A Brief Commentary by a History Nerd

I’m sure most readers of this site are well aware of this summer’s rare treat, an epic summer blockbuster done as a serious take on a historic event.  I’ve been very excited to see this, and by and large it didn’t disappoint.

Last I knew it had 98% at Rotten Tomatoes and has drawn universally high praise.  It is riveting, intense and exciting without being grossly graphic.  It is well made by every traditional measure.  But I do want to air a couple of personal beefs; one the movie is being praised for, the other, well, critics have no clue…

The first is just that the time structure is confusing.  The movie is broken into land, sea and air components.  The land component covers a week of time, the sea is a day and air is an hour.  The stories are interwoven in such a way that they come together at the climax of the film.  This means some cuts like soldiers boarding a rescue ship at night, cut to one of the “little ships” crossing the channel in broad daylight.  I don’t mean to suggest this is impossible to grasp or any such, but it is an odd structure that requires some attention to follow.

My other complaint is bigger and may strike many as unusual.  Christopher Nolan apparently dislikes CGI and went to extremes to do more traditional film effects.  But this causes a couple problems with this subject that I think DO NOT serve the film well. A small issue will only be noticed by regular readers of this site (!).  The film’s “Messerschmitts” are all the same Spanish Ha1112s that have been film staples since “The Battle of Britain” in 1969.  This is a complaint only because with two actual Bf109E currently in flying condition it shouldn’t have been that hard to get digital models of the real thing.  A similar complaint applies to some of the ships that are clearly post war, or at least heavily modified in the post war period (too many antennas, too much enclosed superstructure, too modern armament).  All of this could have been fixed with CGI.
But the even bigger problem is one of scale.  Dunkirk, or Operation Dynamo, was a massive operation.  There were nearly 400,000 men trapped in the perimeter and lines of men awaiting transport for days on end.  There were over 800 ships (including 39 destroyers), about a third of which were sunk.  And it was the RAF’s first large scale commitment to battle with 3500 sorties flown. Yet for most of the movie we only saw a few scattered groups of soldiers on the beach, a few ships (which ALL seemed to sink…), and never more than three Spitfires.  This is a major failing of SCOPE! The movie often felt WAY too small.  And this is exactly what CGI is good for.  Let’s fill out those crowds, put some more ships in the water and put some whole squadrons of airplanes into the action. To be fair, the actual numbers were mentioned a few times.  But SHOW US!  That’s what movies are good for, it’s a visual medium.

I admit to nitpicking here.  The movie is tense, exciting and may introduce many viewers to a critically important event they mostly know nothing about.  Seriously, I’ve been amazed how many people said “what’s that about” when I mentioned my excitement for the movie.
Perhaps this nitpicking is why I prefer my history in books and reserve movies and television for fiction…

  ~ Dave 

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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39 Responses to Dunkirk

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    I will go and watch it.
    Thanks for the critic.

  2. GP Cox says:

    I appreciate you clarifying fact from fiction before I went to see the picture. I am not “up” on as much ETO facts as I should be. You inspired me to check into it further and this is what under the radar, the military.com’s entertainment site had to say….
    “Dunkirk is an awesome movie experience, one that ignores all the rules of historical drama to focus on the perspectives of the men who lived through the British and French evacuations from Dunkirk beach in 1940. Director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar) figures you can get your history elsewhere; he’s more interested in what it felt like to survive an onslaught from a faceless enemy.”

  3. jfwknifton says:

    An excellent review! I just hate the Ha1112s in war films and the occasional Raid in that seems to drift in occasionally. It sounds like it was a huge chance to use CGI missed.

  4. Ernie Davis says:

    One thing about the CGI, Nolan is one of those holds who likes to shoot on actual film as opposed to digital. I can’t be sure, but I doubt he would shoot on film only to then digitize the entire thing and CGI a bunch of stuff, but perhaps just having the original cut on film captures what he wants and is caught by the digital conversion as opposed to digital cameras from the start. Chuck for instance famously shot on everything from 16mm to a Cannon D8, and you can constantly see inferences on the DVD in the feel of things (something they subsequently lost a lot of in the later lower budget seasons). But it could be that inserting digital effects into the digitized film would be far more jarring or stand out as opposed to inserting them into a shot on digital movie.

    I also read about how it was intentionally small scope.

    I plan to see it this weekend.

    • atcDave says:

      It certainly accomplished strong emotion on a personal level. But I question the decision to use film and analog techniques. Especially since he hasn’t always used film!
      It just makes for an abstracted form of the event. In particular, it made the whole event feel too small! It was earth shaking. A defeated army was plucked from defeat and rebuilt to fight the Germans for another five years. THAT gravitas was diminished.

