For any of you that don’t know, Dunkirk is based on real events and, whilst it’s a relatively short film and not a history documentary, it doesn’t seem to play too fast and loose with the historical facts. There are certainly a few short cuts and I’m sure if you examine the fine detail you can find mistakes (wikipedia has let a history buff loose on it and there are a few details that are wrong) but without being taking an expert in that exact bit of history you probably won’t find anything to offend the sensibilities of anyone that knows their history of Dunkirk at even a reasonable level (said history buff was quite impressed).

I’ve seen criticism, particularly from young Americans, saying “I can’t believe they made a film about a defeat, wtf?!” It’s true Dunkirk is a film about a defeat but that misses two critical things.

First, there were roughly 400,000 troops, more or less all of the British Army manpower, on the beach at Dunkirk. The German army could have wiped them all out, Churchill hoped to rescue about 10% of them and maybe have enough troops to defend Britain from the inevitable invasion that would have followed. This would have been, without mincing words, a fucking disaster - as much or more of a turning point as Stalingrad was, two years later for the Germans - because Britain would have been out of the war, probably conquered and who knows what history would have looked like. Instead, over 330,000 of them were rescued and although a lot of their tanks and artillery were left behind, Britain remained a functional fighting force, continuing the war in North Africa and then in Asia and finally in Europe, and ultimately playing a significant role in the defeat of Hitlar.

Second, although the “British Bulldog Spirit” is almost certainly not uniquely British (although the name will have to change of course) the small boats that sailed, despite the risks, to rescue the troops, was a rallying point for the country (and certainly exploited as such by the War Office) to show the country pulling together to “save our boys” and “give Hitler a bloody nose” and the like. This served two purposes really, it rallied the country to make what had hitherto been somewhat of a “phoney war” and made it real and united the country as the start of a war machine.

This wasn’t a military victory, although it was discussed as such at the time, but it was pulling defeat from the jaws of disaster which is a definite achievement and it was a big victory for morale and, alongside the Battle of Britain, is probably the foundation of the eventual victory.

Anyway, on to the film itself. The film has three parts: land, sea and air, which makes sense given the nature of the military and civilian operation. They run at different speeds, which also makes sense: the flight time of a Spitfire over Dunkirk is short and we follow a sortie, so that runs in about real time, the small boat flotilla was a one-day operation, so we follow that over the course of a day and the men on the beach were there for nine days in total, and in the film that is shown as taking place over a week. For the most part this works well and it is clear, however, at various times I found what I eventually realised were resets in the timeline to show it from a different angle were slightly confusing because I thought they might be trauma-induced hallucination. But once I caught on it was clear enough.

The film is also quite short on dialog. With think of film as a visual storytelling medium but it’s actually, usually, a spoken-word medium supported by visual imagery. This isn’t a silent film by any stretch of the imagination but there are a lot of scenes where the characters don’t speak, the people on the screen are looking at each terrified for various reasons, or into the skies or whatever, or just observing each other. It’s subtle, I didn’t particularly notice it while watching it, but thinking back over it, it is quite clear.

The film is, in itself, quite hard to classify, if you want to put it into a neat box. Given the subject matter it feels like it should be easy to label it as a war movie. But in a war movie you typically have soldiers from one country shooting at the soldiers (or more recently perhaps at terrorists) from another country (or terrorist organisation) and that’s just not here. We basically don’t see the Germans, except a few planes, and the British forces barely shoot back, except a couple of Spitfires. Perhaps it is better to describe it a historical drama in a war zone although it lacks many of the normal features we’d expect there too.

Whatever it is, there are many critics in the UK raving about this film, and although I don’t count myself among the ranks of the critics I would strongly urge you to see this movie - it really is excellent.

Although it’s not obvious (I have actually been to Dunkerque and didn’t realise, although it was about 40 years ago in my defence) large parts of the film were shot on the actual beach whence the evacuation took place.

Bechdel test - null. I’m pretty sure there are no named female characters. There are hardly any female characters - we see a few nurses and so on but no names. That’s not surprising given the setting and although this should be a no given it’s set largely on the beaches I’m going to score this as a null. It’s hard to write female characters into this movie.

Russo test - null. I have no idea of the sexuality of ANY of the characters shown, except I can infer the older man on the small boat is probably straight or bi. But we don’t see anyone behaving in any sort of sexual fashion to judge - they could all be gay for all I know. They’re far more worried about surviving than anything else and who they fancy just doesn’t matter and isn’t shown.

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