Spoiler alert: this article makes general reference to some scenes in the movie.
“It’s not a war film,” claims Christopher Nolan. “It’s a survival story.” It’s a survival story told in the air, on the sea, and on the shoreline at Dunkirk by one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors.
On 10 May 1940, German forces commenced their invasion of France. As they pushed their way through, within two weeks they had cornered the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) along the northeast coast.
Over 300,000 British troops – equivalent to the population of Belfast – were surrounded by an impending German army, at least twice as strong.
Faced with the prospect of death or capture, Operation Dynamo created a daring new option for survival: mass evacuation.
In hindsight, we know of the operation’s major success, branded the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’. 338,226 soldiers were evacuated by 800 boats, military and civilian, over the course of just nine days.
At the time, it is difficult to imagine how hopeless the situation must have seemed to those on the ground. Enemy shells going off in the near distance; U-boats torpedoing rescue ships; Luftwaffe bombers relentlessly trying to disrupt the operation.
There are two quotes in Nolan’s movie that powerfully convey this sense of despair.
“Where were you?” an angry soldier pointedly asks a uniformed RAF pilot as they arrive back home.
The audience knows where he was. He had been defending the evacuation in the skies above the English Channel, before being attacked by the enemy, ditching his plane and nearly drowning.
The question appears ignorant, even ungrateful, but it neatly captures the anguish faced by soldiers as they stood hour after hour, day after day, on the beaches of Dunkirk, feeling isolated, vulnerable and forgotten.
In reality, the RAF flew 3,500 sorties during Operation Dynamo. While most of their action to protect the evacuation took place over the Channel itself, soldiers on the beaches only encountered what – to them – was an endless series of attacks.
Where was the RAF? It was there all along, but it mustn’t have felt like it.
The single most chilling line also comes near the end of the film: “All we did was survive.”
A returning soldier was perplexed as to why someone would say ‘well done’ to the evacuated troops when they hadn’t done anything to stop the German advance. They made it back alive, that’s all. “Yes, but that’s enough,” replied the man.
The war would drag on for another five years before Nazi Germany would surrender. For the British Expeditionary Force returning from France in 1940, it must have seemed unfathomable that their country would emerge on the winning side.
Their goal was not victory; it was survival. In his ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech, Churchill warned the Commons on 4 June 1940, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”
On a bloodied beach in Dunkirk, how distant peace must have felt. On a cinema screen 77 years later, how distant seem these horrors of war on European soil? We must never take that for granted.
Dunkirk is currently in cinemas across the UK and Ireland.
Also published on Medium.