Dunkirk: From the Battlefield to the Big Screen

The year is 1940. Spring is coming to a close and the signs of summer are just beginning to show – but while the weather is nice, the world is in shambles. World War II has commenced its early stages and violence is proliferating across the globe. In the city of Dunkirk on the northern coast of France, resentment towards the war is greater than ever. Over 400,000 European Allies are stranded on the shores of France, and the German soldiers have them completely surrounded and cut off from escape by ship. The German soldiers provide them with constant reminders of their situation in the form of airborne leaflet propaganda and, often times, with bombings and a deluge of gunfire. It seems as though there is no hope for the soldiers at Dunkirk at this point.

Then, a sliver of hope comes in the form of an unwise military decision. Adolf Hitler has ordered a halt on the German advance. The reason behind this command is controversial and uncertain, but nonetheless, everyone in Dunkirk is ecstatic when they hear the news; there is now one less obstacle between them and their homes. They still cannot all flee on large ships, the size of which cannot sail the shallow waters at their location, but there is nothing stopping small boats from coming through. This is where the famous “miracle of Dunkirk” truly happens. The people of England and an organization called “The Little Ships of Dunkirk” all come together to rescue those stranded. They were simply a group of normal people who greatly cared for their country, but slowly, over the course of several days, they manage to help these once-hopeless soldiers evacuate and enable them to finally return home.

Now, the year is 2017 and this event has made its way out of the history books and into theaters. Christopher Nolan, critically acclaimed and award-winning director, decided to take on the challenge of adapting this deeply important story into a film. He’s known for other majorly successful films, such as the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception. The original film adaptation of the Battle of Dunkirk was released in 1958, but did not receive nearly as much attention as Nolan’s. Nolan’s Dunkirk had a star-studded cast list, unique cinematography, and paid attention to every little detail, staying as historically correct as possible.

To many audiences, the cast of Dunkirk alone made the movie worth watching. First of all, it received a considerable amount of attention due to Harry Styles being cast. Dunkirk was Styles’ acting debut after leaving the band, One Direction, to pursue his other passions. Despite the controversiality of this casting decision (many thought it would take away from the seriousness of the subject), Styles played the role of a distraught soldier incredibly convincingly. Other principle actors included Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, both of whom have been in Nolan’s movies in the past. Most importantly, however, the protagonist of the film was newcomer Fionn Whitehead. This was his first major film role, and he certainly did his character justice. In general, the cast was not filled with majorly successful, highly recognizable actors, but it really didn’t need to be. The movie was so powerful that the inclusion of Hollywood blockbuster stars would have taken away from the authenticity it exuded.

Besides the talent and appeal brought by the cast members, the attention to detail in Dunkirk is astounding. Nolan stayed true to the actual story for most of the time, only straying from the facts a couple times for small additions to the movie. Furthermore, Nolan is very candid about these historical inaccuracies and explicitly stated them in interviews. First of all, in the film, the German planes were painted with their famous yellow nose cones. This was done so that the viewers could easily identify the planes, but technically, as Nolan admitted, the Germans did not adopt this trademark until after the Battle of Dunkirk. The other instance in which the storyline of the film was not completely consistent with the actual story was when the rescuers in their boats finally made it to Dunkirk. In the movie, the director wanted to create a distinct climax, so all the rescue boats sailed into the bay at once. In actuality, the soldiers at Dunkirk were evacuated over the course of a couple of days, not all at once, but Nolan’s version of the story was certainly more exciting.

The cinematography, lastly, was especially captivating. It was visually masterful and captured even the most intricate details. Certain scenes in the film were inspired by actual war photographs from Dunkirk. Nolan included three different perspectives throughout: land, sea, and sky. The movie encased the struggles of the soldiers stranded on the shores of Dunkirk, the soldiers attempting to flee in ships, and the air force who were trying to fly into Dunkirk to give aid. The multiple perspectives used throughout the film provided a more expansive connection with the characters and prompted strong emotional reactions amongst viewers when it revealed the endless obstacles standing between the soldiers and their homes. All in all, both historically and in terms of the recent cinemagraphic adaptation, the story of the Battle of Dunkirk is miraculous and one that will be told forever. There’s a reason why the phrase, “Dunkirk spirit” is still used in Britain to refer to the resilience and hope that the soldiers maintained – it’s safe to say that Christopher Nolan perfectly captured the Dunkirk spirit.