Dunkirk movie review. Great cinema, but is it great history?

Dunkirk is a fine drama, gripping and well paced. Tension is maintained throughout and Christopher Nolan has directed with an immaculate sense of action. An outstanding musical score by Hans Zimmer at times seems to howl like a diving Stuka or rasps like a machine gun, adding to the feeling of fear and foreboding. There are a few confusing jumps back and forward in time and an odd subplot about soldiers trapped in a fishing boat being used for target practice but overall, it deserves its 5-star reviews.

The first significant dialogue in the film is “where’s the air force?” and to some extent, the film sets out to highlight the role played by the RAF in protecting Dunkirk. The RAF have suffered from the myth that they were largely absent, mainly because they were not visible to the soldiers on the beaches but in fact were fighting at high altitude over France. Conversely, the myth that the RAF alone saved us from invasion later in 1940 has been grossly overplayed. A disproportionate amount of the film is devoted to the aerial battle with spectacular live footage of Spitfires mixed with very convincing sequences including German aircraft. The Spitfires seem to spend most of their time at low level over the water presumably so they can be seen in glorious “fly past mode”, protecting the ships but in reality, they would have kept much higher as altitude is a key advantage in air combat.

In the 9 days between 26 May to 3 June 1940, the RAF lost 177 aircraft damaged or destroyed, Mostly Blenhiems, Fairy Battles and Hurricanes but not many of the Spitfires featured so prominently in the film. There were also French Airforce and French Naval Air Arm fighters involved in the defence of Dunkirk. The Luftwaffe lost a total of around 240 aircraft (including losses to ground fire) in this period.

Of the 200 destroyers possessed by the RN in May 1940, 39 of these precious ships were sent into action at Dunkirk along with a cruiser and a further 300 assorted other small naval vessels. When fully loaded, the destroyers could evacuate up to 700 soldiers and make several round trips in a day. 6 destroyers were lost in the operation. Just as the RAF could not commit everything to the defence of France, and later Dunkirk, the RN had also had to husband its resources for the future, not just for the defence of mainland Britain, but for the pivotal Battle of the Atlantic.

Although there is a very harrowing and realistic sequence depicting the horror of being trapped below decks when a ship is torpedoed, unfortunately, a representative amount of time is not extended to the central naval aspects of the Dunkirk story. It was the navy and many small merchant ships, paddle steamers and river ferries that in fact rescued the majority of the soldiers saved from Dunkirk. The 700 or so ‘little ships’, so central to the Dunkirk myth were indeed brave and admirable but probably rescued less than 5% of the total saved. They did assist in bringing soldiers off the shallow waters of the beach out to the waiting ships, but the majority of men that made it home passed down the East mole and walked straight onto ships.

60 vessels were employed during the making of the film and they did succeed in portraying the small ships very authentically. The strange decision to eschew CGI meant the attempt to depict the 200 British and French naval vessels of all sizes committed to the fight are completely are inadequate. Just five real naval vessels feature in the film. The only large warship used was a Cold war era French destroyer, the FS Maillé-Brézé, now a museum ship, although dating from 1958, to the trained eye she looks far too modern with enclosed bridge and prominent radars. Two former Dutch Navy minesweepers feature, Hr.Ms. Naaldwijk and Hr.Ms. Sittard, the latter having been rather crudely made-over with fake gun turrets. Another Dutch heritage vessel, the MV Castor has also been painted grey and appears as ‘generic warship’. Two preserved and seaworthy WWII coastal craft, the USN P22 and HMS Medusa were also used. Despite valiant efforts and considerable work by a lot of people, the big scenes are simply too empty, lacking enough soldiers, ships and smoke, if compared to photos taken at the time. When the evacuation was in full swing the East Mole was jammed packed with ships embarking men. When CGI is so prevalent in modern films and relatively cheap, this should have been addressed.

Does this detail matter? From a dramatic perspective not very much, but if the importance of the Navy is airbrushed from our history, even unconsciously as here, it further reduces the public understanding of its value and role.

“Commander Bolton” Photo © 2016 Warner Bros

Omitted from the film is mention of the organisational genius behind the Dunkirk evacuation, Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who ran the operation from his base at Dover Castle. Kenneth Branagh plays “Cdr Bolton”, a grizzled RN commander calm in the face of chaos and danger. Presumably, his character is based on the senior naval officer at Dunkirk, Captain Bill Tennant, whose inspired decision to use the East Mole as a jetty was critical to the large numbers saved. He provides the only brief moment of light relief in a film light on dialogue and humour “The tide changes every 3 hours.” says the Colonel “It’s every 6 hours. That’s why I’m in the Navy & you’re in the Army” replies Bolton.

Some will see this film as a timely metaphor for Brexit, as Britain faces another “Dunkirk”. Remainers will view Dunkirk as a story of a defeated nation, making a chaotic retreat from Europe. Brexiters see Britain making its escape from the forces of evil, a plucky underdog in a precursor to victory. Although this story is a part of history that can be shaped into a narrative that suits your world view, what is certain is that Dunkirk reminds us that we are lucky to live on this island protected by the sea. If we keep our navy strong enough to exert control at sea, we can both protect ourselves and exert influence on events far away. Ultimately Dunkirk is a story about the inspired rescue of a lot of brave, scared and mostly very ordinary, young men. The final total of men rescued at Dunkirk was an incredible 338,226, incidentally around 4 times the size of the entire British Army of today.

This film is far from being a historical abomination such as “U571” and is very real. Its obvious weakness is that by telling three main stories; of a soldier, a Spitfire pilot and one of the ‘small ships’ it rather overlooks the naval heart of the operation. There may not be enough ships, but it still makes for great viewing.