Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Movies In History: Dunkirk

While I know that its making a huge claim to say so, this may be the best movie about World War Two that has ever been made.  It's a stunning achievement.

The movie, as likely anyone here will know, concerns the 1940 evacuation of large elements of the British Expeditionary Force as France was falling to the German Army.  The actual event took place from May 26, 1940 through June 4, 1940 and involved an hoped for evacuation of 30,000 British soldiers.  In the end, in no small part due to a massive German tactical error combined with a heroic French resistance to German advances, the British managed to evacuate nearly 400,000 men from an every diminishing beachhead, of which nearly 140,000 were French, British and Belgian.  The evacuation stands as one of the most stunning military achievements of the Second World War, turning what was a disaster into a weird species of victory.  While the effort would not stem the German advance, the fourteen day period did show the Germans for the first time to be inept in victory and pluckiness of the British in accomplishing an evacuation through the combined use of every kind of ship imaginable signaled the spirit with which the British would carry forth with in the rest of the war.

The film therefore has a daunting task, that of taking a fourteen day battle and combining in into a three or so hour film. Not that this hasn't been done a lot of times before.  It has, just not so well.

All World War Two battles were combined arms battles of some sort.  That is they all combined at least ground and air elements, and some, like this combined air, land and sea. The conventional approach to this, if a large battle is taken up as the topic of a film, has been to take on the project chronologically, such as the famous and very fine film The Longest Day did.  Indeed, this is nearly always done.

This film, however, takes on a different approach to this and really manages to pull it off, giving us a glimpse of the air, land and sea battle in way that is best compared to reading a book.  At the very start of the film we are introduced to a young British and a young French soldier who are trying to make their way off the beach.  We're introduced to this at first in the form of  the British soldier making his way through the town of Dunkirk itself, then out onto the beach, and then onto the "mole". For those who might know know what a mole means in this context, it means a jetty.  This starts off the story and then the director develops, in a very unusual approach, two separate timelines, one involving one of the "small boats" that lifted soldiers from the area, and another involving a single RAF flight of Spitfires, all of which culminate near the end of the movie.  It's brilliantly done.

The  movie is incredibly tense and is one of the rare action film that never lets up for a single moment.  This is all the more remarkable as its also an intense human drama.

Reviews here, as folks who occasionally stop by, always deal with historical accuracy and material detail, and this film scores high in regards to those as well.  The story of the evacuation at Dunkirk is portrayed accurately, including the loss of life and the desperate and random nature of it.  Some have complained that the film does not portray the French role well, but this is an unfair criticism. It's made plain that the French are holding the line, largely unseen, while the evacuation is taking place. By the same token, except for a single scene, German ground forces are never seen, their presence only deeply felt. 

Some have also complained that the movie is short on character development, but it really is not.  The characters are well developed in the space in which their roles are portrayed.  Moreover, the fast pace and the following of three (or more, really, as there's a Naval officer and a senior British officer who are also followed) gives us a glimpse not only into every aspect of the battle but also the random and confused nature of war.  Characters are at least as well developed as they are in the film The Longest Day, which is regarded as a classic.

In terms of material details the movie is excellent as well, although oddly there's been some complaints in regards to the military ships that are portrayed in the film. This shows the impact of Saving Private Ryan on war films as materiel details are now judged so closely that even minor departures are judged by some as unacceptable.  A destroyer depicted in the film is a real World War Two destroyer, the Maille-Brez, which is a French ship.  Some have been unhappy that  a French ship was used in this role, but there are not a lot of working World War Two destroyers around.  The small boats depicted in the film are actual boats that were used at Dunkirk, piloted by their current owners.  The Spitfires are real Spitfires and the ME109s real ME109s, albeit the ones that were from the Spanish air force, repainted in German colors, that often show up in films when ME109s are needed.  Uniforms and weapons are all correct, including the use of SMLEs rather than the Rifle No. 4 which looks similar but which was coming into service at that time.

The film is a masterpiece.

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