ByKaden Watson, writer at
Love talking movies almost as much as watching them. Met J.J. Abrams once at a Red Sox game. Highlight of my life.
Kaden Watson

Since Christopher Nolan directed Batman Begins in 2005, he has solidified himself as one of Hollywood’s most distinct filmmakers. Fans have come to expect big action, big thrills, and big ideas as the director’s trademarks. So, what will audiences make of Nolan’s newest film Dunkirk? A war movie seems to be a different direction for the director, who’s previously been dabbling in sci-fi and superheroes, however, Nolan is quick to point out that to him, Dunkirk is not a war movie but “a story of survival.”

If you weren’t already excited for this summer blockbuster, a deep dive into the true historical events that serve as the basis for the movie and Christopher Nolan's own words will make it hard for you to curb your anticipation.

The Historical Events of Dunkirk

In a recent interview with IGN, Nolan was asked why the story of Dunkirk was one that he wanted to make into a film. He responded:

“For me, like most British people, it’s a story I grew up with. I don’t even remember the first time somebody told me the events of Dunkirk. It’s almost a myth or fairy tale… As a storyteller you’re looking for some kind of gap in the record, you’re looking for a story that should’ve been told but hasn’t been…”

Unlike Mr. Nolan, I did not grow up in England, so when I first heard the news that Christopher Nolan’s newest movie was a WWII film entitled “Dunkirk” I asked, “What’s a Dunkirk?” If, when you heard the news, you said, “Ah yes, the story of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the BEF off the beaches of Dunkirk, that’s a good one,” then I congratulate you on your historical knowledge and you can skip this section. If you’re more like me, then you might want to give this incredibly brief and simplified summary of the historical events a look. Beware though, some minor spoilers may follow.

Dunkirk evacuation shipping routes [Credit: Wikipedia]
Dunkirk evacuation shipping routes [Credit: Wikipedia]

I’m no history buff, but after a bit of research, I was able to learn the gist of what happened at Dunkirk, France between May 26 and June 4, 1940. Germany’s military forces had been invading northern France, pressing towards the English Channel. Allied forces repeatedly attempted and failed to stop the invasion. Eventually, several divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were sent to strengthen Dunkirk which stood at the Allies’ rear. As the German Army pressed through and conquered Belgium, the British government began to put into effect Operation Dynamo, which would evacuate the BEF soldiers from Dunkirk by sea. All kinds of ships were recruited to aid in the evacuation, including over 700 civilian crafts along with British and French destroyers. The evacuation became a race against time as Allied officials tried to get some 400,000 soldiers stranded at Dunkirk off the beach and across the English Channel as the determined German forces, including tanks and infantry, quickly closed the distance. Captain William Tennant was tasked with overseeing the operation. In an effort to speed the process, he attempted to make use of the harbor’s breakwaters (structures that protect the harbor from large waves) as makeshift loading docks. Soldiers could walk across the breakwater four at a time, and the ships would not have to land at the beach.

Unfortunately, the western breakwater was unsuitable, so only the eastern breakwater was used for evacuation. Around 200,000 soldiers escaped via the breakwater. The rest were evacuated via the beach, a much slower process taking days, and with each passing day, the German army only drew closer. German forces also attempted to slow the evacuation with their Luftwaffe, or Air Force, firing on both the beached soldiers and the ships, but Operation Dynamo was given cover by fighter aircraft from the English Coast. Ultimately, the events of Dunkirk are considered a brief victory in what is otherwise regarded as a military failure in the defense of the “Low Countries.” Though the BEF were essentially rescued, they had to leave all of their equipment including artillery, tanks and other vehicles behind.

What Has Christopher Nolan Said About Dunkirk?

In an exclusive interview with Fandango last March, Nolan talked about the various ways in which he was attempting to bring the true story of Dunkirk to the big screen. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The Focus on Suspense: Nolan stated that he found the real life story of Dunkirk to be one of the most suspenseful stories he’d ever heard, and repeatedly stated in the interview that he wanted to bring that same intensity to the film.
  • The Use of IMAX: Nolan is known for using IMAX cameras to bring his action sequences a larger than life quality, a la The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, but IMAX cameras were used more on Dunkirk than ever before, with Nolan stating,

“Most of the film is IMAX. With every film we’ve learned more and more how to maximize our ability to use those cameras… but the image quality speaks for itself.”

  • Aerial Battles: Along with the discussion on his use of IMAX, Nolan commented that his team was able to find new ways to film the aerial combat, the likes of which has not been seen on film before. He also squashed those rumors that he had destroyed a real WWII era plane for the film, clarifying that they were replicas.
  • Lack of Dialogue: Separate from his previous films which have all required heavily expositional dialogue so that the audience can follow the complicated plots, in Dunkirk, Nolan has apparently opted for a more visually focused film, saying,

“There’s dialogue in the film, but we really tried to approach the storytelling very much from a visual point of view, and an action-and-suspense point of view.”

The Perfect Meld

’s past films might seem like a far cry away from a meditative WWII movie, but they’re actually more similar than we might at first realize. His films have occasionally been referred to as “the thinking man’s action movie.” He will likely have to depart from a few of his trademarks for Dunkirk, but ultimately, I think Nolan’s style will be able to serve this story well. As he stated, the film has a visual focus, one that is meant to truly amplify the intensity of the situation.

Nolan has proved his capability as a visual storyteller, with sequences such as the rotating hotel from Inception, or Interstellar’s incredible spinning docking sequence. He’s also demonstrated his adeptness at pushing suspense to the brink. Think Joker’s hostage boats from The Dark Knight, or the closing moments of The Prestige. Nolan has used IMAX several times before, but this time it seems will serve multiple purposes. We’ve seen Bane hijack a plane in IMAX, and now we’ll see 1940s era planes in aerial combat, but we’ll also see wonderful IMAX cinematography highlighting the ominous beaches, the distant horizon that our characters hope to reach, the fleet of ships that manifest that hope, etc. When Dunkirk opens on July 21, there probably won’t be any crazy plot twists or complicated world building, but the style that made the plot twists and worlds of Nolan’s past films will bring the story of to life.

Do you think Nolan's filmmaking style will work with the events of Dunkirk?


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