In what will come to be known as one of the best war films ever made, director Christopher Nolan doesn’t waste any time with a preamble. There’s no frolicking in the English countryside, no call to arms to defend the country. Instead, the audience joins British soldiers in the middle of a war zone while they are ducking bullets.
This war zone is not the expansive no-man's land one is accustomed to seeing in the movies that have come before, nor is this set in green jungles where guerrilla warfare is the norm. Instead, a part of this film takes place on a beach in Dunkirk in northern France, behind tall buildings and deserted streets. The other two parts, equally significant, take place in the water, and in the air above it. The stories on all three battlefields come together seamlessly.
Nolan’s film is based on the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940, during World War II. Code-named Operation Dynamo, this incident is also remembered as the Miracle of Dunkirk. The film dives headlong into the tense days when the Allied Forces were forced to flee for safety. Cornered onto a beach by German tanks, Nolan introduces us to the hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers waiting for ships to come and take them back home.
It’s largely the story of the rescue of British soldiers that Nolan focuses on. Here, about 400,000 men stand in long queues on the beach to board ships that come between intervals — even as German troops close in, their fighter aircraft regularly sweep down to bomb these ships, and the men stranded on the beach.
Throw in a torpedo that bulldozes the ships that have made their way away from the coast, and you begin to get a glimpse of what the Dunkirk evacuation was — a seemingly impossible rescue. The choice these men have is a tough one: surrender or be annihilated. It’s only because history books tell us of the outcome of this evacuation that one finds the fortitude to keep watching.
As the filmmakers say, when 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them. While the soldiers were loading the wounded into the rescue boats as first priority, families carrying bread and tea (of course) leave English shores and head for France to bring their men back.
With dialogues that are minimal, but strong where they appear, Dunkirk is a testament to brotherhood and the spirit of survival. It’s about the desire to be home, despite the fear that they may not be welcomed back after retreating this way. The German troops are conspicuous in their absence — we only hear their bullets and see their planes taking out British forces.
The film’s fine cast includes Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Harry Styles and Kenneth Branagh. One of the essentials that make this film significant is that Nolan allows the viewer to connect with the characters: we fear of their safety when their boats topple over and planes are crashing into oil-spilled waters, or while the trawler they are hiding in is being used as target practice. We also fly with them as Hardy manoeuvres the Supermarine Spitfire, watching over those in the sea as he battles in the air. The plight of the stranded men, and the bravery exhibited by their rescuers, stirs up powerful emotions.
Besides the direction, Nolan’s screenplay is equally flawless. And then there’s music composer Hans Zimmer’s formidable contribution to the film. Oscillating between eerie and thunderous, the soundtrack by Zimmer keeps you at the edge of your seat. Be it the ticking of a clock, or the sounds of bullets piercing through the metal anatomy of a trawler, or the smooth build-up of a terrifying dive bomber aircraft before it targets the stranded soldiers, the soundtrack adds an intensity to the film that makes it truly nerve-wracking.
It’s rare for a film to have no dull moments: this action-packed thriller marches into that list without breaking a sweat. Dunkirk tops the list of Nolan’s remarkable filmography, and it is undeniably one of the best war films ever made.