It takes vision to make a film like Dunkirk. First and foremost, it’s a film about war–the early stages of WWII–and war has millions of moving components: soldiers, weapons, ammunition, tanks, warships, planes. Another key factor of war is Geography, and writer-director Christopher Nolan had his hands full grappling with the logistics of portraying 400,000 troops stranded on a beach in France as the Germans close in for the kill.
Christopher Nolan is a Brit. It’s important to note he was born and educated in England, even though he made his name in Hollywood and enjoys dual citizenship thanks to his American mother. Every school child in Great Britain knows the significance of Dunkirk. Operation Dynamo, as the Dunkirk evacuation was called, was the starting point–the first brushstroke on a massive painting depicting Good vs. Evil. Soldiers stranded in Dunkirk did in fact die or get left behind, but more than 338,000 men made it across the English Channel to safety, thanks to the armada of “little ships” that came to their rescue–many of them owned and manned by ordinary English citizens.
England and France had declared war on Nazi Germany the previous fall, following the surprise invasion of Poland. Operation Dynamo began on May 26, 1940, and concluded June 4th, when the last of the 700+ ships made it across the water to England. Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it “a miracle of deliverance.” Churchill went on to say, “Wars are not won on evacuations.” Buoyed by the success of Dunkirk, Great Britain regrouped. The machinery of war they’d lost at Dunkirk was replaced. When the Germans attacked England by air the following month, the Brits were prepared. No man is an island, even if his country is. The Battle of Britain lasted for three months, and the Brits won that battle, which meant the country didn’t fall to Nazi Germany (as France did, weeks after Dunkirk). The British lived to fight another day, and another, and another–and work on enlisting help from the Americans.
“The Dunkirk Spirit”: a willingness by a group of people who are in a bad situation to all help each other.–The Cambridge Dictionary
As an American, I learned about Dunkirk in school, but I remember it as a short paragraph that became fuzzy over time. Heading into the movie was the first time I began to wonder about the name. Dunkirk? It doesn’t sound French at all. You may already know the answer, but it took me decades to learn that Dunkirk is the English spelling. Dunkerque is the name of the port city in France where those 400,000 soldiers were stranded. A majority of them were British; a good many were French; others were from neighboring countries or beyond. The English claimed it–that patch of foreign soil was embedded with their blood, sweat and ingenuity. I imagine that’s how Dunkerque became Dunkirk in the collective consciousness.
Dunkirk is a movie of few words, but the magnitude of the operation is never in doubt, nor is the personal cost–the soldiers who didn’t make it out and the ones who sacrificed their lives for the cause. We see bombs destroying warships in the harbor. We see long lines of men in shoulder-high water, waiting/hoping to be rescued. We see men packed like matchsticks onto a long wooden pier, waiting for rescue before German aircraft can mow them down. And, within the Big Picture, we see brushstrokes of three personal stories:
- An anonymous soldier making his way from beach to pier to ship to certain death to unexpected salvation
- A father and teenage son sailing for Dunkirk in their small yacht–they will experience tragedy and triumph
- Three British spitfire pilots shooting down German aircraft to protect the “little ships” and the sitting-duck soldiers they hope to evacuate; the operation ends well but they do not
In an interview with TIME magazine last month, director Nolan lamented what he sees as too much emphasis on the individual in modern society, as opposed to the communal miracle of Dunkirk. “The idea of communal responsibility and communal heroism is being lost.”
“We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in fields and in the streets; we shall fight on the hills; we shall never surrender. . .” Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940 to the House of Commons
It strikes me that we Americans have just experienced our own “Dunkirk Spirit” moment. Last week the Senate voted in three different ways to repeal our existing healthcare act. All were defeated–and not because our healthcare system isn’t flawed. It’s because too many millions of people would have lost insurance coverage. Americans banded together and showed up at town hall meetings, legislators’ offices and in Washington; they wrote their Senators and Congressmen; and some brave women and men in the Senate–most notably John McCain, just out of surgery and diagnosed with brain cancer–stood apart from their colleagues and said, no, this isn’t right. Now, finally, Congress says it wants to approach healthcare together–not as two separate and warring parties.
After experiencing Christopher Nolan’s remarkable film, I’ve joined the ranks of ordinary people–albeit on the other side of the Atlantic–who will never forget the name Dunkirk or what it stands for. Helping other people. Digging deeper for courage. Keeping my eye on the Big Picture.