It is an uncomfortable truth that, in these modern times, a vast number of people around the world have the privilege of insulating themselves from the horrors of war. Pockets of terrifying conflict rage in specific regions, and people flee – seeking refuge. Outside of those regions, we view this violence through the screens on our digital devices, and feel worried, or sympathetic, or pained. Perhaps we donate to a charity concerned with helping those caught up in the conflict – and then we swipe the screen and book tickets to see the latest ‘shoot-em-up’ movie at the local multiplex, or go home and play Call Of Duty. For these reasons, Dunkirk is a gut-wrenching prospect.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk focuses on one of the bleakest moments amid humanity’s darkest chapter. In May 1940, the forces of Nazi Germany had swept across Europe, swallowing up, occupying and devastating everything as they went. Allied forces attempted to halt their advance and defend France, but large numbers of British, Belgian and French troops were surrounded by the German army – with any route of retreat cut off – during the Battle of France.
Winston Churchill himself was heard to lament that “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” was trapped in Dunkirk, and that disaster was surely imminent. It was the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force who determined that evacuation of troops by sea, across the English Channel, would provide the best chance of survival – and survival was necessary if the Allied forces were to continue battling Hitler’s troops.
So, Operation Dynamo began. In addition to the 39 British destroyers and ships that participated in the rescue, an extraordinary flotilla of sea-faring craft – from merchant ships to fishing boats; from lifeboats to pleasure cruisers – was assembled and sent into action. Within eight days, 338,226 soldiers were evacuated to safety. Thousands lost their lives, but the operation was quickly hailed as miraculous.
The first teaser for the film is brief, but hard-hitting. It gathers momentum slowly, before depositing us just above a troop transport out at sea. The camera lingers on these men. We cannot help but note their young age, and their tension-filled expressions. They are silent but, one by one, their attention is gradually drawn by the sound of an aircraft approaching from a distance. As the plane begins to screech in an undeniably aggressive way, the men react with fear, and attempt to take cover – but crammed in an open boat, there is nowhere to hide. The teaser ends, but we know deep in our souls what happens next.
We know, because we are all marked by it. That moment in history was so seismic that the repercussions of it continue to reverberate through the lives of everyone on the planet. It transformed politics, geography, economics, social structure, and warfare – on a global scale. It literally changed the world in many ways – for better and worse – and, though we hold remembrance services every year, large swathes of the modern generation can choose to avoid looking into that abyss, thanks to technological advances.
But, those are the also the technological advances that Christopher Nolan is employing to allow us to look at this dark chapter, and truly experience it as much as is possible, seven decades on. Using a combination of IMAX cameras, traditional Panavision and real vessels, he seeks to capture every essence of the action, and immerse the audience in the sand on that beach of Dunkirk. It is an uncomfortable truth, but a necessary one – in order to remind us all from whence this modern world sprang.
Dunkirk is due for release on July 21st, 2017.