Not many film sets have to scan for unexploded ordnance before production can begin — but filming “Dunkirk” required just that. Luckily, nothing was left behind from a battle now more than 75 years old, and director Christopher Nolan was able to bring “The Dunkirk Spirit” back to life.
In 1940, the outcome of World War II looked bleak for Europe. France fell within weeks of the start of the German blitzkrieg, and the British Expeditionary Force — along with its French and Belgian allies — was trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk by the Nazi war machine.
Their salvation wasn’t coming from the Royal Navy or Air Force. No reinforcements were on the way. There would be more battles to fight, and those ships, planes, and men would be needed for the coming days.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay put Operation Dynamo, a planned evacuation of the British forces from Dunkirk, into action. In Dynamo, the British military enlisted the aid of British civilians and their personal boats to ferry the men off the beaches and take them back to the home island.
The 400,000 stranded at Dunkirk would just have to survive.
Sometimes, survival is enough.
Survival is what Christopher Nolan’s new film “Dunkirk” is about. The director has said numerous times that “Dunkirk” is not a war movie.
“People will call it what they want to call it when they see it,” Nolan told We Are The Mighty. “For me, having never fought in a war, the idea of diving in and telling a war story is daunting, it felt presumptuous. This is not something that I profess to be knowledgeable about. What I was fascinated by was the evacuation itself which to me, it’s not so much a conventional war story, it’s an honor story. It’s a race against time.”The men on the beach at Dunkirk had to maintain their grit and their stiff upper lip in the face of an enemy that had them outgunned and surrounded. This spirit of determination became known in British culture as “The Dunkirk Spirit.”
“It has a deep meaning for the English people,” says Mark Rylance, who plays one of the Little Ship captains who sails for Dunkirk. “We were the underdogs on that beach but we rose to the occasion and eluded the enemy. The Dunkirk Spirit has to do with that perseverance, endurance, and also selflessness.”
An experience is an apt description of Dunkirk. The movie is shot on 65mm IMAX film, making for a truly immersive WWII moviegoing experience for the viewer. “Dunkirk’s” visual beauty comes from the attention to detail Nolan brings to telling the stories — from filming the movie at the beaches of Dunkirk, to the British .303 rifles, and the use of the real “Little Ships” (as they came to be called) in the film.
Nolan even crossed the English Channel on a small vessel, similar to one of the little ships. His voyage took 19 hours in the choppy seas of the channel.
“It was a very arduous crossing,” the director notes. “And that was without anyone bombing us. What really stuck with me was the notion of civilians taking small boats into a war zone. They could see the smoke and the fires for many miles. So their willingness to do that and what that says about communal spirit are extraordinary.”
The director was even able to sit down with veterans of the BEF at Dunkirk, who told him of their experience and added to the historical value of the film.
“There are very few left since 1914 so it was an honor for me to experience,” Nolan says. “They very generously met with us and told us of their experiences. It’s one thing to study history with books. It’s another to sit across the table from someone who’s actually lived it and listen to their story.”
Dynamo’s plan was to save at least 40,000 men from encirclement and destruction. The Little Ships helped pull a total of 338,000 troops off the beach.
The “Dunkirk” story extends beyond the beaches and seas of the French coast. Nolan’s film tells the story from three points of view, using fictional characters to tell the full story of what happened on the land, seas, and in the air. It took about a week for ground troops to get off the beach via a mole (a large breakwater, often with a wooden pier built atop it), a day to cross the channel by boat, and an hour to cross by air.
Nolan’s story spans all three time frames and he faithfully recreates the extraordinary measures everyone at Dunkirk — including those in the skies above — took to survive. The operation to pull the recreation together was like a military operation in itself: thousands of extras, real French destroyers, and roaring British Spitfire and German ME-109 engines.
The effort took a toll on the filmmakers as well.
“I chose to really try and put the audience into that situation,” Nolan says. “Make them feel some degree of what it would be like to be there on that beach. I’d like the audience to go home with an understand of what happened there and hopefully some interest and respect for the war and the history of the real-life events”
“Dunkirk” opens in theaters July 21st.