Dunkirk is a 2017 war film written, co-produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan. It features an ensemble cast starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy, and portrays the Dunkirk evacuation of the Second World War. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, the film is a co-production between the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and the Netherlands.
Nolan wrote the script, told from three perspectives – land, sea, and air – with little dialogue and intended to create suspense through visuals and music. Filming began in May 2016 in Dunkirk, France, and ended that September in Los Angeles where it began post-production. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot the film on IMAX 65 mm and 65 mm large format film stock. It made extensive use of practical effects, such as employing thousands of extras, boats that had participated in the historical evacuation, and using era-appropriate planes for the aerial sequences.
Three different perspectives with overlapping time periods: one week on land, one day at sea, and one hour in the air, create a non-linear narrative.
An introductory text says that in 1940, after the invasion of France, hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers had retreated to Dunkirk. As German forces close in, they await evacuation in a seemingly hopeless situation.
I. The Mole
The remains of the East Mole of Dunkirk harbour, pictured in 2009.
Tommy, a young British private, is the sole survivor of an ambush by unseen German soldiers in Dunkirk. At the beach he finds the troops waiting for evacuation. He meets Gibson, who is burying a comrade. After a German dive-bomber attack, they happen upon a man left for dead, and rush his stretcher onto a hospital ship, but are denied passage themselves. The ship is attacked; in the chaos they save another soldier, Alex. At night they depart on another ship, but this is sunk by torpedo. Gibson saves Tommy and Alex and they are taken ashore by a lifeboat, commanded by an officer who would become shell-shocked in the ‘Sea’ plotline.
Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant review the situation. The navy is requisitioning civilian vessels that can get closer to the beach.
Alex, Tommy, and Gibson join a group of Scottish soldiers heading for a trawler beyond the Allied perimeter. They hide inside until the tide rises. Its owner, a Dutch mariner returns. Soon after, German troops shoot at the boat for target practice, and when the tide rises, the holes start to let in water. Seeking to reduce weight, Alex accuses Gibson, who has been silent, of being a spy, and demands that he be put off. Gibson reveals he is French, but has stolen the identity of the soldier he buried, hoping to evacuate with the British. The tide floats the boat, but it soon starts to sink. The men abandon ship; ‘Gibson’ becomes entangled in a chain and drowns. Alex and Tommy swim for a nearby minesweeper, but this is sunk by a bomber. They are rescued from burning oil and taken aboard Moonstone.
They cross the English Channel, and are placed on a train in Weymouth. As it approaches Woking, Alex and Tommy expect public scorn; instead, they receive a hero’s welcome. Tommy reads Churchill’s address to the nation from a newspaper.
At the beach, Commander Bolton watches the last British soldiers leave. He confirms that 300,000 have been evacuated, compared with the most hopeful initial estimate of 30,000. He stays to oversee the evacuation of the French rearguard.
II. The Sea
In Weymouth, rather than let the navy take his boat Moonstone, Mr. Dawson and his son Peter set out themselves. Their teenage friend George joins them, hoping to do something noteworthy. At sea they rescue a shell-shocked officer from a wrecked ship. When he realises that Dawson is sailing for Dunkirk, he panics and demands they turn back. Intimidated, Peter locks him below. After being let out, the soldier tries to wrest control of the boat; George gets pushed and suffers a severe head injury that causes him to go blind. Dawson continues towards France.
They see a Spitfire ditch, and Dawson steers for it. The pilot, Collins, is trapped inside the jammed canopy, which Peter breaks open. Peter reveals that his elder brother was a Hurricane pilot, killed early in the war.
They encounter a minesweeper under attack from a bomber. Dodging fire from a fighter, they manoeuvre to take on troops, including Alex and Tommy, from the sinking ship. They get clear just before its oil slick is ignited by the bomber as it crashes to sea. Peter tells the men to be careful around George, but Alex finds him already dead. When the shell-shocked officer asks if George is alright, Peter lies, saying that he will be fine.
Back in Weymouth, Dawson is congratulated for all the men he has saved, and the shell-shocked officer sees George’s body carried away. Peter gives a photograph of George to the local newspaper, and a front-page article commends him as a hero.
III. The Air
One of the Spitfires repainted for the film.
Three Spitfires, piloted by Farrier, Collins and led by ‘Fortis Leader’, head towards France, knowing that their flying time is limited by their fuel. They encounter German fighters and Fortis Leader is shot down. Farrier assumes command, and although his fuel gauge is shattered, they press on. They shoot down another plane, but Collins’s Spitfire is badly damaged and he ditches. Farrier continues alone.
Farrier sees a bomber attacking a minesweeper near Dawson’s yacht. Switching to reserve fuel, he engages it and a fighter overhead. After driving off the fighter, he shoots down the bomber, which crashes and ignites its oil slick.
Farrier reaches Dunkirk, his fuel exhausted, and shoots down a dive bomber while gliding over the beach, to cheers from the troops below. Farrier manages to crank his landing gear down and lands beyond the perimeter. He sets fire to his plane, and is taken prisoner.