      But hey, I’m sure The Academy will be impressed that film was used…

      With Chuck I think the drastic budget cuts were the biggest issue in making the show look cheap in later seasons. With time and budget I no more believe film is better than digital than vinyl is. Although it may have been true that on a television show budget they could get the look of quality film most easily by using quality film!

    • Ernie Davis says:

      I hear what you are saying, but there is a difference between making The Dark Knight and Dunkirk. They are different genres and seek to accomplish different things. And ultimately that is the creators decision, as has oft been discussed about Chuck. What we wish was their vision versus their vision is the unalterable conflict in both film and TV.

      I’ll generally give space for a creator to choose his tools for each individual project. A master carpenter can be capable of building a barn or a cabinet, and the tools while there is certainly overlap, probably are not the same, but both are worthy projects and serve a purpose.

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah I understand it’s the film maker’s choice. And I did say it was nit picking.
        But when they choose a historic subject they loose some ownership. Just like when a film maker works from a previously published work, or remakes an older film; there will be some questioning of every change, every variation, because it ISN’T all theirs. It comes with the project’s pedigree.
        When it comes to historic subjects that pedigree is reality. And given how poor most peoples’ understanding of history is I’m particularly uncomfortable with choices that could be misleading.
        My complaints about equipment errors are mostly for me, I find it immersion breaking. But diminishing the scope of events is bigger. It can be misleading, it’s a misrepresentation. And I reject an argument they can claim ownership of the reality. I understand when errors are made for practical/technical/financial reasons. But the artistic vision argument doesn’t really work for me. I can only see the vision as flawed. All things considered, it’s not a HUGE flaw, but I can’t call it anything else.

      • atcDave says:

        Ultimately I guess all I’m saying is I think he choose poorly on that particular issue. I would have rated the film more highly if he’d better captured the scope of it all.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        I think I have to concede your point that when it comes to history or someone else’s ideas the artist can’t claim total control. Something like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan owes a debt to those who experienced those world-changing events and times, so I’ll concede that point. I’ll also partially concede your second point to a degree. Nolan apparently chose to honor those there by personalizing the experience, but those there were not the only ones who experienced those world changing events, and that he chose not to capture, and I can see there is a case that that vision has an inherent flaw to it. But I still think you need to defer to the artist to some degree to decide what he can do best with his time, talents and budget. See it as flawed to whatever degree, but appreciate what he was able to accomplish as a triumph. Some of these subjects will just be to big to capture, like a picture of the Grand Canyon will never be able to convey the experience of actually seeing it.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        I’d also say with some sympathy, that on the equipment part of your complaint, I get it. I grit my teeth every time some movie violates the laws of physics or mangles simple and readily available facts as if they can’t be bothered to use google or wikipedia. But frankly, you are about one of maybe in the hundreds of people who will see this film and be taken out of it by the model of the Messerschmidt on the screen. I know it’s annoying, like the tanks that stand in for the germans in The Battle of the Bulge, but it’s still a classic movie.

      • atcDave says:

        Gee “Battle of the Bulge” always strikes me as the poster child for really poorly done war movies, the “scale” issue was so out of whack it made my head hurt! And of course the equipment problems. Even “Band of Brothers” (My personal favorite) suffers some from recycling the same three German AFVs throughout the series. But at least it’s just the story of one company so the absence of really huge forces is less problematic. But they did a terrific job of filling out the landscape when they needed to, even with an earlier generation of CG.

        I’ve recently re-watched a number of my favorite older war movies, and it is always interesting to see the limitations they have to operate under, and the sacrifices they make to tell the story. What I’ve really noticed more recently is how OLD the cast is in many movies. All characters are often 10-20 years too old for their role. I was really laughing in Tora! Tora! Tora! at all the naval officers in their late 60s… this is something more recent movies, including Dunkirk, are MUCH better at getting right.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Having now seen it I’d have to agree there was a little too small a scope, felt mostly on the beach. You didn’t get the impression, other than a few arial shots, that there were nearly half a million men waiting to see if they’d live, die, or be taken prisoner.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Still a really good movie mind you, but it is slightly diminished by that.

      • atcDave says:

        Ernie! Exactly! We agree.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        OH MY GOD !! Isn’t that a sign of the apocalypse? No wait, that’s the Chuckpocalypse and only on the other site.

      • atcDave says:

        I don’t know, the Cubs did win a World Series…

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Strange days indeed.

