after listening to a physicist give a lecture on how everything is relative and how reality isn’t really real. Perhaps that’s because there’s something a bit unreal about Dunkirk.

Dunkirk’s achievement perhaps consists in being more “up-close and personal” a view of the hell of war than most war films: not a hell of fire and blood, but the hell of living in fear. Indeed one might say that Dunkirk is, in the main, one long nightmare of death and fear with undertones of vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas. And yet despite all this death and fear, not once in Dunkirk do we see or hear anyone—no one under fire, no one going underwater, no one waiting for the arrival of the next bomber—who looks to heaven or cries out to God. (The fact that soldiers very often do is the reason for the saying “There are no atheists in foxholes.”) I’m no moralistic score-keeper, but the fact that in Dunkirk we make it all the way through hell without a single soul asking for help from heaven was, to me, like an RAF composed of three planes, a bit off. Another strain of un-reality in the midst of this herculean attempt at verisimilitude. 

Maybe it was the film’s prologue, which described the men and women at Dunkirk as “waiting for a miracle,” which was the source of my expectation that I would run into a believer or two on the beach. Then again, might this omission have been more than just a hiccup?  Might it have some deeper connection to Nolan’s choice not to tell the story (or give us any indication) of the many “miracles” at Dunkirk, like the civilian vessel that bested a German plane in air-to-sea combat? Of course the greatest “miracle” of Dunkirk is Dunkirk itself; the mere 35,000 lost that day is reminiscent of Henry V’s stunningly small losses at Agincourt. Even the embarrassing retreat Churchill lamented gave him an army with which to fight another day. Truly, the day at Dunkirk belonged not to death, but to life. Even the atheist in us has to concede that.

Yes, Nolan had the right to choose not to make a “war film.” But the thing about art (if Flannery O’Connor is to be heeded here) is that the artist’s vocation is to present reality, to present life, faithfully. This does not mean that the artist has to be “balanced” in his portrayal of good and bad, beauty and ugliness, victory and defeat, belief and unbelief, prayers answered and unanswered. Because life itself is not so balanced. Dunkirk, for example, was a day in which grace actually abounded more. And so it seems that an artist, in making a work of art that claims to re-present Dunkirk, has a calling to be faithful to the reality in question. It does not seem to this writer that Nolan has fulfilled that calling with Dunkirk.

Mark Thomas is a screenwriter, filmmaker and film critic living in upstate New York and haunting southern California.