By Tommy Hough
From The Bridge On the River Kwai to A Bridge Too Far, the British have a fondness for their disasters when it comes to war movies. That fondness never quite became part of the American DNA, and perhaps it's a kind of national maturity that Great Britain long ago arrived at, which countries like the United States – a comparatively "moody teenager" among nations at 241 years old – still haven't been able to embrace in themselves.
Perhaps a part of that maturity is taking defeats and disasters and finding the lessons and heroism in what are otherwise dark and desperate hours. And as vividly illustrated in Christopher Nolan's new movie Dunkirk, there's also the characteristic British quality of quietly enduring in the face of despair, tragedy and rotten luck.
Dunkirk was a military disaster in that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), sent to France at the outset of World War II in Sept. 1939, was forced to retreat from the Germans nine months later in the spring of 1940 in a humiliating rout. As a final insult, British forces were forced to leave all of their artillery, tanks, heavy guns and equipment on the beach in France in order to save themselves.
The Germans, already aware of the general Allied strategy, designed their invasion of Holland and Belgium in May 1940 to also serve as a trap for the BEF and the French. It worked perfectly. When the Germans attacked, the BEF and three of the best French armies moved north to fight to fight the Wehrmacht in Belgium – just as the Germans expected them to.
While Holland and Belgium were important to Hitler, it was also something of a decoy. The main thrust of the German offensive was to conquer France, and it came several days later through the hilly, forested region of the Ardennes along the Belgian-French border to the south – an area naively thought to be impassable by French commanders who still thought in terms of static World War I battles. The Germans, however, came fighting the mobile, Blitzkrieg war of 1940.
The effect was shattering. The Germans quickly took Sedan and crossed the Meuse River – something they'd never been able to accomplish in four years of fighting in World War I – and made a beeline for the sea at the English Channel, cutting off the BEF and French armies to the north from the weaker armies in the south, which had been left to guard Paris.
French leadership, immersed in political power struggles instead of focusing on a strategy beyond their Maginot Line fortifications, exacerbated the problem. As chaos reigned in Paris, German forces moved in to annihilate the trapped British and French armies in the north. They nearly succeeded.
The result was a decision by the British high command to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force, understanding that once France fell, England would be next on Hitler's invasion list. Great Britain needed its army back – they would soon be fighting Hitler alone (the Soviet Union and United States wouldn’t enter the war until the following year). Ultimately, Britain also evacuated thousands of trapped French and Belgian soldiers.
In a modern miracle, dozens of commercial transports, along with a flotilla of thousands of so-called "little ships" made up of fishing vessels, trawlers, yachts and other pleasure craft steamed across the English Channel to the besieged French port to rescue their army. The British were reluctant to commit the bulk of the Royal Navy to the rescue, in part because they needed to conserve their resources to defend the home islands, and because smaller boats were less likely to be attacked by enemy submarines and aircraft – a point illustrated early in the Dunkirk operation in several calamitous sinkings. Those rescues and the risks at sea make up one portion of Dunkirk, which opens in theaters this weekend.
In the film, Nolan introduces us to mostly unnamed characters in the air, on the sea, and on the beach, sometimes finding their way onto ships, only to have them torpedoed out from under them and ending up on the same beach again. A minimum of dialogue is used, with a persistent, pulsating score that ratchets the tension to unbearable levels and highlights the episodic dilemmas on-screen. Several audience members near my wife and I were visibly fidgeting in their seats with anxiety during these intense scenes.
This isn't like any war film you've seen. The closest approximation may 1998's The Thin Red Line, except there is never a dull moment in this briskly-paced film. Like other Christopher Nolan efforts, the narrative has an elastic, non-linear quality, as the different air, sea and beach scenes often land at different points along the film's timeline. It's an effective device that worked in Nolan's Memento, as well as Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and it punctuates the disorienting situations the characters find themselves in.
The film is also a sensory experience. The IMAX photography is incredible and the sound design is a revelation. The gunshots are jarring and ear-splittingly loud, the soundtrack works in relation to the sense of space on the screen, and the scenes of Stuka dive bombers swooping down upon ships and men are made even more excruciating – as they certainly would’ve been in 1940 – by the use of sound (the Germans fitted Stuka aircraft with sirens intended to terrify those on the ground).
The aerial scenes involving Tom Hardy's cool, professional RAF pilot who has to constantly gauge the gasoline supply in his Spitfire are like nothing you've seen. You immediately get some idea of how difficult it would've been to fly these airplanes and engage in air-to-air combat against equally resourceful and well-trained Luftwaffe pilots, flying equally state-of-the-art Messerschmitt ME-109s.
Keep in mind too, there's no CGI used in this movie – those are real ships sinking on-screen, real stunts, and real aircraft. That the filmmakers were able to get their hands on working Supermarine Spitfires over 70 years after the end of World War II is impressive. For war movie fans, it's akin to the production team of 2014's Fury getting a still-working, albeit restored German Tiger tank on-screen.
Incredibly, the filmmakers also found working versions of the Heinkel-111 bomber and Messershmitt ME-109 fighters. While almost all of those original German-operated aircraft were destroyed during and after the war, the production team located several models that had been built under contract in Nazi-allied Spain during the 1940s, but with generally unseen engine and structural modifications added by Spanish engineers.
The lasting effect of this surprisingly quick movie (one hour, 40 minutes) is of tired soldiers on the beach, patiently waiting to go home, who are also irritable and quick to turn on each other when they've had enough. This leads to several small-scale scenarios that quickly escalate, highlighting what Oliver Stone called the "dog tired, don't-give-a-damn" attitude of sleep-deprived infantrymen who are still 19-year old kids armed with the power of life and death – and conditioned by combat not to play nice.
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.