Today marks a year since Christopher Nolan’s epic war film Dunkirk opened in cinemas to rousing applause from both critics and audiences.
A hit at the box office, audiences found themselves enthralled by the heart-stopping drama which left them at the very edge of their seats.
Grossing an astonishing $527.3 million worldwide, Dunkirk globally is the highest-grossing World War II film of all-time (not adjusting for inflation) surpassing Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan which grossed $481.8 million.
That is high praise indeed considering Nolan is the man behind incredible films including The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar and Memento.
But Dunkirk isn’t just a film; it is an experience as Nolan puts you at the forefront of a brutal battle all thanks to brilliant storytelling, incredible use of sound and jaw-dropping cinematography.
It really is a masterpiece.
However, while it is very clear Dunkirk was both a critical and commercial success, it is important to remember this is a film based on a historical event which saw people lose their lives and so to be a true triumph it needs to honour those souls.
During the early stages of World War II in 1940, 400,000 Allied troops found themselves stranded on Dunkirk’s beaches surrounded by enemy forces who were swiftly closing in.
Although British Destroyers and other large ships were sent to save the soldiers and take them home, German bombers flew over sinking these vessels as well as killing thousands of troops.
It became clear the only option was a mass evacuation with Operation Dynamo being put into action as the government called on the British public to help.
Those with seaworthy boats, or ‘Little Ships’ as they became known, made the hazardous crossing to Dunkirk as Britain rallied together in the face of adversity.
Although the aim was to save 40,000 troops, an astonishing 330,000 were rescued in a truly remarkable operation across nine days.
Nolan’s Dunkirk is in no way intended to be a documentary. Instead it is a fictional tale which aims to recreate both the horrors and miracles those soldiers experienced in 1940.
Tackling the story from three perspectives, Dunkirk focuses on soldiers in the RAF battling the Luftwaffe, the men on the beaches and the civilians sailing their boats to France.
To put it simply – land, sea and air.
You can watch the trailer for the film here:
This storytelling works beautifully as not only does it allow us to be fully immersed by the drama, we can also see the varying roles people played in this miracle.
Speaking to UNILAD, Brigadier (ret’d) Robin Bacon , Chief of Staff at ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, couldn’t agree more.
He states how Dunkirk also shows the audience the effects war had on those at home, as well as those on the front lines.
The film Dunkirk is a masterpiece. It emphasises various aspects of the war and takes the audience on a real emotional journey.
Dunkirk reminds us why we need to support our soldiers and veterans during and after their time serving.
The devastating effects that war can have upon some of our army family means we, as a country, need to support them by giving them a hand-up in times of need.
Which is exactly what those courageous civilians did when they bravely sailed across the English Channel despite the German bombers and war-torn land which lay ahead.
An important choice Nolan made was to not include any scenes featuring Prime Minister Winston Churchill and politicians in general.
Furthermore, the Germans are barely seen although the damage their bullets and bombs inflict is very evident, both physically and psychologically.
Although these decisions may initially seem odd, it actually allows the film to focus on those at the forefront of the events, the men and women who saw both the tragedies and wonder of the rescue with their very own eyes.
With sparse dialogue, a lack of character names and masterfully choreographed action, as an audience member you will feel each bullet, every blast and the sheer terror those men were experiencing.
Nolan manages to superbly convey the shell-shock which struck the soldiers as well as the valour which drove them to survive.
Despite the anonymity of the characters, we still find ourselves emotionally attached to them as they just want to get home, like any of us would in that scenario.
Unlike other war films, Dunkirk is in not a nostalgic appeal to patriotism; in fact the major theme of the film is survival rather than heroism.
These soldiers and civilian rescuers did just want to survive, not become heroes. In fact we see some men betray each other doing anything to get on a boat to England even if it meant the death of their brothers in arms.
As Justine Baynes, Director at SSAFA: The Armed Forces Charity, explained to UNILAD, this realism ensured Dunkirk was accurate, truthful and fair.
Not shying away from any uncomfortable truths, Dunkirk properly honours those at the battle and evacuation in an honest manner.
It’s vital to keep our history alive as the years pass so that we ensure that the lessons we learned in darker times influence our present-day actions. Our nation owes an immeasurable debt to the young men who fought at Dunkirk – we can only imagine the horrors that they faced.
A Dunkirk veteran that SSAFA supports attended the premiere of the film and was struck by how realistically it showed events of that time. It was clearly moving to have these harrowing scenes played out on the big screen, but we mustn’t hide away from the atrocities of that time.
In fact this veteran, Alfred Smith who was evacuated from Dunkirk and went on to take part in the D-Day landings, ‘enjoyed’ the film ‘very much indeed’ describing it as ‘pretty accurate’.
It is clear Dunkirk not only respectfully honours those who lost their lives, but the civilians and soldiers who took part, in what Churchill described at the time as ‘a miracle of deliverance’, too.
And although films are made predominantly for our entertainment, Nolan and his cast and crew clearly set out to inform audiences about the importance of remembering Dunkirk.
This is applauded by many as it is vital for the arts to get involved with remembrance.
A spokesperson for The Royal British Legion told UNILAD why:
The success of the film Dunkirk is a poignant reminder of the pivotal role that the arts play in keeping those who sacrificed so much at the forefront of our minds.
As champions of Remembrance, The Royal British Legion ensures that the unique contribution made by those who have served and their families is recognised, and that Remembrance is passed on to the next generation, and films like Dunkirk are an excellent way of doing that.
As Dunkirk ends with those famous words Churchill uttered into a radio microphone, ‘we shall never surrender’, you can’t help but be struck with pride, emotion and sadness.
Those soldiers and civilians never surrendered, and we shall never forget.
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Emily Murray is a journalist at UNILAD. She graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA in English Literature and History before studying for a Masters in Journalism at the University of Salford. Emily has previously worked for the BBC, ITV and Trinity Mirror. When Emily isn’t writing about topics including mental health and entertainment, you can find her at the cinema which is her second home.