Dunkirk: The Facts and the Fiction.

Dunkirk, the newest film by Christopher Nolan, was released this weekend to rave critical reviews. The film is inspired and mostly adapted from the real life events of the Dunkirk evacuation. Some creative liberties were taken, but it's mostly a straight adaptation of the actual events. 

The evacuation, as well as the film, are both full of fascinating stories, so let's dive in.

 

As you might have seen on the posters and in the advertising for the film, Dunkirk was released in IMAX 70mm. This means that the movie was filmed with massive IMAX cameras normally reserved for their trademark documentaries.

Christopher Nolan has recently started a push to film more theatrical films with IMAX cameras, starting in 2008 with The Dark Knight. Some other films shot with IMAX cameras include Captian America: Civil War and Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This film stands apart by being shot on film, while most Hollywood blockbusters are shot digitally now. Nolan has been a staunch defender of the use of film and it is never more apparent than in this movie, which is 70% shot with IMAX cameras. The 30% that isn't shot with IMAX is filmed in 65mm, another large format film type. Because the IMAX cameras are so large and loud, it's hard to shoot dialogue sequences that can be recorded over the camera noise. Shooting with 65mm means that aspect ratio doesn't change as drastically on-screen when a scene changes between cameras.

All of this adds up to an experience that is absolutely breathtaking in theaters.

Photo Courtesy of Los Angeles Times

Nolan is somewhat revered for his stance against using Computer Generated Imagery in his movies, deciding instead to use practical effects. This stance has led to some of the most impressive special effects scenes in the past decade, including the Truck Flip from The Dark Knight, the Rotating Hallway from Inception and the Plane Heist from The Dark Knight Rises

In Dunkirk, Nolan once again refuses the aid of CGI and used cardboard cutouts of soldiers to fill out the background of the beach scenes. All of the naval destroyers in the film were real ships as well, along with the Spitfire planes that fly above the beaches. 

Photo courtesy of David Sims/WENN.com

In the researching phase of the film, Nolan interviewed veterans from the Dunkirk evacuation in order to understand the boots-on-the-ground perspective he intended for the film. One of the main takeaways from these interviews was how young and inexperienced the soldiers on the beaches were. 

This inspired him to cast young and unknown actors for the beach scenes, where soldiers await rescue. Although the internet lost its collective mind over Harry Styles' casting, the lead character is played by Fionn Whitehead in his film debut. Many of the veteran actors in this film (Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Kenneth Branagh) were relegated to Officer roles and the young infantry troops are played by the new unknown actors. 

Speaking of veteran actors, this wouldn't be a proper Christopher Nolan film without the inclusion of the great Sir Michael Caine. Caine has appeared in Nolan's 6 previous movies in a main role, but his presence in this is much harder to spot.

Caine actually has an uncredited cameo role as the English radio operator on the opposite end of the RAF pilots' communications with Britan. 


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We've talked a lot about the movie, so let's talk about the historical event it's based on for a moment. 

In the midst of World War 2, after the German forces had captured most of Europe, the British forces were pushed back towards the sea. The Axis powers had them surrounded and pinned down at Dunkirk, a long beach across the channel from England. As the enemy forces came closer, the Allied forces could practically see their England home. 

Unfortunately, an evacuation was difficult due to the German U-Boats patrolling the harbor and the Luftwaffe planes strafing the beach. The English forces prayed for a miracle to get them across the 30-mile channel.

Photo Courtesy of Electric Blue Fishing

While the Allied forces were pinned down, the Axis taunted them by dropping flyers over the town that depicted the dire situation the Allies were in. This served to demoralize the troops as the Germans advanced. 

While it seemed like the Nazis had the upper hand in this scenario, the leaders made a crucial mistake that eventually led to England's success in the war. Knowing that they had the upper hand in this situation, the Nazi leadership decided to hold off on their advancement. 

There have been multiple theories that have explained it over time (Including a few irrational conspiracy theories), but the most common one is that the German tanks had outpaced the foot soldiers and decided to wait at the edge of the beach for the infantry to catch up. If they had advanced, they would have been without supplies or reinforcements. 

