No other war film shows the struggle for survival in a soldier’s life quiet like Dunkirk. The movie opens with a few British soldiers walking through a lonely street when they are attacked by the German gun barrages. Only one of them is able to escape and cross over to the beach where thousand others line up in a queue to board ships. Enemy bombers again get the better of some of these soldiers while others carry those injured in a stretcher on board the boats. In their continuous attempts to defend themselves from being shot by their enemies, we see through their inhibitions, selfish gains and motives to survive, heroism, presence of mind, compassion and not to forget, their innate fears. All this while their rigorous evacuation takes place across the English Channel from the French seaport of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) to Great Britain.
All the elements of life – earth, water and air become plots running parallel to each other only to converge at the end – they were also the battlegrounds (the Army, Navy and Air Force separated in a time frame of a week, day and hour respectively) where the soldiers do what it takes to survive the war and save others who have faced the brutal circumstances of the war. Though the painful agonies, brutalities and killings have been subdued in the movie, it does not make Dunkirk any less of an existential war film that caters to the specifics of history and brings forth the emotional and moral fears of the soldiers in every step towards their HOME.
As the trailer perfectly stated, “When 4,00,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them” – these soldiers were stranded at the sea waiting for a “miracle” to happen and boy, it did. Their home, England though can be seen far across the horizon, is still far, far away and they have to board several boats and get dropped off many others with torpedoes bombarding them from below and missiles attack them from up above. But help came in the form of a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) who puts Luftwaffe fighters off the way until the very end when his fuel gauge is empty and he is the lone fighter in the sky. Help came when a middle-aged civilian sailor (Mark Rylance) following the Navy’s orders steered a boat along with his son and his eager friend and evacuated many soldiers who would have otherwise seen the end of the day burnt to death at the oil-rigged sea. Rylance is again the savior for Hardy when the latter cannot find a way to get off his plane and is stranded at the sea trying to open the window shield of the plane.
In the history’s most massive evacuation of over three hundred thousand soldiers (1,98,000 British and about 1,40,000 French troops), Dunkirk marks a historic event but the movie is well beyond relating an event from the past – it reflects what soldiers suffered then and what they still go through – the loss, pain, agony, struggle, hunger, defeat, torture and death. In that the movie marks its “universal” appeal – similar to what the director, Christopher Nolan has himself pointed out about the movie.
The movie brilliantly portrays the emotions of both a shell-shocked soldier and a 17-year old boy who shows courage to serve his countrymen even at the cost of his own life – his only wish to do something heroic in his life and to feature on the front page of the newspaper. Such paradoxes exist throughout the movie where on the one hand we have a group of soldiers turning against each other when it comes to saving themselves, on the other there is a celebration of an established war commander’s selfless intent to save soldiers – when he is done with helping the British soldiers retreat back home, he willingly chooses to wait for his turn to save the French troops.
Nolan who is so far known for his mastery and genius at creating a spectacle of comic book movies, has made quite a successful and critically acclaimed attempt at presenting a history film that is a breathtaking, surreal experience, showcasing hard-hitting reality in a never-seen before tightly-woven war narrative with the right amount of action and emotions, not making it overtly patriotic or harboring around anti-war sentiments.
Through dialogues that prove “it’s enough that a soldier survives”, this movie with long silent stretches and a lot of characters establishes that “one need not be a soldier to be a hero.”
The end scene where Churchill’s speech on “We will fight them on the beaches…we shall defend or island…” is read out from the newspaper by one of the evacuated soldiers wonderfully sums up the perceived reality about fighting a war — the passion of the soldiers when they fight for their homeland, their unwavering will to battle it out until the inevitable fate of being caught by the enemy arrives, the failure they experience when they retreat home without defeating the enemy. However, in contrast to this grand appropriation by the then British government is what this masterpiece of a movie portrays — the emotional and moral battles that these soldiers fight with themselves each day as survivors of the war and how their retreat is nothing short of a victory.
Watch the official movie trailer of Dunkirk here: