Christopher Nolan’s war saga, “Dunkirk,” is about a chaotic evacuation from Dunkirk, a community 6.2 miles from the Belgian border in the north of France.
The evacuation, Operation Dynamo, took place between 26 May and 4 June in 1940. The US had yet to enter the war; that wouldn’t happen until December 1941. The British and French troops were surrounded by German troops in what the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would call “a colossal military disaster.” The whole of the British Army was stranded.
The UK had declared war on Nazi Germany after it invaded Poland in September of 1939. But Germany didn’t stop there, invading Czechoslovakia (1939), Denmark (9 April 1940) and Norway (9 April 1940). This rapid progress alarmed the UK enough that there was a loss of confidence in then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Germany invades Belgium and Netherlands on the 10th of May in 1940, the very day that Winston Churchill takes over for Chamberlain as prime minister. Churchill had been vociferous in his warnings against the rise of Hitler while Chamberlain and his followers thought Hitler could be pacified and peace could be maintained.
“Dunkirk” isn’t about Churchill and the power struggles taking place in the House of Commons. For that side of the war, you’ll have to see “The Darkest Hour.” Instead, with little dialogue, Nolan’s “Dunkirk” looks at the battle from the air, land and sea, mostly through the eyes of the common man.
A young British private, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), is the only member of his troop to survive a German ambush. Hurrying toward Dunkirk, he meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), who is burying another soldier. Together, they find a wounded man and putting the man on a stretcher, they attempt to board an evacuation hospital ship, but are turned away. Although disheartened, Tommy and Gibson see the ship sunk. They attempt to find other ways to evacuate. Tommy saves a soldier named Alex (singer Harry Styles). All three, Alex, Tommy and Gibson board a destroyer, but when it is hit and sinks, Gibson saves both Tommy and Alex. They again remain on Dunkirk, eventually falling in with Scottish soldiers but one of the threesome has a secret.
A father and son, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), respond to the Royal Navy’s requisition of civilian vessels by setting out for Dunkirk on Moonstone. Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) joins them despite Mr. Dawson’s misgivings. Their first rescue is a shell-shocked officer who survived the sinking of his ship, but panics when he realizes the Moonstone is heading toward and not away from Dunkirk.
The pilots of three Spitfires head toward France, but the leader is shot down. While the remaining two are able to save a minesweeper from a German bomber, one of the Spitfires has been hit and the pilot, Collins (Jack Lowden), parachutes out and is rescued by the Moonstone. Farrier (Tom Hardy), the remaining pilot, continues on to Dunkirk.
Not everyone will survive, and not everyone, like Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) will evacuate (Bolton, the pier-master during the evacuation, stays on for the evacuation of the French rearguard), but Nolan makes you feel the plight of the common man and their desperation, how even allies become selfish in an every-man-for-himself quest to survive. The movie ends with one of the character’s reading Churchill’s “This is their finest hour” speech in a newspaper. A movie on that, “The Darkest Hour” makes a perfect pairing with “Dunkirk.”