The land around the beach is also very marshy and not suitable for tank warfare at all. Instead of advancing, Hitler and the other Nazi leaders decided to have the Luftwaffe planes strafe the beach until the troops could advance on their position.

Winston Churchill, then only Prime Minister for 16 days, was forced to activate Operation Dynamo which tasked a whole fleet of civilian ships with coordinating the evacuation from Dunkirk. Since the waters were shallow, it was very difficult for large ships to get close to the shore, so the civilian crafts were able to get a lot closer to the soldiers. 

As a result, over 330,000 soldiers were rescued from the beach by a combination of Civilian and military ships.

Although at the outset of the operation, Churchill warned British Parlament to prepare for the worst, the evacuation was a success.

The return of the troops served as reinforcement for the British morale as well as the Military. The operation was hailed as a 'Miracle' and a 'Disaster turned to triumph' by the British public. Morale soared so high that Winston Churchill had to remind the public that "Wars are not won by evacuations." 

As a result of this, the phrase 'Dunkirk Spirit' entered the British Lexicon. It's commonly defined as: "The spirit of the British public pulling together to overcome times of adversity."(Source)

Unfortunately, the short term effects of the evacuation were not favorable. France was completely lost to the Nazis and a great number of British ammo and supplies left on the beach were now in enemy hands. 

Churchill commanded the Navy to return to Dunkirk in order to evacuate the French troops who held up the rear guard during the first evacuation but unfortunately, very few soldiers were left. 

Although the evacuation eventually turned the tide of the war, the immediate response was that of a failure.


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Now that we know more of the historical context, it's time for some more awesome facts about the production of the film.

Some of the ships that were involved in the historical evacuation of Dunkirk actually make an appearance in the film. 12 of the Little ships of Dunkirk appear in the film including the  Moonstone which plays a pivotal role in the movie. 

This film also features the most actual boats put on screen at 62. 

One of the boats that was requisitioned for the historical Dunkirk evacuation was the Sundowner. This boat was owned by Charles Lightroller, the senior surviving officer of the RMS Titanic. 

The boat itself is preserved in the English Ramsgate Maritime Museum.

The enemy planes featured in the movie were the German-Engineered Junkers Ju 87 which were referred to as Stukas (Short for Sturzkampfflugzeug  which means 'Dive Bomber'). 

These planes were outfitted with sirens on the wings which would produce a banshee-like howl while flying. This siren was meant to further demoralize troops and enhance the intimidation factor of the planes. 

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Another true historical fact that shows up in the movie is the makeshift pier that the Allies constructed to reach the ships far from the shore. 

During the low tide, they drove the army issued jeeps out as far as they could in a single file line. When the tide came back in, they would stand on top of the jeeps so they could reach the boats that had come in to rescue them. Instead of using the one pier, the creative soldiers were able to construct their own.

Photo Courtesy of ThinkDefence.co.uk

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Nolan wanted to keep the focus on Allied soldiers, so he made the unique creative decision not to feature any German soldiers. 

The idea of a faceless enemy is able to put us in the minds of the soldiers and as a result, the film has the atmosphere of a Horror movie for a lot of its length. 

The only exception to this is the Stuka bombers, but even then we never see the faces of the pilots, only the planes in their dogfights with the British Spitfires.

In his quest to keep the focus on the ground in the Dunkirk evacuation, Nolan made sure none of the characters explore their backstory and very few characters even have a surname. The obvious exceptions to this rule are the officers who are only referred to by their surnames. 

This keeps everything contained in the moments that the film revolves around, without exposition weighing down the pace of the film.

A lot of film geeks will be seeing this film, not because of the historical context, but because of the director. Christopher Nolan has carved out an excellent repertoire of respected films that focus on realism and contain a complex narrative structure. 

In the context of his earlier films, Dunkirk is notable for a few reasons. It's not his first period piece (The Prestige takes that spot), but it is the first film of his to be based on a historical event. It's also his shortest theatrical film and it follows his habit of using one word titles (Memento, Inception, Insomnia and Interstellar).

