Review: Dunkirk – Sand, Sea And Air

Dunkirk is about suffering and bravery, about individuals who care less about themselves  than about a greater good. Stephanie Zacharek TIME Magazine

Telling the personal stories within the big picture

By Roger Childs

It was a momentous event early in World War II, and enabled Britain to battle on against Nazi Germany. Over 300,000 French, Dutch and British troops were rescued from the Dunkirk beach after being corralled there in May 1940 by German Panzer divisions.

Christopher Nolan’s movie, which is the first to focus entirely on Dunkirk, is told mainly from the point of view of individual participants – soldiers, sailors, airmen and boat owners. The film is predictably noisy, but the cinematography is very impressive and the acting first class.

However in providing only minimal historical context and jumping around between men on the beach, Spitfire pilots and one pleasure boat in the “Armada”, the film sometimes loses its way: three and a half stars.

Superb acting

Dunkirk was a dichotomy of the helpless and the helpers. The soldiers on the beach with rifles that were useless against the strafing German fighters, could do nothing but queue, hope and wait. Their powerless frustration, and exposure to enemy attack is brilliantly conveyed in the movie, and 18 year old actor Fionn Whitehead (shown alongside), does a great job in the role of one of the endlessly waiting soldiers.

Meanwhile, the pleasure craft Moonstone, represents the small boat Armada. Mark Rylance as the skipper gives a superb performance, as does Tom Hardy as the Spitfire pilot who is running out of fuel to get back to base, but puts the greater good ahead of his own survival. And Kenneth Branagh is suitably dogged as the British navy commander.

Nolan’s three pronged approach to the action – beach, boat and dog fights – generally works well, but occasionally the changes of focus are too fast which confuses the audience.

Unfortunately, he can’t resist over-dramatising a pilot in a ditched plane trying to bash his way out as the water rises, and the very slow emergence of the plane wheels as a Spitfire lands on the beach.

Filming high quality, music over the top

The cinematography is first class and focuses on the action rather than the setting. There was nothing picturesque about Dunkirk!

The cameras brilliantly capture the claustrophobia of soldiers trapped in sinking boats and planes, contrasting with the nowhere to hide scenes of the long queues on the wide beach.

Unfortunately the music is too loud; there is enough noise with the aerial dog fights and the shelling of the jetties and boats!

Hans Zimmer employs plenty of violins and other strings, but much of the sound track is too discordant and inappropriate, such as the catchy dance tune playing when two soldiers are running with a stretcher across the sand.

More history needed?

The film provides minimal information on why hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers were trapped on the beach at Dunkirk. At the start words appear, such as hoping for deliverance and hoping for a miracle.


It was deliverance, but to what extent was it a miracle?  Hitler ordered the tanks to stop 12 miles from Dunkirk, which infuriated General Guderian whose Panzer divisions could have massacred or captured the beleaguered allied soldiers.

Why halt the offensive? Historians have long pondered on this decision.

Did Goering convince the Fuhrer that his beloved Luftwaffe could annihilate the allied forces trapped on the sand? Did Hitler feel that taking Paris and rest of France was a higher priority? Did he did not press home the German attacks in the ludicrous hope that the Britain might join their fellow Anglo-Saxons to move against Communist Russia?

Whatever Hitler’s motives, the movie could have had a scene setting sequence early on, to show the Panzers getting their instructions and pulling up in frustration at the Aa Canal.

A fitting tribute to the actions of the British

Christopher Nolan has produced a very good movie on the Dunkirk evacuation.

It highlights the actions of the people of England selflessly pulling together to save their beleaguered soldiers so that they could live to fight another day.

Dunkirk is a dramatic, realistic and authentic movie about momentous events 76 years ago which changed the course of World War II; well worth seeing.