Once the youngsters of today accept that Dunkirk actually happened, that it was all real, with huge numbers of men dying, marching or fighting against the twin blows of a German war machine which was, possibly the best in the world at that particular moment; and the gross underestimation of that same German machine by senior British and French military figures after the demonstration of ‘Total War combined with Blitzkrieg’ as given in Poland, the Nolan film of the removal by sea of over 350,000 soldiers from the port and beaches of Dunkirk makes sense: but only as the director envisaged.
The film encompasses three figures, three stories, but this is the most important point, three timelines. Once you accept, in your mind’s eye, that the Spitfire is not flying continuously for about three days; but is snapshotted in an hour’s actual flying time, does not actually shoot down five Bf-109 fighters, plus two or three German bombers in the same sortie, and use up somewhere around four times the actual amount of ammunition that the Spitfire can actually carry in its magazines, the film commences making sense. As long as the viewer, who knows as I do that the Spitfire has the gliding characteristics of a large housebrick, is aware that the film is an allegory, then the sequences with the fighter swooping around the beaches after running out of fuel, speeding back and forwards, shooting down a menacing Heinkel bomber as it glides by, make sense.
The young infantryman, a part taken by a person named Harry Styles who is unknown to this observer; is not telling his story, he represents the thousands who stood, marched, fought, ducked, swam, flinched and sometimes died, so that we might speak, write and live in comparative freedom today. The sheer guts of the fighting men who made the real Dunkirk are not depicted in this ‘ersatz’ version; for who can imagine what went through the minds of those involved.
As a document, it makes little sense. As a film, as an entertainment, it would appeal to many who do not have anything else to relate to, as there has been no violence on such an industrial scale in all of Europe for decades; as long as one ignores the mini-Genocide in the Balkans. To the nit-pickers who claim the film does not represent real life because there weren’t any heroic Muslims depicted, or because there weren’t any black-, khaki- or yellow-skinned soldiers shown as queuing in deep water, or drowning after being bombed by an enemy aircraft; all I would retort in reply is ‘so bloody what’? The woolly-minded amongst us, the ones who claim that there were Indians abounding on those blood-splashed beaches in real life, or black soldiers amongst the long columns standing patiently as they were waiting for either rescue or death just miss the point. ‘Dunkirk’ is not a minute-tallied depiction of the near-miracle; it does not attempt to recreate the titanic task of rescuing 300,000-odd soldiers from the tentacles of the German war machine: it attempts to give an idea of the astounding bravery of the Royal Navy sailors who moved their vessels close in to the shores, of the equal bravery of the hundreds of ordinary civilians whose passion for owning and sailing small craft brought them literally under the guns and bombs of the enemy. It tells of the stoicism of the ordinary soldier, but does not attempt to go further. The actual statistics of the Royal Air Force’s attempts to aid the rescue effort were sufficient to make that vital difference.
I disliked, intensely, the immersive sound track, as the ticking clock; the hammering staccato reverberation blasted out through the cinema sound system as a Nazi bomber settles on course to attack a stationary British vessel, for example was unfortunate, to say the least; the scene as the film nears the end where themes based on Elgar’s Nimrod welled up was decent, but very short-lived.
I slipped away from my home late one evening, and travelled the few miles to attend the late show. Upon my return, I checked and located my own copy of the original ‘Dunkirk’ movie; black-and-white, and starring John Mills. I don’t regret the journey, or the inflated price of the ticket; I didn’t even regret having to admonish two of the local morons who were showing each other their stored pix of their latest piss-ups on their mobile phones at the start of the performance; but I do regret taking notice of the writings of critics which said it was a masterpiece; or even a very good movie!