By H.M. Brennan
World War II began in 1939. By 1940 the Allied forces, including 400,000 British troops, had been driven from Belgium and France onto the unprotected beach of Dunkirk. This is where Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk begins.
I recently watched WWII classic The Longest Day and was interested to see how Dunkirk would compare to the iconic movie which chronicles the great 1945 battle on another beach of Nazi occupied France in which the Allies return to save Europe. Frankly, it does not compare. The Longest Day is left on the beach by the electric, non-stop movement of Dunkirk.
The action is seen and heard with a syncopation of the Hans Zimmer soundtrack that gives a ticking beat to the pace and excitement of the story.
The movie begins with a hand-held camera. (I hate hand-held camera shots, but in this scene it works.) The camera follows a single soldier, Tommy played by Fionn Whitehead in his first major role. He is being shot at by unseen snipers behind every building in a French village. He is running for shelter when he backs into Dunkirk.
The camera settles on his eye view of an expanse of beach under a slate grey sky. Rows of military men, each with their rifle are in military formation waiting for rescue ships from across the channel. The battle begins — the troops are helpless against the German Messerschmitt planes bombing from above. The few naval ships that have appeared to save the soldiers have been sunk and now soldiers are drowning just off shore.
Nolan quickly unfolds three battles at the same time on land, sea and in the air when the English Spitfire planes come to give cover for the battle on the beach and there is also an armada of small fishing and pleasure boats racing from England to rescue the stranded.
Nolan’s tight 76 page script is a masterpiece of minimal dialogue and cinematic story telling at its best. The story is told almost entirely through the action, and reflects the horror of the battle without the gratuitous violence or gore that sometimes comes along with that in modern war movies.
Dunkirk delivers great performances from its ensemble cast including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and former One Direction member Harry Styles in his film debut. But it’s Whitehead as Tommy who is the soul of the story. It’s his tenacious spirit that exemplifies what the British forces are experiencing in attempting to rescue 400,000 men from the beach where they are being slaughtered.
In the end this movie transcends others of this genre because it marries the modern World War II movie with those made in the first few decades following WWII. It understands the scope of the great struggle while at the same time enabling the personal spirit to triumph.
H.M. Brennan is a classic movie buff who lives in Peterborough. Dunkirk was released July 21 and is currently playing at the Peterborough Community Theatre. You can find showtimes online at pctmovies.com.