  5. You raise some interesting issues with the film here Dave. I think we have to consider the purpose of the film, which is primarily to ‘entertain’ rather than educate as a factual documentary. Personally I’m not a big fan of CGI, I don’t like seeing whole squadrons of aircraft I know are computer generated, to me that makes a film now better than a computer game. However, that said, where in the world are we going to get such quantities of aircraft without CGI. Those of us who are interested in history tend to require more historical accuracy than the average film buff who goes for high budget, computer generated, in your face entertainment. The film makers choice was to not go for CGI but without it, fails to show the enormity and scale of the entire event. With movies like this there has to be a pay off between ‘accuracy’ and using CGI and it sounds like this film failed to meet both. It certainly has high acclaims, and meets the entertainment criteria, but doesn’t give the viewer that feeling of scale which could have been better created with CGI. Will viewers who know little or nothing of Dunkirk come away with a better understanding? It sounds not and therefore fails to portray historical accuracy. I shall try to watch it with a very open mind. Thanks for a great review.

    • atcDave says:

      I think viewers with no knowledge of the event will grasp a little of the importance of what happened. There was definitely an effort made to touch on that. And yes, I agree, history nerds will be a niche with pretty specific concerns.
      But as I’ve indicated elsewhere, I think the film maker does have some responsibility to be faithful to the event unless they are clearly entering the realm of alternative history. This film mostly did a good job, except for that one issue of scale.

  6. The French media aren’t happy with the movie. Of the 340,000 allied soldiers evacuated by boat from Dunkirk, 123,000 were French, an aspect that was apparently missed in the film. The British Daily Telegraph reports:

    Writing in France’s Le Monde newspaper (and reported by The Local), Jacques Mandelbaum called Nolan “witheringly impolite” and “indifferent” towards his country by disregarding the role it played in the battle.

    “A dozen seconds devoted to a group of French soldiers defending the city who were not very friendly and a few more to a French soldier disguised as British in order to try to flee the massacre?” he asks. “That does not account for the indispensable French involvement to this crazy evacuation.

    “No one can deny a director’s right to focus his point of view on what he sees fit, as long as it does not deny the reality of which it claims to represent. Where in the film are the 120,000 French soldiers who were also evacuated from Dunkirk? Where are the 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against a superior enemy in weaponry and numbers?”


    • atcDave says:

      That sort of ties back to my biggest complaint of scale. A “cast of thousands” falls short of the hundreds of thousands actually present. Many important aspects of the story are neglected. Some of that is the film makers right to tell the story he wanted. But obviously it’s easy to feel important parts were overlooked. I could mention we only see Germans in one out of focus shot near the very end. They had a part to play too!

  7. Interesting post, and I think CGI can serve very effectively in filling out the ranks, making the scenes more accurate, not less. More than 20 years ago, in his “Indiana Jones” series, George Lucas very successfully “replicated” one squad of actors into an entire 1918 victory parade, filling the street curb-to-curb.
    I thought “Dunkirk” was often visually striking, but also strikingly sterile. I understand the stiff-upper-lip and all that, and part of what made the evacuation so impressive, was the display of discipline and order in the face of disaster, but Mark Rylance was the only one who seemed to have a pulse. Some of the actors may as well have been CGI.

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah Mark Rylance was definitely the stand out performance of the bunch. His character was easy to respect and really the only fully fleshed out one of the movie. Although I didn’t really object to that sort of minimalism. It was somewhat fitting for an “events larger than life” situation. It was the feeling of smallness that was problematic.

      I read a review taking the opposite view on CG saying in essence “better to keep things sparse than a bunch of cartoony, physics defying CGI”…
      Talk about a false choice! How about realistic, physics obeying CGI! I remember that in Young Indiana Jones, to me it was sort of the coming of age of CGI.

  8. well it wasn’t a ‘war’ movie as such, far less a telling of the story of what happened at Dunkirk. It was about survival against all the odds, focusing on one or two individuals and what THEY had to do to survive. As for the French, typical of them to want and try and ‘big up’ their contribution. Even the ones we did evacuate had to be shipped back to France, before they capitulated

  9. Fred Grevin says:

    I saw the film in both a conventional theatre and in an Imax theatre (2nd time around). Most films I think of as really good can take multiple viewings (e.g., in this genre, “The Longest Day”), but Dunkirk, to my surprise, did not. And, if the intended audience is NOT historians/history buffs, then I think the different timelines are REALLY confusing.

    • atcDave says:

      That’s interesting to hear. I do need to see it again! I was wondering if my wife could follow it, but that does concern me.

      I’m really sad if it doesn’t hold up!

  10. Pingback: Darkest Hour | Plane Dave

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