Christopher Nolan ’s Dunkirk is worth watching for its final sequence alone. The three stories being told throughout the film intersect rapidly, and no easy solution or reflection results. A young man walks into a newspaper office in Weymouth and hands over a school photograph, pointing out one boy. A Spitfire prepares to land on a French beach, gliding, its propeller still, because it has run out of fuel. A rescued soldier in a stopped train near Woking reads aloud from a national paper. We see the descending Spitfire again as the reading continues on the soundtrack: the text is Churchill’s speech beginning with ‘Wars are not won by evacuations,’ ending with ‘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’. In Weymouth, the young man’s father looks at the newspaper published in the office we have just visited. The headline says ‘Local boy, George Mills, just 17, hero at Dunkirk’. On the French beach the pilot, who has done valiant work against German aircraft and chosen not to leave himself enough fuel to go home, sets fire to his plane. The following shots include the men in the train, a glimpse of deserted Dunkirk beaches, vehicles and guns piled up and bodies floating in the water, the surrender of the pilot to some misty German figures, the train again, the burning Spitfire.
But there is a lot of confusion and sentimentality to get through before we arrive here. In an interview included with the screenplay, Nolan says that ‘in a funny way’ he doesn’t see Dunkirk ‘as a war movie at all’. In this spirit he has taken the Germans out of the film: they appear only as ‘the enemy’ on a title card and as the half-seen figures arresting the pilot. Oh yes, and in the Stuka planes strafing the beaches and the Heinkel bomber sinking ships, and in virtually every moment that danger occurs – that is to say, in the whole film. It’s a good idea to focus on the stranded soldiers and their rescuers, and to avoid, as Nolan says, the map rooms, the God’s eye view of the whole situation. It’s a subtle touch to have Churchill, and indeed a whole aspect of the Dunkirk myth, represented only by one of the protagonists reading a newspaper. The film creates a strong if short-lived sense that there is no outside, nowhere to go, a sense confirmed by Hans Zimmer, composer of most of the music in the soundtrack, who said he thought his job was ‘to pretend they will never get off the beach’. But all of this makes it more of a war movie, not less, and its ambitions tug it in several directions at once.
The three stories have titles and a named duration: the Mole, one week; the sea, one day; the air, one hour. The first is about a series of departures (and failed departures) from Dunkirk – the Mole is a long breakwater described in the screenplay as a ‘runway to nothing, a road to nowhere’. The second story is about the experiences of a civilian crew, father, son and local schoolboy, who joined the Little Ships, a flotilla of small boats commandeered or volunteered for the rescue mission – a large part of the problem was getting the rescuees from the shore to the deeper water where the large boats had to wait. And the third tells of fighter planes fighting, all RAF jargon and freighted with far more old-fashioned World War Two romance than the other narratives. The screenplay says at one point that ‘the Spitfires rise gloriously into higher air,’ and the visual effect is just that. None of the mess you find on earth and sea. The impression is enhanced by the fact that the heroic pilot’s role is handsomely filled by Tom Hardy, while the navy gets Kenneth Branagh, his eyes moist as he thinks of ‘home’, and ready to stay on after the evacuation to do what he can ‘for the French’. I imagine this line is meant to sound decent, even noble, but it comes across as patronising, suggesting that he is willing to stick around to deal with an afterthought.
Nolan says his ‘gamble’ was that ‘people wouldn’t get overly hung up on whether they were understanding the structure or not,’ and his gamble seems to have worked more often than not. We don’t really think about the timeframes – even when a soldier we have seen shell-shocked and cowering turns up later in the film (but earlier in another story) intact and giving ruthless orders – and the effect of sliding into a new story while we imagine we are still in the old one is often powerful, an echo of the sort of careful confusion we find in the films of Buñuel. At other times it’s ridiculous. There is a relentless bit of cross-cutting between a British pilot trapped in his cockpit – he has landed on the sea, the water is rising, soon he will drown – and a group of soldiers in a sinking trawler, also floundering in a flood. Water, water everywhere and not a drop that isn’t being used for over-obvious effect. I’m trying to resist the word ‘bathetic’. Of course the pilot doesn’t drown: he’s rescued by someone from another story. Many of the floundering men survive too, rescued by the plot.
The most interesting moments in the film address the ethics of survival. The men in the trawler need to lighten the boat and decide to sacrifice someone. They pick on a companion (Aneurin Barnard) who hasn’t yet spoken and so, they think, may be a German in disguise. ‘He doesn’t speak English – or if he does it’s with an accent thicker than sauerkraut sauce.’ The man turns out to be French, which makes him, if anything, more dispensable. The symbolically named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who has been one of the focal characters in the film (and who reads the Churchill speech at the end), says: ‘It’s not fair.’ His friend (Harry Styles) says, ‘Survival’s not fair,’ and one of the other soldiers continues the thought: ‘No, it’s shit. It’s fear and greed.’ Asked if he will back up his protest by volunteering to take the Frenchman’s place, Tommy says: ‘Fuck no. I’m going home.’ His friend says: ‘And if this is the price?’ Tommy says: ‘I’ll live with it but it’s wrong.’ But then the Frenchman drowns anyway, and the other major characters escape. I’m not sure what to make of this bit of narrative chauvinism or whatever the English word might be – especially when Nolan seems to think he’s let the Frenchman off: ‘I originally had him burning to death.’
The trouble is that this tough talk about survival and the supremacy of self-interest is at odds with the selflessness of the pilots and all the sailors of the Little Ships, and specifically of the boy who makes it into the local newspaper. He wasn’t supposed to be on the boat sailing from Weymouth, but he wanted to be part of the action. At one point he is knocked downstairs in the yacht by the shell-shocked soldier (played by Cillian Murphy), and dies as a result. A desperate but not exactly a heroic death, and this is Nolan’s inference in the interview: ‘What good does it do, somebody whose life’s been cut short, to refer to them as a hero? To put them in a newspaper, or whatever.’ The finished film says exactly the opposite. The owner of the boat (Mark Rylance), who has already implicitly pardoned the accidental killing of the boy by the disturbed soldier (‘He’s not himself. He may never be himself again’), nods with grim satisfaction when he sees the headline about the hero. The Dunkirk spirit has its heartless side, and an awareness of this feature is part of the reason Churchill was so roundly defeated in the election after the war.
And then there is the Elgar. When Zimmer’s music is not ticking and throbbing it hands over its interesting moods to ‘Nimrod’, from the Enigma Variations. The music is grand, of course, but it is also stately and irresistibly uplifting, and perfectly matches the cosy tale the film uses to counter its darkness. There is no outside – until there is, as we always knew there would be. It’s not just that the supposed suspense of the film cannot make us feel the men will never get off the beach, because we know they did, or 300,000 of them at least. It’s that the whole movie is flooded with hindsight, dominated by a war it seeks to shut out. It would be good to see shitty survival and boundless generosity in some sort of dialogue with each other, some sort of relation to historical consequence, and not just offered as conflicting aspects of the human condition.