Saturday, July 22, 2017


The summer’s smash movie hit is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a micro-focused telling of the British Expeditionary Force’s near-miraculous evacuation from France during nine days of May and June of 1940.  The precursor to The Battle of Britain provided some 338,000 allied soldiers standing by to repel the expected German invasion.  (The fact that Adolf Hitler lacked the will and the ability to force an amphibious assault was little realized then—or since.)  Although perhaps 40,000 French troops fell into captivity, the cost could have been much worse.

Certainly Nolan is a significant film maker.  Including the enormously successful Batman franchise, his movies have won seven Oscars among 26 nominations, earning more than $4 billion.

What’s little realized is that the Dunkirk saga frequently has been filmed over the past 75 years, including a major portion of the wartime drama Mrs. Miniver directed by William Wyler, and Briton Leslie Norman’s 1958 solid docudrama, likewise Dunkirk.  Additionally, the 1969 epic The Battle of Britain begins with Dunkirk’s beach strewn with abandoned British gear.  (Incidentally, Ridley Scott of Alien and Black Hawk Down has announced his intention to remake “BoB,” to the delight of warbird enthusiasts everywhere.)

There’s also a major Dunkirk segment in Ewan McEwan’s 2001 romance, Atonement.  It’s still cited by film students for its impressive five-minute single take with a tracking shot along the crowded, event-filled beach.

When surveys indicate that about one-third of Britons know that the Battle of Britain occurred in WW II, and that Germany was the enemy rather than an ally, Dunkirk offers a teachable moment—or 106 minutes, ek-chually.   Nolan does a nifty job of educating his 21st century audience as to where Dunkirk is, thanks to German propaganda leaflets dropped over the shrinking Allied lines.  Essentially, the rough map says, “You are here and We are everywhere else.”

Nolan is known for non-linear story telling, and Dunkirk is no different.  The opening scenes are oddly labeled “one day” and “one hour.”  You do not have a sense of time, partly because the three parallel stories (land, sea, and air) alternate day and night, back and forth within the span of a few minutes of real time. 

Though told as an integrated trilogy with a handful of significant characters, we don’t get to know many of them.  Their names are seldom if ever revealed, the major exception being George, the youngest son of the boat owner (well portrayed by Mark Rylance) who’s among the first to set out for Dunkirk.  The lead character is a sympathetic British private played by Fionn Whitehead, who according to internet sources is 20 or 21 years old.

The film fails in a major way: you have no idea of the immense effort by naval and privately-owned vessels in a daringly successful operation.  Some 860 British and allied ships were involved, with more than 200 lost.  About 700 private vessels participated, making an essential contribution ferrying soldiers from shallow water to the ships farther offshore.  Nobel Prize laureate John Masefield described the massive, hastily organized evacuation as “the greatest thing this nation has ever done.”  The film gives almost no indication of the magnitude of the achievement that was Operation Dynamo.  

Hans Zimmer’s musical score has drawn lavish praise but I admit—I don’t get it.  Some recurring passages often are discordant and repetitively long.  A couple of them reminded me of the muted flugelhorns (or whatever) accompanying the Great War poison gas attack in 1969’s Fraulein Doktor.

The studio I attended had Dolby Stereo—unfortunately.  It’s just too damn much.  After the shockingly unexpected burst of gunfire at the start, the repeated effects are overwhelming, including the screaming sirens on radio-controlled Stuka dive bombers.  (Which, by the way tend to drop from a banked turn which does dreadful things to accuracy.)

Aviation buffs eagerly anticipated the aerial combat sequences, which generally are well done.  The in-flight Spitfire pilot close-ups were accomplished by modifying a Russian-built Yak trainer’s front cockpit with a Spit type canopy and windscreen while the actual pilot flew off-screen from behind.  Usually it works, although some shots with wingroot-mounted cameras clearly show a Yak rather than a Spit.

Some operational procedures are violated for the sake of drama.  Though the Spitfire canopy could be locked open or even jettisoned, Nolan ignores reality (and common sense) in having a pilot ditch his shot-up fighter with the canopy shut.  Guess what?  The impact jams the “hood” almost fully closed, and the aeroplane begins to sink.  For some damn reason the movie squadron threw away the regulation crowbar clipped to the access door on the left side of the cockpit…

At the end of the movie one of the RAF pilots has exceeded his fuel supply and must set down along the French coast.  At that point two inconsistencies arise.  The pilot could land ashore near the British force or he could ditch or bail out for pickup by the hundreds of evacuation smallcraft offshore.  Not a bit of it: he lands far down the beach, away from thousands of friendly chaps, AND HE PUMPS HIS LANDING GEAR DOWN.  Having accomplished that entirely unnecessary evolution, he climbs out, wields his flare gun, and fires it into the cockpit.  The Spit burns as shadowy Germans emerge from the gathering gloom.

Throughout the movie we never get a clear view of a German.

The producers had access to three Spitfires and a Spanish-built Messerschmitt 109, the Merlin-powered Ha-1112.  For reasons unstated, Nolan decided against computer graphics to produce a realistic formation of German bombers with shoals of fighter escorts.  Instead, each aerial encounter pits a solitary Heinkel 111 with the duty “Messerspit” occasionally doubled as leader and wingman.

The Heinkel is a large-scale radio-controlled model, which serves well to its capability.  But in the film the Luftwaffe continually sends lone bombers to Dunkirk, escorted by one or two 109s—a problem that should have been solved with some basic computer graphics.

Meanwhile, pegging the trivia meter:

Camouflage and markings buffs (and there are legions of them) note the LC squadron code letters on the three Spitfires.  But “London Charlie” was never assigned to an operational squadron, being used by the base operations flight at RAF Feltwell in Norfolk.  For obscure reasons, none of the Spits have individual letters—just a blank space on the fuselage. 

A questionable historical aspect is the German submarine torpedo that sinks one ship loading troops.  No account of Dunkirk that I've seen references any U-boat activity during the evacuation, which certainly is understandable.  The water depth offshore likely would render subs far too vulnerable.  

I’d give Dunkirk three stars out of five.  However, the movie I attended previewed a promising release with Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour as the wartime Winston Churchill, and other WW II themes are forthcoming including Pegasus Bridge, the British commando raid preceding the D-Day landings, and the Spielberg-Hanks miniseries about the U.S. Eighth Air Force.

In short, World War II isn’t dead and it isn’t dying.