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Dunkirk Film Review

The History

Early into the second World War, in 1940, the battle was raging on between the Allied powers and Nazi Germany in Europe. The western front was fought primarily in France. By 1940, the German army had invaded The Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France using a relentless blitzkrieg military tactic that proved to be greatly successful. British, French, and Belgian troops fought to stop the advance of the Germans through northern Europe, however they were unable to hold their positions and were forced to fall back. To Churchill’s surprise, the French lacked the reserve forces necessary to aid the withdrawing troops.

In a scramble to recover their losses after the German advance, the British launched Operation Dynamo, and effort to evacuate the allied forces out of northern Europe and back to Britain. On the 21st of May, 1940, the British launched a counter attack to disrupt the German advance and buy themselves time to begin the evacuation. The allies had to fight their way back west toward the beaches of Dunkirk on the English Channel where the evacuation would take place.

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On May 22, in what is widely considered one of the largest turning points of the second World War, Hitler approved the infamous Halt Order which may have turned out to be one of his greatest mistakes throughout the war. The Halt Order gave British troops a small but vital window of opportunity to fight their way back to Dunkirk on the English Channel. By the 29th of May, the evacuation had begun. A fleet of ships from the British navy was hastily assembled to transport French and British soldiers back to England. Many civilian fishing and life boats, known as the “little ships” aided in the massive evacuation.

By the 4th of June, 1940, more than 338 000 British soldiers and 120 000 French soldiers had been evacuated back to the safety of Britain. The operation included air support over the beaches to try to fight off the German air attacks on the beaches. In total both the British and the Germans lost more than a hundred aircraft battling for control of the skies over Dunkirk during the evacuation. While hundreds of thousands of lives were saved and the British military remained crippled but largely intact, nearly 68 000 troops were lost during the operation and thousands more French troops were captured as prisoners of war. To get as many soldiers back to England as possible, the British had to leave all of their weapons and equipment behind.

The Film

Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film “Dunkirk” quickly became one of the biggest films of the summer, coming second only to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast – the eight biggest movie of all time according to some UK box offices. The film was praised for it’s excellent use of imagery, such as the scene with a burning plane that, according to this brilliant New York Times review, conveyed a sense of defeat mixed with defiance.

The general consensus among critics is that the secret to the success of Nolan’s film is that it shows a very human factor, something that can be challenging to do in a war movie comprised of chaos, explosions, violence, and the relentless popping of gunfire. The movie relies heavily on imagery, rather than dialogue, to tell the story and set the tone. One of the most powerful images is an overhead view of the tens of thousands of British and French soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach. As if they were a swarm of ants, the image shows just how isolated and vulnerable they are. Similar to that first iconic image of the earth, The Blue Marble taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft. Images can be used to convey a powerful message, and this was done brilliantly in Dunkirk to show the sheer vulnerability of the soldiers who stood on that beach.

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Nolan avoids filling the movie with historical back script and instead focuses directly on the experience of the soldiers themselves. This makes for a more heartfelt and emotional plot line and allows viewers to connect more deeply with the characters. It is an intimate story of survival, desperation, and resilience. We often overlook the experience of soldiers themselves and tend to focus more on the political history of war. This film perfectly captures the realities of war that veterans experience. Alongside other hit war movies like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper, this movie draws attention to some very serious topics that many veterans struggle with.

PTSD, short for post traumatic stress disorder, is the name for the psychiatric condition that used to be called “Shell Shock”. Today, much research has been done into PTSD and much progress has been made with regards to treatment options such as therapy and medication. While there is still a lot of work to be done to improve conditions for veterans and non-veterans alike who suffer from PTSD, we have certainly come a long was since the days of WWII.

Movies like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk do an excellent job at focusing on the experiences of veterans and those who have survived any kind of trauma, whether it be in battle or at home. Film is a great way to give us a look into other peoples’ lives and help us to understand their struggles, and that is exactly what Nolan was able to achieve with Dunkirk.

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