Dunkirk – when defeat becomes a victory.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is very simply a masterpiece. However, it is not your standard war movie. This is no prequel for Saving Private Ryan. No back story is given – we have no idea why an entire army is trapped.
No German appears in the film – at the outset they are simply referred to as the enemy. There is no overt violence. This is no Hacksaw Ridge. And no heroics, just simple, understated bravery. Moreover, there is minimal characterisation. We only encounter each person in the immediacy of the here and now. We don’t even know their names. Dialogue too is minimal but the soundtrack is significant. Hans Zimmer’s music is both tense and haunting, evoking a deep sense of longing. Dunkirk is simply a study in how ordinary blokes (and a few women) face up to the terror of being trapped. Total disaster appears imminent. Time is running out with very little hope of escape. We hear the clock ticking. This is a film well worth seeing, if possible in IMAX. And I think you can read this blog before seeing the film - unless you don’t know the story of Dunkirk, how some 338,226 allied solders are rescued against all the odds by a flotilla of over 800 small boats mostly crewed by their civilian owners. Actually I read director Nolan’s commentary on the film before seeing it – and this certainly helped appreciate his craftsmanship. The word he choose to use to describe the structure of the film is, I think, very significant: “Dunkirk is a triptych,” he tells us. That is, the film is told from three points of view: from land, sea and air. And each has its own time frame: one week, one day, one hour. To quote Nolan: “On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; And if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel.” So the story of Dunkirk is told using these three time frames braided together to give a coherent whole. In fact, you could watch the film and not actually realize this. Brilliant. But going back to his choice of word to describe his film: triptych - a work of art folded into three sections. The term is derived from early Christian art and was a popular standard format for altar paintings from the Middle Ages onwards. By using the word Nolan, I think, wants to give his film a spiritual dimension. Dunkirk was no ordinary event, not just a significant episode in the Second World War. There is something more, something bigger, as people realized at the time. So five days after the evacuation was completed services of ‘National Thanksgiving’ were held in churches throughout the land. And at the centre of this wave of gratitude to God was Psalm 124. “ “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive.” (v2f). Like the people Israel with their back to the Red Sea and facing certain annihilation under the wheels of the Egyptian chariots, the people of our nation realized that our only hope lay in God himself. There was simply no realistic alternative. So on being ordered home, General Alan Brooke was so overcome with emotion at having to leave his men in such a predicament that he broke down and wept. “Nothing,” he said, “but a miracle can save the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) now.” But then King George took a remarkable lead. He called his people to a National Day of Prayer for Sunday, 26 May, the day Dunkirk evacuation began. Then a remarkable set of events took place – the German tanks were held back at a significant time to allow their logistics to catch up while the weather significantly hampered the Luftwaffe while at the same time helping the flotilla of small craft. It was the Dean of St. Paul’s who was the first to refer to the evacuation as the ‘miracle of Dunkirk,’ a phrase which has stayed with us ever since. And Nolan’s film seeks to embrace this wider dimension as an existential epic for our time. The English Tommy is Everyman. Dunkirk seeks to examine what is means to be human, facing annihilation at the hands of an enemy we can neither see nor understand. All we can do is stand in a line on the beach and wait. One solder tries to swim to safety but we know, he knows, that this is a futile gesture. Home may only be just over the horizon but it is out of reach. To this hopeless situation rescue comes. Ordinary people from home risk their lives to save their soldiers. Selfless and sacrificial. Sheer grace. And the film ends with one of the main characters, his job done, finally offering his surrender. He willingly pays the price for the salvation of his comrades-in-arms. Wonderfully what appeared at the time to be a devastating defeat turned out to become a strategic victory. The miracle of Dunkirk, no less, changed the flow of history, praise God.