World War II is one of the most well-trodden areas in cinema history; from Patton to Saving Private Ryan, from The Dirty Dozen to Inglourious Basterds, there are all manner of films that cover the deadliest war in military history.
However, one of the conflicts we've rarely seen captured in film is Operation Dynamo, the daring evacuation of allied soldiers from the coast of France in late May 1940 following the Battle of Dunkirk during Germany's invasion of France, which ultimately led to the conquering of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Christopher Nolan will be giving the world a surely cerebral and complex account of the heroic evacuation in 2017 with his next film Dunkirk, which is in production now.
Dunkirk's Place In History
Dunkirk, France is situated on the country's northern coast, and following Germany's invasion of France, hundreds of thousands of British, French and Belgian soldiers found themselves trapped, the German Army blocking them, their backs against the North Sea with nowhere to go.
When a halt order came down on May 24, 1940 from German Field Marshals Günther von Kluge and Gerd von Rundstedt — a move whose motivation is still debated among historians, but factually sanctioned by Hitler — commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Field Marshal John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, began to enact plans to withdraw the hundreds of thousands of troops via the English Channel.
There were three routes for escape; the shortest was 39 miles, the longest 87 miles, and the safest 55 miles, but the latter was unable to be sailed at night due to the danger of mines and sandbanks. The halt order was lifted late on May 26, but not before the British Royal Navy took advantage of the three-day halt in order to plan and execute the operation, which would go on for about nine days and save the lives of 338,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers.
Miracle Of Dunkirk
Though the lives saved would become known as the "Miracle of Dunkirk," losses were still devastating: A total of 243 Allied ships were sunk and all of the BEF's heavy equipment had to be left behind in France. We're talking hundreds of tanks, 20,000 motorcycles, thousands of guns, and hundreds of thousands of tons of ammunition and fuel. All in all, 68,000 lives were lost and for every seven soldiers that were able to escape at Dunkirk, one was left to be a prisoner of war.
Then-Prime Minister of Britain Winston Churchill would make one of his most renowned speeches as a result of Operation Dynamo — best known as "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" — and declared:
"We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. ... Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, 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, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."
It's not difficult to see where Nolan could pull a cinematic story from these events; the high drama, global impact and unreal tension is all stuff that he's interested in exploring as a filmmaker. By following a select few characters from varying sides of the conflict, he's likely to shape an impactful portrayal of one of the most underrepresented operations in World War II military history.
Nolan's film won't be the first to tackle these events; in 1958, a Leslie Norman film also called Dunkirk dramatized the operation (and starred Jurassic Park's Richard Attenborough), but it's been left as the only memorable example of this particular event in WWII history.
A1969 Italian film called Eagles Over London features British soldiers who manage to assume the identity of German soldiers after escaping from Dunkirk via Operation Dynamo, but its depiction of the event is merely an inciting incident for what follows. There was also a 1942 British propaganda film called In Which We Serve that follows the fictional HMS Torrin — based on the real HMS Kelly — and its role in Operation Dynamo.
Nolan's Dunkirk is currently scheduled for release on July 21, 2017.