Even though Dunkirk is based on a historical event and most people assumed it would be Nolan's most straightforward film, he still manages to surprise the audience with his unique storytelling style.

It's no secret that Nolan's films have complex plots and this is no exception. Dunkirk's story is told from 3 perspectives: The Land, The Sea, and The Air. Each story converges at a single point but each begin at different times. So, when jumping back and forth between perspectives, we are also jumping back and forth in time. This is a new twist on Nolan's signature 3-story intercutting technique that we've seen in The Dark Knight's politician executions as well as Inception's entire 3rd act.

This also brings back Nolan's love of playing with the perception of time, which is a main plot point of Inception, Interstellar and his earliest theatrical film Memento.


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Speaking of the perception of time, the film's composer and frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer used an interesting device to keep the suspense taut throughout the entire film. As part of the movie's soundtrack, every piece of music is set to a ticking clock. This serves to draw attention to the urgency of the situation, as well as keep the pace of the movie rushing along.

Zimmer actually borrowed Christopher Nolan's personal pocket watch (Because of course he owns one of those) and recorded it to use in the film. The result is spectacular and helps the soundtrack to stand on its own.

One thing that audiences are talking about after seeing this film is how incredibly loud it is. Some veterans of the actual battle have actually said it was louder than the actual battle.

I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing coming from octogenarians, but if it effectively puts the audience in the shoes of soldiers stranded on that beach, I applaud his dedication.

Source

This isn't the first time that the Dunkirk evacuation has appeared on screen, there have been a few attempts at bringing it to life before, most notably in the 1950's version of the same name starring Richard Attenborough. 

The most recent appearance of the beach is in 2007's Atonement, starring James McAvoy. It appears in an iconic 5-minute tracking shot, even though the film isn't actually about that battle. The presentation of the scene is almost a polar opposite of Nolan's interpretation, showing the downtime the soldiers experienced instead of the moments of suspense and horror. 

Nolan studied a lot of films to bring Dunkirk to life, but not all of them were War films. Two notable inclusions were  All Quiet On The Western Front and Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent. 

He made a point to study silent films in order to tell a more visual story than his previous films. Some of the silent films that influenced him were Greed and Sunrise.  These helped him direct more engaging crowd sequences and allowed him to spend more time away from expository dialogue.

Some surprising films that he studied were 2010's  Unstoppable and 1994's Speed which he both cited as the inspiration for the 'ticking time-bomb' quality of the film. Ridley Scott's Alien was also on his list, as a masterclass in tension and suspense.

(Source)

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Even though we mentioned earlier that Nolan used cardboard cutouts to fill out the background in some scenes, there were still over 6000 extras used! It's still a fair bit short of the actual 400,000 soldiers that were on the beach, but in the realm of movie making, it's absolutely nothing to sneeze at. (Besides he already broke one filmmaking record with the number of boats on screen)


We mentioned earlier that one of the senior officers from the Titanic lent his personal boat to the rescue effort, but he wasn't the only famous person involved in the Dunkirk evacuation. (And no, Harry Styles wasn't at the actual event though some corners of the internet may believe otherwise.)

A popular English cricket player, Douglas Jardine, had joined the army in 1939 and was wounded before the events of Dunkirk. He was stranded on the beach with the other soldiers and was lucky enough to be counted among the rescued.

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

"You knew this was the chance to get home and you kept praying, please God, let us go, get us out, get us out of this mess back to England. To see that ship that came in to pick me and my brother up, it was a most fantastic sight. We saw dog fights up in the air, hoping nothing would happen to us and we saw one or two terrible sights. Then somebody said, theres Dover, that was when we saw the White Cliffs, the atmosphere was terrific. From hell to heaven was how the feeling was, you felt like a miracle had happened."

Harry Garrett, British Army, speaking to Kent Online

(Source 1), (Source 2), (Source 3), (Source 4), (Source 5)

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