They were trapped.
British soldiers. French. Belgian. Dutch. Nearly 400,000 men pinned to the beach like a bug, squirming and helpless.
They had expected to fight together along France’s formidable Maginot Line, an alliance of soldiers from free nations battling Nazi Germany toe to toe. Instead, the Germans swung wide and plowed into the Netherlands, sweeping into Belgium and finally punching into France itself. The Allied forces, outnumbered two to one, collapsed in the face of that onslaught. They were pushed to the beaches around the seaside resort of Dunkirk, their backs to the ocean.
Belgium was conquered. France was collapsing. And most of the soldiers at Dunkirk were British—the bulk of its army. Nazi forces prepared to deliver the coup de grâce, a German matador poised to pierce the heart of the British bull. The Nazi flag might fly over London before the end of the summer. Western Europe would be German.
Britain had just one hope: to stave off the German attacks long enough to evacuate at least a portion of its army. England was fewer than 50 miles away, after all—almost within sight. But the British destroyers were too big to sail close enough to the French shore to gather their soldiers in, and piers out to deeper waters were being torn apart. There weren’t enough smaller boats to handle the need, and the few Britain had were sinking. Meanwhile, the unrelenting German Luftwaffe screamed overhead, dropping bombs and shooting down soldiers.
But the game isn’t over. Not yet.
Across the channel, Mr. Dawson loads life jackets into his small pleasure yacht, preparing to sail into war. He and his son, Peter, will go to Dunkirk and rescue as many soldiers as their little boat will carry. And before they shove off, Peter’s friend, George, hops aboard, too.
“I’ll be useful, sir,” he says.
Above, a trio of British Spitfire pilots slice through the air, hunting Luftwaffe bombers. They’ll do what they can to help clear the way for the English ships—their small part to bring a few boys back home.
And on the beach, the soldiers wait.
When Mr. Dawson plucks a shell-shocked soldier from the waters on his way to Dunkirk, the soldier insists that they not return to the French coastal town. They’ll die if they do, he warns. (And he has a point). He’s implores his rescuers to take him home.
“There won’t be any home if we allow a slaughter across the Channel,” Mr. Dawson tells him. And he has a point, too.
Dunkirk gives us a look at perhaps World War II’s most desperate juncture, an ongoing engagement that spanned late May and early June of 1940. This was before Pearl Harbor, remember, and the United States was officially neutral. The Soviet Union was allied with Germany at the moment. France was clearly overwhelmed once the fabled Maginot Line was breached. Britain was the only power left that could possibly stand up to Nazi Germany and its Axis allies—and it looked as if its army was done for.
The fact that that didn’t happen is a tribute to the gumption and heroism of the British army, air force and plain ol’ civilian boaters like Mr. Dawson, who answered the call of duty and possibly saved a nation. That British saying, “Keep Calm and Carry On?” Dunkirk is Exhibit A.
Airmen and civilian sea captains risk their lives for their fellow man. That’s practically a given in any war pic, particularly one about Dunkirk. But we also see plenty of plain human decency, too: Dawson’s care and consideration for the shell-shocked soldier; the food and blankets given to soldiers in times of respite; the appreciation British soldiers are shown when they come home safely.
“Well done,” someone tells a soldier.
“All we did is survive,” the soldier replies. He doesn’t feel like a hero at all.
“That’s enough,” the man tells him. And so, in this moment, it is.
Before the movie begins, onscreen slides describe just what’s at stake at Dunkirk. They conclude by saying that the soldiers “await their fate, hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.” (Indeed, what transpires was coined “The Miracle of Dunkirk” shortly thereafter.)
A Winston Churchill speech (read by a soldier) includes the phrase, “In God’s good time.” A British commander closes his eyes at a critical juncture—perhaps reflecting, or perhaps saying a silent prayer.
Dunkirk is, obviously, a war movie. And it has all the violence one would expect.
There’s very little blood in this PG-13 film, but death is everywhere. When a German dive bomber drops its payload on the beach, a man flies upward in the ensuing explosion. Another combatant falls down screaming after getting shot in the face. In the opening sequence, six soldiers run frantically from German gunfire; five are eventually gunned down in the street. Corpses line beaches and float in the water, from sunken ships all the way back to the beach.
Many soldiers, even when rescued, are disinclined to go below, into the hull of a ship. We see why: It’s much harder to get off a sinking ship from down below than when you’re on deck. We witness ships being bombed and sunk by torpedoes, the listing, sinking crafts taking many soldiers down with them into the briny deep. Men fight desperately to get out of these sinking boats, and many simply don’t make it. A few other soldiers get caught between the water below and a burning slick of oil above. When one soldier can no longer hold his breath, he’s forced to the surface; we see him in the flames, screaming. Another soldier hits his head and dies a slow death. Someone’s legs are apparently crushed between two ships. (We don’t glimpse the incident, but we do hear the man’s cries of pain.)
It’s suggested that a man burying a deceased soldier also stole that dead man’s clothes. (The evacuation procedure gives priority to British soldiers, so a British uniform is the ticket to an earlier evacuation.) Fires, explosions and smoke from the battle smudge the air.
Wounded soldiers are carried aboard a ship, some wearing bloody bandages. Officers discuss the grim arithmetic of war: one tells another that he’ll need to rethink how many wounded soldiers he wants to evacuate, given that one stretcher takes the space of seven standing men.
It’s difficult to pick out profanities precisely in this film’s often panicked and very British dialogue, but there are at least two f-words, three s-words and four uses of the British profanity “bloody.” We also hear “d–n,” “h—,” one misuse of God’s name and two abuses of Jesus’s name.
A couple of soldiers are given beer. Another fishes around in a butt-filled ashtray, looking for a half-used cigarette to smoke.
While the film confirms that the stress of war can sometimes bring out the best in people, it can also bring out the worst in them. And so it is here at times. Soldiers sometimes cower and lash out in fear; other times they hurl undeserved insults and slights. Some are willing to sacrifice their peers if it means reaching safety themselves.
A soldier defecates on a beach.
They call it the Miracle of Dunkirk for a reason.
When the film opens, a commander expresses his hope that if all goes well, perhaps 30,000 soldiers can be saved. Maybe 45,000, if they’re lucky.
By the time the operation concluded, some 330,000 troops had made it safely off Dunkirk’s beaches. Though that battle was the culmination of an unmitigated military disaster, it’s one of the most inspiring “defeats” in the annals of history. Churchill’s famous “never surrender” speech was given in the wake of Dunkirk, one that’s still capable of stirring hearts and minds nearly 80 years later:
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
British director Christopher Nolan has made some fine movies in the past, but Dunkirk is being hailed by some as his masterpiece. I might not go that far, but it is indeed a powerful story. Dunkirk dramatizes the complexity of war—both its horrors and heroism—while admirably not straying beyond the boundaries of a PG-13 rating. The film even gives us moments of pure beauty: a British Spitfire, out of gas, silently gliding over the beach as British soldiers shout a salute from below.
Dunkirk doesn’t make for easy viewing. But it tells a story well worth the telling.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.