S. Martin Shelton

Retired U.S.Navy Captain, Novelist

Film Review – Dunkirk

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Rating – Two stars

I enjoyed the first few minutes of Dunkirk. The narrative was presented in classic cinematic design—relevant, dynamic, kinetic action void of dialogue and supported by pertinent sound effects. “Here’s a winner,” I reckoned. Unfortunately, as the film continued, I became increasingly disappointed.

I do not know what to make of Dunkirk. Is it a historical fiction film based on the rescue of the British army from France, or an avant garde experiment? Nonetheless, as a straight narrative film it is seriously flawed. Notwithstanding the numerous technical errors, several egregious, I could not willingly suspend my disbelief while viewing this film.

Dunkirk does not engender empathy for its characters. One exception is actor Mark Rylance—the skipper of a small boat that putt-putts at an agonizingly plodding pace to the beach at Dunkirk. Other than him, I’ve no one to root for.

There is no antagonist, except some vague enemy who shoots from concealment, fires artillery shells from the ether (as it were), and flies Messerschmitt 109s and drops bombs from Hinkle 119s sans aviators. I’ve no one to fear or abhor. Who is the enemy that is causing the havoc at Dunkirk? I am bamboozled by why the producers did not identify the adversary—the German Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and Kriegsmarine. Am I to conclude that the filmmakers’ cultural-correctness negates history so as not to offend—anyone? Gadzooks! Without a defined antagonist, the narrative is palpably defective.

Compounding my disappointment is the negative ambiance that pervades Dunkirk. The mise en scène focuses excessively on sinking ships, downed aircraft, and dying and dead “tommies”—dying in all manner of horrors. Bedlam is a more fitting title for this epic extant. Admittedly, war is Hell. But to linger on its savagery is ghoulish.

My most serious objection to Dunkirk is the film’s dereliction in failing to communicate the critical importance and far-reaching consequence of the “Miracle of Dunkirk”—the evacuation of 200,000 British “tommies” and 140,000 French poilus from the beaches of France. This British operation was one of Word War II’s most critical actions. The film ignores the great triumph that it was. Had this operation failed, Britain would have been without an army and probably would have had to ask for terms with the Third Reich.

Background. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Wehrmacht Commander of Army Group A during the Battle of France, said, “Dunkirk was one of the greatest turning points of the war.”

The filmmaker missed a beckoning opportunity to concoct a classic cinematic montage that would portray the frenetic activity of British naval personnel and subjects fueling and preparing private boats that could sail the forty miles from Ramsgate to France, and return with soldiers. En route was an armada of eight hundred self-propelled vessels—the “little ships of Dunkirk.” It was a mélange of trawlers, pleasure yachts, fishing boats, dinghies, Thames ferries, lifeboats, automobile ferries, and tugboats. Included also were Belgian fishing boats, Irish motor torpedo boats, and Dutch coasters.

The last scene in Dunkirk shows a rescued British soldier riding in a train, looking at a newspaper. He spots a transcript of Winston Churchill’s famous “Miracle of deliverance” speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940—”We shall fight on the beaches…we shall never surrender.” This was the most famous speech of the war. It boosted British subjects’ sagging morale and encouraged them to carry on. To my serious disappointment, the soldier read aloud this hallmark speech. How pedestrian.

Nolan missed another golden opportunity to salvage a smidgen of this flawed film’s ambiance. After the surfeit of death and destruction that suffused through this epic, it ought to have ended on a high point, a capstone. Consider a scene that would show the “little ships” flotilla closing on the English coast. On the sound track is Winston Churchill delivering his “Miracle of deliverance” oration. Didn’t happen.

The special effects in Dunkirk are spectacular. I wonder, however, if less technology and more plot and cinematic design would have produced a more tolerable film.

FIN

Complete text of Winston Churchill’s “Miracle of deliverance” speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940—the last day of the Dunkirk evacuation.

”We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

FIN

Read more by S. Martin Shelton!

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