If you haven’t watched Dunkirk yet, I’d suggest watching before reading on. (If you can spare the coin, watch it in IMAX – it’ll make you feel that much more.)
I don’t remember the last time I paid for an IMAX movie and so I’m not too sure of what the difference is, but the immediate impression I got was that it brought the sound. No sooner had gunshots clapped out than I felt my blood pressure begin to rise. The screams of the airplanes, the deep crashing of the bombs – the horrible noise of war was ubiquitous throughout the film, and it contributed to the suffocating cadence of desperate survival.
Dunkirk isn’t the kind of movie one prepares for. Christopher Nolan does a magnificent job of placing the audience within the incredibly bleak frontier of war because it really isn’t something that can just be left to the imagination. After struggling to minimize the effects of the brutality in the opening minutes of the film, I resigned to accepting that the horror was a reality for those who have gone before; war is terrifying, who would’ve thought? The film goes through moments of anxiety (the deafening gunshots piercing deliberately through the boat) to joy (when the soldiers see the boats coming in from home) to frustration (there were only so many times I could watch another boat sink just as they were escaping to it as a safe haven) to relief (when they are given their heroes’ welcome while on the train) to the honest melancholy of honor (when Farrier (Tom Hardy), after gunning down a threatening enemy plane, is captured by enemy troops after landing his plane on the beach).
Although history has written a “good versus evil” kind of narrative to World War II, there was nearly no place for a narrative of that sort. Instead, each waking moment was spent in a frenzied scramble to stay afloat – literally. Countless ships were sunk by bombs from faceless enemy airplanes, and yet in a narrative that’s more truly about survival than assigning moral superiority, it’s fitting that the enemy remained faceless; after all, the real enemy in this movie was death. There were only two kinds of characters: the good and the desperate. It’d be easy to characterize soldiers like Alex or the shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) as the “bad”characters – Alex for turning the gun on Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and the shell-shocked soldier for killing George (Barry Keoghan) – but to do so would be negligent, in my opinion, of just how dire the circumstances were for the soldiers and what a sustained exposure to the fight-or-flight response can do to human morality. To remain unblemished in moral character is uncommon when life is assured to be well out of your own control and death comes with each breath of relief.
Having said that, the few good characters that immediately come to mind are Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), Peter (T0m Glynn-Carney), the pilots Farrier and Collins (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, respectively) and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). What makes these characters “good” is how they react in spite of the situations they face. Mr. Dawson exhibits remarkable poise and sense of duty despite the paranoia of the shell-shocked soldier. His compassion for the soldier is eventually explained by the weight of remembering his deceased elder son, who was claimed by the war after serving as a pilot; it’s self-evident why Mr. Dawson so desperately pushed to see if there was a soldier in the fallen aircraft that Collins was in. When a soldier barks at Collins about the Royal Air Force being around and doing his job, Mr. Dawson encourages him by saying, “They knew where you were.” Peter matures in the middle of the film, going from not understanding the deep psychological damage of locking the shell-shocked soldier in the room to sparing him the brutal truth of knowing that he had killed a civilian. The pilots both exhibited bravery and were beacons of light in their individual ways; as soon as he had been rescued, Collins was far more genial than the shell-shocked soldier (despite nearly drowning in his own plane after landing it in the water) and aided Mr. Dawson and Peter in lifting men into the boat. Farrier was tremendously resourceful after his fuel gauge cracked, and with the last of his airtime, he gunned down a German aircraft that threatened to ruin the evacuation from Dunkirk – all of this just to land, set his own aircraft on fire, and become a prisoner of war at the end. Last but not least, Commander Bolton is a good character in my eyes because he did the most he could with the hand he was dealt. He didn’t have anything for the corporal that would encourage him beyond the one destroyer that they were allowed, but when the rescue took place, he remained at Dunkirk so that he could see the French safely home – the same French soldiers who were not allowed to even get on the boats near the start of the film.
Their goodness was not limited to just their circumstances; it was a longsuffering component of their character. It came from their experiences coupled with their hearts of self-sacrifice. Dunkirk’s portrayal of war changes the scale that we commonly measure hearts on; no longer do the ends dip towards “good” or “evil,” but rather “self” or “sacrifice.” None of the characters can be faulted for how they acted in such horrific conditions, but those who were patient, those who were kind, those who didn’t envy nor boast, those who were not arrogant nor rude, those who did not insist on their own ways and were not irritable or resentful – these were the men who remained buoyant in a sea of tragedy.
The film ends with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) reading the local newspaper to Alex as he drinks in (literally and figuratively) the welcome they are given. “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, 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.” Perhaps unwittingly, Churchill’s final four words capture the spirit of Nolan’s film; whether it be those who clawed tooth and nail to find their way home or those who served the soldiers with all that they had, the characters portrayed in Dunkirk never surrendered.