With the release of the Blu-Ray and availability on iTunes imminent, we thought it appropriate to share the Ole’ Salty Dawg’s opinion of the movie Dunkirk. Read on. Mad Duo
Dunkirk: An Actual Honest War Movie
When I was in Kosovo I worked with a lot of Brits, and there was much good-natured ribbing between us. One Brit kept calling Americans “colonials,” and one of my British coworkers once tried to insult me with “You Yanks showed up a little late to World War II, didn’t you?” I responded, “Yeah, but fortunately for you we did show up.” Later I hit back at an anti-American insult by reminding a British friend that their proudest military accomplishment was a massive retreat.
A few months back the story of that massive retreat finally hit theaters. Dunkirk isn’t a war epic in the same class as Saving Private Ryan or Fury, but that’s okay. Dunkirk has a strength that too many modern war movies lack, and in an important way it’s better.
Dunkirk is the brainchild of British-American director Christopher Nolan, who first got the idea for the movie decades ago during a visit to the Dunkirk evacuation beach. He eventually chose to make a movie with three perspectives: a British soldier awaiting rescue, two Spitfire pilots, and a British civilian piloting one of the small pleasure boats that sailed across the channel to take trapped troops off the beach and return them to England. The plot is non-linear, something I didn’t figure out until about halfway through the movie; each perspective unfolds at a different speed than the others, eventually converging in one hell of a climax.
The first protagonist, a young, inexperienced soldier desperately trying to find a way off the beach onto a boat, is maybe the most surprising. In an age of Lone Survivors and American Snipers, he’s the opposite of a Recon Team Delta space shuttle door gunner killing millions of enemy with backflipping hatchet attacks. He barely speaks, doesn’t do anything especially brave, and spends most of the movie acting like a member of the E-4 mafia trying to avoid a working party. I still have no idea what his name is, and it doesn’t matter. His name is every British soldier who stood on Dunkirk beach, or fought in North Africa, or landed in Normandy on D-Day.
The Spitfire pilots are, of course, brave and glamorous, just like Spitfire pilots were in real life. But Dunkirk doesn’t portray them as invincible heroes. It shows them struggling against the enemy, fighting equipment failures, trying to calculate fuel usage versus distance versus mission requirements, and just generally doing their best in a near-impossible situation. I only figured out one of their names, and again, it doesn’t matter.
As a side note, real Spitfires and a close relative of an ME-109 were used in the movie, along with aircraft mockups and remote control He-111s and Stukas. Very little CGI was employed, and the aerial combat scenes were shot with regular old cameras mounted to the aircraft or onto chase aircraft. Those scenes are dramatic, intense, and realistic. There was a little air-combat goofiness near the end, but it’s forgivable.
But Mr. Dawson, the man piloting the small civilian craft, is almost Dunkirk’s most important character. The British army was saved from annihilation at Dunkirk by a combined fleet of military and civilian ships, and the civilians who volunteered to risk their lives and craft deserve every bit of recognition we can give them. Dawson represented the rock-solid support the British public gave its troops, at a time when they needed it most. He was memorable, he was heroic, he was far more invested in the war than I initially thought, and most importantly he was believable.
Mr. Dawson, with a not-very-heroic rescued British soldier
And as another side note, some real World War II naval vessels were painted up in WW2 British Royal Navy disguises for the movie. Nolan also used – and this is really cool – some of the actual civilian craft that evacuated troops from Dunkirk.
Photo credit cinetropolis.com
As far as historical accuracy, Dunkirk seems to have gotten most of it right. The uniforms, gear and weapons are correct, as are details like “the Mole,” the jetty where tens of thousands of troops lined up to board larger ships. The French are subtly given credit for maintaining a perimeter so the British could evacuate, the British aren’t shown as especially concerned about the French (at first, anyway), and the helplessness of the soldiers against terror-inducing Stuka dive bombers really comes across. Although it’s frustrating for veterans to watch, the inexperience and bad decisions by some troops is also accurately portrayed. In a surprising but classy move, Churchill’s gentle reminder that “wars are not won by evacuations” is included.
Movie scene of an air strike on “the Mole” above an actual photo of British troops under air attack at Dunkirk.
One of the most poignant scenes shows silent, impassive troops watching a forlorn British soldier abandon his weapon and gear as he plods toward the surf and dives in, in what was basically a suicidal attempt to swim the channel. Director Chris Nolan added that scene because Dunkirk survivors told him they saw men try it.
That’s not to say Dunkirk got everything perfect. Soldiers usually don’t run in a straight line instead of going around corners when a machine gun opens up on them. A bomber won’t maintain a slow, predictable course during a bomb run if a fighter attacks it. Soldiers don’t abandon their rifles and not bother to pick up a replacement. And…actually, that was pretty much it. I walked out of Dunkirk with the impression that its minor flaws were either honest mistakes made by filmmakers doing their best to stay true to the story, or the result of technological limitations.
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And that’s what makes Dunkirk so special. It is not nationalist propaganda disguised as a “true story.” It’s not a mashup of Call-of-Duty-inspired dreams of unbelievable wartime heroics. It’s not shark-jumping crap that makes combat vets roll our eyes in disgust. Dunkirk almost stands alone as a war movie about regular Joes and their regular civilian counterparts, doing their best in a no-joke struggle for national survival. Other directors – and for that matter, some veterans whose stories gain Hollywood interest – could learn something from Nolan’s honest portrayal of history, instead of being blinded by dollar signs and adding unbelievable nonsense to a story that’s already dramatic enough.
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Mad Duo, Breach-Bang& CLEAR!
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About the Author: Chris Hernandez, seen here on patrol in Afghanistan, may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of Tacos Are Racist, Females in the Infantry – Yes Actually, The Military Within the Military, and several other delightfully opinionated bloviations. He has also penned several modern military fiction novels, including Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog. You can find his author page right here on Amazon.