Sunday, June 10, 2018

Our June Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK

“We shall fight 
on the beaches…..” 
  ...Winston Churchill

Seventy-eight years ago, end-May-into-June 1940, the astonishing rescue of over 338,000 troops took place from the beach and waters of French town ‘Dunkerque‘, boosting the morale of the Nazi-oppressed Allies even in setback. ‘Dunkirk’, oft referred to as battle, was not combat but a reference to the escape of British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) and French troops from certain demise.

Nazi troops had driven a vital chunk of Britain’s fighting force to the shore of the picturesque seaside town where they became sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe and rolling panzer units.

Christopher Nolan’s big film of 2017 now streaming on HBO tells the story— sort of. It’s not your average war tale but rather an escape turned moral victory. From the very first moment, it was a fight to keep breathing rather than to kill enemy, a relentless, terror-filled saga spread out on a canvas of land, sky, sea. Soldiers on the shore, pilots in the air, and small and large boat operators maneuvered to avoid fire. The affair is driven by a Hans Zimmer score that synthesized the echo of the sea, a ticking clock, and the wailing, grinding of metal on metal until the quiet of deliverance came.

Click this link then scroll down to the end to watch a 1940 newsreel describing the event.

Nolan (shown above, right, with crew and actor Fionn Whitehead) designed his film like a composer orchestrating notes and patterns of a symphony into a monumental wave. Someone called the film an impressionist painting; narrow that down to ‘pointillist’: each dot contributing to the whole.

There are plentiful stars here exulting in their anonymity. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy (navel and army commanders) pace the jetty, above.

Tom Hardy flies his small Spitfire muttering into his radio, chasing off German planes firing on boatloads of soldiers. (Nolan describes Hardy, the actor, as ‘master of the small space’, referring to his film Locke.)

Mark Rylance pilots his yacht, Moonstone, one of hundreds responding to Churchill’s call for aid; he rescues shell-shocked Cillian Murphy off a floating mound of metal, and later a downed pilot and dozens of oil-and water-soaked soldiers from the sea. Neither the stars nor the lesser-knowns speak more than a few words and are mostly nameless as characters. The not-personal is the point here; it is immersion in the process that fixes it in your memory long after.

Nolan has memorialized the symphony in a way a more storied version doesn’t. (A chapter in Foyle’s War is fine fiction, tying the family situation of a small boat owner to the larger event — it’s a good yarn like every chapter in that series, but not so as to imprint on your mind the enormity of this singular event.) You have few personal lives and no plot to remember, just the tortured struggle of thousands conveying across the Channel; but you will know forever what luck it was, including buying time for Pearl Harbor to instigate America into the war theater. You will have lived it.

Nolan’s pains to take you there included filming at Dunkirk and using original WWII equipment (including Spitfires and original vessels — see the brilliant video at end comparing the film to archival footage).

In addition to (from left, above) Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, and Kenneth Branagh are memorable cameos of relative newcomers Fionn Whitehead, as the virtual lead, (musician) Harry Styles, Tom Glynn-Carney, and a second pilot, Jack Lowden; also more seasoned performers as Brian Vernel, Barnard Aneurin, Harry Richardson, and Barry Keoghan.

To fill in the historical blanks, online sites like offer much more detail than is summarized here: On May 10, 1940, Germany launched its lightning war or Blitzkrieg across the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, France. Once in France, the German army pushed toward the English Channel, by end May driving several hundred-thousand Allied troops onto the beach of Dunkirk.

Winston Churchill had just replaced “the appeaser,” Neville Chamberlain, as Prime Minister. The new PM accepted the rescue idea reluctantly (“wars are not won by evacuations”), but Dunkirk was six miles from Belgium (already lost) and German panzers were bearing down on Dunkirk itself. Churchill feared “a colossal military disaster…the whole root and core and brain of the British Army about to perish or be captured”.

For disputed reasons, Hitler, paused the attack on May 24. (Herman Goering asserted, for instance, that the Luftwaffe would stop evacuation from the air.) The small delay gave the Brits enough time to organize the removal before the German army resumed its advance to Dunkirk on May 26. The Luftwaffe made evacuation a terror but not impossible — cloud cover and fires caused by the bombing of oil storage depots decreased pilot visibility. (Below, archival photo)

The Dunkirk beach was too shallow for boats to land, leading Churchill to ask the public for small crafts to cross the channel and aid the rescue. He hoped 45,000 men might be saved, but Hitler’s brief delay changed the calculus. According to varied estimates, 400-1000 pleasure yachts, fishing boats, channel ferries, and motor rescue lifeboats answered the call, risking mines, bombs, torpedos, and Luftwaffe air attack on the water.

On May 26, 7500 made it off the beach; on May 27, twice that. May 28th brought the armada of ‘little ships’ spread out across the horizon provoking a great roar from the soldiers massed on shore and a singular moment of joy Nolan permits the viewer. By May 30th, one hundred thousand more had been evacuated.

Killed, wounded, and captured Allies numbered 68,111; 243 ships were destroyed, and many thousands were left behind along with heavy tanks, guns, motorcycles, ammunition, and fuel. On June 4, German troops occupied Dunkirk. But by then, another 78,000 had made their exodus — 198,000 British and 140,000 French soldiers for a total rescue of 338,226. Churchill called it “a miracle of deliverance”. (Like the luck of the Maccabees, three day’s oil lasted for eight.) Below, Harry Styles gets a beer through the window on the train ride home.

After Dunkirk the German army swept France, capturing Paris on June 14. By end June, the British faced Germany entirely alone. Not until D-day, June 1944, and the U.S. landing at Normandy (200 miles south of Dunkirk), did the liberation of Europe begin. Christopher Nolan has said that if the evacuation had not succeeded, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate, the Germans would have conquered Europe, the U.S would not have joined the war. He called it a decisive moment in the history of the world.

I am not much of a Nolan fan except for Memento and The Prestige, but here he succeeds in making Dunkirk come alive as a particular moment in history.

Hitler declared it a major defeat but Churchill knew otherwise. He leveraged its morale-saving value in a famous speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940. Nolan ends his film with a newspaper handed through a train window to Fionn Whitehead who haltingly reads out the PM’s famous last paragraph, here excerpted:

 “Even though…many old and famous States have fallen…we shall not flag or fail. We shall go to the end…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…until in God’s good time the New World with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.” 

Churchill meant us in a time when we were good and did right.

NOTE: See the comparison between archival footage and Nolan’s imagery.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

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