Dunkirk, the movie

August 3, 2017


I’ve been puzzling over what to say about Dunkirk, the movie. I was excited to hear it was being made, and of course – as an artist who has aimed to uncover a multi-layered picture of that unimaginable event – I’m all for as many people as possible being given the opportunity to see a good film about it. Of course we went to see it immediately on its release on Friday July 21st, and were glad to find the cinema full. I was anticipating a triumph, worthy of the five-star ratings and praise heaped upon it. And when RN bigshot Kenneth Branagh’s eyes filled with tears at the arrival of the little ships, of course mine did too. But overall I was disappointed – though I shouldn’t have been, because what I saw was exactly what I should have expected: ‘The blockbuster event of the summer’.

Advertised as an ‘action thriller’, it succeeds far better at that than it does at ‘capturing one incredible event in modern history’ which it also claims to do. For me it completely failed as an evocation of that huge, mythic event, despite its claim of ‘bringing the Dunkirk story to heart-thumping life’. Even the appalling sight of a ship’s-hold full of weary men being blown up and rapidly submerged by the oily sea somehow failed to move after it was (seemingly) endlessly repeated – though it continued to horrify. Of course this kind of thing did in fact happen again and again – one thing that’s so terrible about the ‘Nine Days Wonder’ of Dunkirk 1940 is how relentlessly repetitive it was, how long it went on for, how many ships were blown up, how many lives were lost, how endless the series of personal disasters were for so many individuals.

And yet the complete lack of characterisation in the film seems to me to remove the potential for empathy, or engagement with the people as individuals whose lives mattered, who had loved-ones waiting desperately for news of them (people like us with a past and the longing for a future), and it reduces the whole thing to an awful spectacle – horrific, but ultimately not very affecting. I did cry at the end, but I wept for those people whose stories had been hijacked and reduced to an action thriller, rather than in response to what the film had shown me.


The suspense is certainly sustained, but the three intersecting time-lines (one week on the beach, one day on the boat, one hour in the air) make for multiple confusions even for someone who knows the plot quite well – some obviously intentional, but some not. It’s hopeless on period detail – which we’re used to seeing done extremely well in TV series like Foyle’s War or films like The King’s Speech (1940’s train? I don’t think so.) It does portray the endless repetitiveness of the bombardment well, with enemy planes picking off ships laboriously loaded with wounded men like sitting ducks. And it makes a good stab at showing the vital role our Spitfire pilots played in fending off as much of that bombardment as possible – but it misses a chance to show how woefully ill-prepared we were, how every Spitfire, every destroyer might have been our last, and how everything we had was risked in the attempt to preserve at least our army.

And it misses a chance to make us care about the people, through this complete lack of any engagement with personality beyond the merest stock characters. I didn’t recognise these as the people who struggled to get home, or the volunteers and seamen who gave so much to rescue those thousands, not the fathers and husbands and brothers and sons who sent those postcards home to their loved ones when they finally made it. Michael Balcon’s 1958 Dunkirk film directed by Leslie Norman, with an equally starry cast of Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee – and of course John Mills being (as ever) modestly heroic in a very English way, follows ‘the dramatic events leading up to Operation Dynamo’ (the actual evacuation) with a bunch of bewildered soldiers struggling to get back to Dunkirk, and proves infinitely more effective simply because we care about the people and what happens to them. It’s still very violent and action-packed – as it says on the DVD blurb:

‘Seen from the dual perspectives of a jaded journalist in search of propaganda and a weary soldier desperately trying to give his troop some hope, Dunkirk never shies away from the brutality of war and the bravery of its soldiers’

– and yet this 1958 version manages to be an intensely watchable, moving film as well as an authentic representation, purely by means of its characterisation.

And it’s very very good on the little ships, as it should be with David Divine (who was actually there) as one of the writers of the screenplay. The scenes showing the Navy requisitioning the boats, with their owners’ growing realisation of exactly what was going on, give us too a gradual realisation of the full scale and devastation of the event and its implications, and we recognise what it means to all of the indivuduals caught up in it. This is completely missing from Christopher Nolan’s film, replaced by endless crash-bash-action scenes, which however stunningly well-filmed are not anything like as good at actually telling the human story. And the story is ultimately more horrifying, more moving, and more engaging than any amount of clever camerawork and a relentless thudding score.

Alec Harrison

Clipping from a London newspaper preserved by one of the soldiers shown; Alec J. Harrison, second from left, was among the last soldiers to be evacuated from Dunkirk, and lived until his 80’s. Photo contributed by his cousin’s daughter, Linda Rowley, and more of his story can be found here on The Dunkirk Project.


If you’re interested in the real stories from Dunkirk, from individuals who struggled and fought for their lives and sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, you will find many of them here on The Dunkirk Project – but not in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster – which is after all only Dunkirk the Movie.

But maybe I’m being too hard on it? My hope is that it will prove to be an introduction to the story and stimulate a whole new generation to find out more. I’d be very interested to hear your opinions – and as always, eager to hear any stories from Dunkirk that you or your family may want to share.

Liz Mathews

One Response to “Dunkirk, the movie”

  1. Just read this terrific story on the BBC news magazine – truly one person’s unique experience of the maelstrom that was Dunkirk.

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