"All We Did Was Survive"
Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk
Charles Andrews

Visitors to England’s Dover Castle may experience historical whiplash. Not only is the castle itself surprising, with its brightly colored interior meant to replicate an original paint scheme rather than the drab preservations we expect at such sites, but also, the castle grounds boast additional museums that commemorate later centuries when the site was used as a defensive outpost.  English Heritage, the agency responsible for preserving and promoting locations like this throughout England, has transformed an underground lair near the castle into an immersive, interactive, multimedia “experience” that recreates the brain center of Operation Dynamo, the 1940 evacuation in which British military and civilians ferried hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers facing certain death or capture in Dunkirk, France, across the channel to safety in England. For a few quid—group rates available!—tourists can go below ground, stand in the very tunnels where Dynamo was planned, hear vintage BBC radio clips in accents posher than the Queen’s, look at some real desks where men planned the escape, and finally emerge into a gift shop selling coffee mugs emblazoned with Churchill’s head and “Keep Calm” T-shirts. All items bear the English Heritage logo, and proceeds help support the restoration of additional sites. For educational purposes, naturally.

The recent film Dunkirk, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is a similarly compelling piece of historical propaganda—no travel to southeast England needed. Taut and tense with virtually no letup in suspense across its 106-minute running time, Dunkirk strives every bit as hard as English Heritage to create an immersive experience, even for viewers who do not opt for the IMAX version. Nearly every frame is packed with urgency, and its fervid camerawork puts us smack into the action—in a shaky Spitfire during a dogfight, on a “little ship” during an oil fire, under many capsizing vessels as men thrash for air. It is very much history as rollercoaster, bolstered on either end by lightly informative intertitles about the evacuation and its aftermath. And, for good measure, a few decent slugs of heart-stirring patriotism evoking both civic virtue and pathos.

If this combination of summer blockbuster thrills and pious nationalism, alluring audiences with excitement-plus-enrichment, sounds a bit like the cinematic realm of Steven Spielberg, you would not be far off. With Dunkirk, Nolan seemingly makes his bid for becoming the English Spielberg, parlaying his success with big-budget properties such as the Dark Knight trilogy into the Spielbergian territory of weepy sci-fi like Interstellar (2014) and, now, a period piece with ambitions as a national epic. Nolan’s take on the Dunkirk evacuation plays like a feature-length version of Spielberg’s famous D-Day landing sequence from the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, full of visceral shocks and virtuosic camera movement. And, like Spielberg, Nolan creates an aura of reverence around images of valiant men in uniform, defending the nation.

dunkirkWhere Dunkirk differs significantly from the Spielberg formula is its relative lack of plot, at least as plotting is typically handled by Hollywood storytellers. (During production, Nolan even flirted with eliminating a script altogether and letting the action set pieces speak for themselves.) The film concentrates on four key areas of the operation: English troops escaping the northern French city of Dunkirk using every possible vehicle and route; Royal Air Force pilots engaged in aerial combat as they zip above the fracas; a sagacious commander (Kenneth Branagh) on a pier coordinating the escape; and, most heroically, civilian boatmen rescuing the stranded. These main areas flow together in clever and sometimes surprising ways, as characters from one area emerge in another, revealing that events we thought were sequential were actually simultaneous. Nifty tricks with chronology abound in Dunkirk despite its basically linear course, and this playfulness with time is especially characteristic of Nolan’s style, reminiscent of his temporal hijinks in The Prestige (2006) and Inception (2010). Trusting his audience not to be confused, or at least to be okay with some confusion, puts him in a different league than Spielberg, who always keeps a heavy hand on his audience’s feelings.

Most un-Spielbergian of all is Nolan’s avoidance of a love story or other conventional route to a final resolution. After the famous opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan, that film
spent its remaining three quarters unspooling a cliché-filled hero’s quest. By contrast, Dunkirk stays focused on the central action, delivering just enough background for its many characters to keep us emotionally engaged, but never cutting to flashbacks or deviating much from its urgent present tense. I could imagine some viewers finding this minimalism off-putting, and, indeed, there are no major female characters to speak of, which might limit its appeal, but I appreciated Nolan’s willingness to stick close to the main event without veering off into any storylines geared to satisfy test audiences.

Perhaps because of the unrelenting suspense sustained throughout most of the film, its few moments of emotional grandeur are particularly noticeable. The arrival of a civilian fleet of rescue boats bobbing on the horizon gets a swelling musical underscore that slightly overplays what is already a very affecting image. This hodgepodge flotilla—with its flapping Union Jack flags and crusty old salts at the helm—rallying to aid the otherwise doomed troops is a stirring display of civilian defense. And, in a more understated scene near the film’s end, the rescued men pass by villagers in Kent who hand them blankets and soup. One elderly man congratulates a soldier who responds that he deserves no cheers, because “All I did was survive.” The other man nods, and replies, “That is enough.” This small grace may be the film’s shining moment, and I would suggest that it functions as its thesis. A voiceover from Churchill announces that though he is glad so many men lived, the Dunkirk operation was a retreat, not a victory, and “wars are not won by evacuations.” Dunkirk’s rejoinder might be that while Churchill is correct according to strict military strategy, in human terms this successful retreat was enough.

In its ambition and subject matter, if not its particular style, Dunkirk should take its place alongside the classic World War II epics that studios churned out in the decades following the war. Star-studded fare such as The Longest Day (1962), Battle of Britain (1969), Midway (1976), and A Bridge Too Far (1977) capitalized on our seemingly boundless fascination with World War II stories plus a military-grade deployment of famous actors. There is certainly a charm to this style, but the fleet-of-stars approach can also be distracting, a disruption to the purported realism of the piece. Dunkirk runs this risk somewhat. Branagh’s turn is a bit stagey, and Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked captain occasionally seems like bravado acting rather than the documentary portrait the film aspires to. Tom Hardy’s face is mostly obscured by his RAF mask, a device Nolan also used with Hardy’s Bain in The Dark Knight Rises, a trick that helps keep us focused on character over movie star. Former One Direction teen idol Harry Styles makes his big screen debut in a perfectly serviceable performance, and Mark Rylance plays a central role as captain of the Moonstone, one of the civilian “little ships” whose name nods to the popular Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins. Overall, though, Dunkirk avoids entirely devolving into the ensemble casting game of spot-that-actor that plagues the war epics of the 1960s and 1970s. Its pacing and surprising minimalism make it unique among such epics; despite an enormous budget and cast, Dunkirk feels refreshingly restrained.  

This restraint, and its message of heroic stick-to-itiveness, praising mere survival rather than grandiose exploits, will keep the film an intriguing anomaly in the war-epic pantheon. The older epics often make their stories clearly celebratory in a mode stretching back at least as far as Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854), a poem that renders in heroic verse a British military debacle during the Crimean War. Something of this mentality persists in Dunkirk, but its tone is more complex than, for instance, the quintessential British propaganda film London Can Take It! (1940) that portrayed the indomitable English spirit repelling bombshells during the Blitz. The men who survive the evacuation are brave and determined, but they also bear survivors’ guilt. Their mixed emotions chasten the triumph of the film’s ending, which alludes to several more years of warfare yet to come. The outlook is bleak, but tinged with hope because this incredible trial is over. Survival, in Dunkirk, is not everything—but it may be enough.


Charles Andrews is an associate professor of English at Whitworth University.

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