by David McGill
The very word ‘Dunkirk’ has a unique resonance in the UK. Although it is about a failed campaign and the British Expeditionary Force’s eventual retreat from France in 1940, it has always been hailed as something glorious in the lexicon of the Second World War. Certainly not a victory in any sense, but an event that illustrated the selfless gallantry of ordinary, unarmed men and women who sailed to the rescue of stranded British soldiers in the face of real and present danger, and inspired the resistance of a nation. Who knows what might have been the outcome of the war if these 300,000 or so troops had not been rescued?
Remarkably this film was written, co-produced and directed by one person: Christopher Nolan. Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) uses three basic settings for the film: the mole (the breakwater used for embarkation), the sea and the air, and scenes jump from one to another giving a currency to the action that makes the viewer feel like a participant. The realism is enhanced by the fact that the actors look and behave like ordinary people. Star names there may be, but wrapped in greatcoats with faces covered in mud or oil, only Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance are easy to spot.
There is little dialogue, and much of what there is has to be guessed through the sounds of battle or the screams of dying soldiers. But this is not a ‘talkie’, this is a true action movie. Captured on 70mm film, the cinematography is outstanding, and no effort has been spared in replicating the ships, aircraft and weaponry. Many of the boats actually took part in the evacuation – and been lovingly preserved for decades. The aircraft are also genuine planes of that era. Much like the horrific scenes that introduced Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ the viewer is spared little from the ugly horror of war.
Most of the scenes are in ‘warts and all’ close-up, and the occasional cut-away wide shots showing thousands of troops spread out in queues along the shoreline and the flotilla of little boats about to arrive, illustrate the massive scale of the operation and give some relief to the sheer intensity of the action. Only as the story winds down and the rescued are safely back home are we offered some light relief. The troop train stops beside a boy selling newspapers and they read about what has happened. Filthy, dishevelled, defeated, dignity lost, they find that they have returned as unlikely heroes.
The raw savagery of merciless warfare will not be to everyone’s taste, and some will be disappointed that there is only passing reference to those left behind to cover the retreat. But this is not a historical documentary, it is a film about a single event that changed the course of history.
It is brutal. It is unrelenting. It is a must-see.
Dunkirk is showing in various locations throughout August and has a running time of 106 minutes. Seen at the Edinburgh Filmhouse – which is the only cinema in Scotland showing the film in its native 70mm projection format.
There is a certain irony that ‘Dunkirk’ should be showing during the Brexit negotiations. Hopefully, it will be a constant reminder to our negotiating team that leaving Europe can be extremely difficult and potentially dangerous. In 1940 we had no choice. In 2017 we do, but there will be no ‘little boats’ coming to our rescue. Beware.