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The Reality of DUNKIRK

By A.K. Patch on Aug 07, 2017

Movies about historical events attempt to bring to light the lives and decisions of individuals and nations and compel the audience to experience the climactic events from the comfort of their chairs.

Of course it’s entertainment, and we’re good at sitting and watching. And this is fine as long as some of us absorb, at some level, something of what the director hopes we learn from the experience.

The history of mankind overflows with stories of courage and suffering, hope and disaster.

War intensifies in an exponential manner the totality of human nature, mostly with the sobering realities of death and horrible injuries among the combatants and civilians, the loss of livelihoods and homes, and destruction of countries. The lingering wounds are not limited to the physical.

When ideals like delivering people from tyrannical rule or extermination, and preserving a way of life that respects the value of individuals and the collective are at stake, people and nations can come together to achieve great acts of heroism and sacrifice.

The Miracle of Dunkirk involves the evacuation in May and early June, 1940, of over 338,000 British, French, and Belgian troops cornered on a French beach and facing annihilation by the invading German forces of Adolf Hitler.

A movie director attempting to portray the enormity of such a climactic event in a desperate war has difficult decisions to make. Somehow, that artist has to bring the audience into the individual acts of heroism and make the viewer wonder how they would feel and what they would do in the same situation. On a larger scale, the director must help us understand the bigger story that sets the stage for the ultimate in human drama.

After Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain, France and other allied countries declared war on Germany and Italy. Eight months later, Germany invaded France through Belgium, Holland, and the Ardennes Forest, slicing through fixed fortifications with mechanized tank divisions, mobile infantry, and a powerful air force. Then, a large portion of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was outmaneuvered and trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, along with their allies, all their equipment and heavy weaponry.

Imagine, the flower of the British Army, slaughtered or captured early in the war? With their armed forces depleted, an invasion of England by Germany had a greater chance of success. France surrendered in late June. Knock England out of the war, and who could oppose the might of Hitler’s armies in Western Europe

But a miracle did occur. The German armies, held back for various reasons, did not attack the beaches and instead, relied on the Luftwaffe, the Air Force, to destroy the trapped forces at Dunkirk and their naval escorts. They bombed and strafed. German artillery pounded the trapped allies.

The Germans expected surrender. The allies had other plans.

Almost 1600 allied naval vessels, ferries, tugboats, civilian motorboats, and small craft made repeated trips to pluck the soldiers from France and drop them off in England 72 kilometers or more away. Furious battles in the sky resulted in the loss of 145 British planes. Of the 1600 vessels taking part, and maybe others not recorded, almost 500 were sunk. The allies left hundreds of tanks, 2500 heavy guns, 65,000 vehicles, equipment and supplies on the beach.

We cannot understand from our vantage point, living in relative safety in the United States in 2017, the desperate nature of the individual soldiers who waited in those long lines with at first their feet in sand, then in water up to their ankles, then knees and waists, then necks for hours at a time waiting to reach a ship of some kind.

We rarely encounter this kind of distress where the future of our nation is under attack and in serious doubt.

This movie, directed by Christopher Nolan, concentrates on individual story lines rather than the enormity of the events that brought the armies to that French port.

The soldiers, in their efforts to survive, showed heroism and cowardice, courage and ‘shell shock’. We experience the battle and evacuation on the streets, the sand, in the channel, and in the air.

We also see the valor of the British citizens called to serve. They risk their property and lives to rescue their countrymen and allies in their hour of need. It is a true and shining example of
Sselfless heroism when others were at risk.

This is message for me.

What does it take for the average person to rise to the occasion for others?

What does it take for nation to forget its internal divisions and act as one?

Must a disaster occur for the unity and selflessness that was described as ‘The Dunkirk Spirit’ to catch fire in the United States?

Are we capable of that kind of spirit, as demonstrated by the previous generation in World War II?

I desired more setup in this movie-. The viscous German Panzer tank divisions sitting above the beaches, miraculously standing down, and allowing the rescue of the troops. I wanted to see the devastating attacks that did occur, the- strafing and bombing. 400,000 troops lining up and waiting for their turn, starved and thirsty, exhausted beyond normal endurance.

I wanted more of the enormity of the threat, the ferocity of the attacks, the catastrophe that did occur on a larger scale, and the unbelievable operation that rescued them.

We certainly got some of that, but I could have eaten big spoonfuls of it; something more epic. One could imagine that would have required much more equipment, props, digital representation, and many extras.

But hold on because there are treasures here, also.

Instead, I found myself captivated with the men struggling to survive on sinking ships and the dogfighting British Spitfires up against German ME 109’s.

Nolan went for the individual experience from different viewpoints. My favorite of which was the British man and his two sons who crossed the channel to help where they could. Without telling more, their story is compelling, and completes the circle of the message of this movie.
Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, rising to the occasion and performing selfless acts.

Go to this movie if you can and see what part of Nolan’s message resonates with you. As a former naval officer, historian, an author, I am pleased that these movies are attempted. They bring attention to the sacrifice necessary to advance accumulated civilization. Perhaps, many will pick up a book and read in depth about how it really went down. We also cannot underestimate the value of Winston Churchill speeches and leadership during the war. Leadership matters.

I saw the advance screening on a military base and the audience was appreciative of Director Nolan’s special message of thanks for all they do. He deserves credit for taking on the monumental task of bringing this climactic event to the attention of a public that values freedom and what may be required to preserve it.

Allan Patch is the author of the contemporary/historical fiction thriller Apollo Series. Passage at Delphi and Delphi’s Chosen use contemporary characters, historical encounters, and page-turning adventure to pose the question: what must we learn from our past to ensure our future. Read more from Allan at