A couple of years ago on a TDY to some faraway land [I think it was Hawaii], a friend and I watched a movie about Dunkirk that was made in 1958. As with the movie that I saw last night, the movie was simply titled Dunkirk. It was a very good, very effective portrayal of the chaos, desperation, and uncharacteristic [for the British] improvisation that was Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force [BEF] from Northern Europe in 1940. The story’s focus is split in two – the first is one the homefront. The British government kept the British public in the dark on the progress [or lack thereof] of the British war effort. There was also a sense of complacency in Britain about the war, because they had been at war for eight months [the so-called “Phoney War’] where nothing really happened in Europe. When the government starts to “requisition” private watercraft for an operation the on which the government won’t comment, that feeling of complacency starts to change. During this part of the film. you get the figurative “big picture” about how and why things are going to Hell in a hurry.
The second focus is on a squad of British troops lead by Cpl. Tubby Binns as they try everything they know to outwit and evade the Germans as they make their way through enemy-held territory to rejoin the BEF in northern France. You had the sense the Germans were breathing down their necks at every opportunity. This culminated in a very ballsy move by Binns and his troops to move right through a German camp, using the noise from a German air raid to cover their movements to avoid detection by the Germans they were trying to evade. By the movie’s end, Binns and his troops make it back to Britain, and the split on the homefront between those who know there’s a real a war and those who think the war is a fake has disappeared.
About eighteen months ago I heard there was going to be a new movie about Dunkirk, and that it was going to be filmed in IMAX format. Given the nature of the 1958 movie, one that I thought would be hard to top, and the technology available to tell the story again, I had very high expectations. I had similar expectations for Pearl Harbor sixteen years ago. Those expectations were dashed when that movie turned out to be a chick flick, and when Alec Baldwin was cast to play Jimmy Doolittle. Luckily, the new movie Dunkirk is no chick flick.
The story of the movie has a promising beginning. British Tommies are fighting their way through the streets of Dunkirk when they are bombarded with German propaganda leaflets. The leaflets are very simple and very effective. They depict the disposition of German forces against the British – a sea of red in northern France, Belgium and Holland [the Germans] and a small pocket of white on the English Channel coast around the small town of Dunkirk [the British, labeled “you”]. We see the Tommies evading German sniper fire to just barely make it to the safety of the French lines, and then make it to the beach, where we see British troops patiently queueing up to wait their turn to get off the beach. But what is missing is context, the “how did we get in this mess” part. There is no sense that the German Wermacht is handing the Allies their collective ass in a rout. The only sense of menace one gets is from the Luftwaffe. The “oh shit” factor comes from the Stukas. The movie easily captures the essence of that terror weapon from that time. Sitting in the theater, you feel like those screaming Stukas are coming for you.
Scale. The thing that was missing from this movie was “scale”. Kenneth Branaugh’s character rightly stated there were almost 400,000 men stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. But when you look at the shots of the beach, there’s lots of open sand. Two weeks ago, I saw more people at Pensacola Beach to watch the Blue Angels perform than what I saw in the movie last night. In the 1958 movie, the soldiers are packed into and around Dunkirk like proverbial sardines. To provide a more recent example, Atonement captured more feel of how cramped, chaotic, grim and desperate Dunkirk was in a single, five-minute take than the new Dunkirk movie did in almost two hours.
Dunkirk Scene from Atonement
This movie was filmed in IMAX. The pictures are bigger, the resolution of the pictures is crisper, and the sound is better. You can literally hear the bullets whizzing around you as the Tommies are trying to avoid being killed by the unseen Germans. You get the sense the British are in trouble, but not that they are desperate. The aerial sequences are outstanding. You’re in the cockpits with the RAF as they try to keep the Luftwaffe away from the beaches. When the bullets from the German aircraft hit the Spitfires, you can almost feel it. There were only a handful of British aircraft portrayed in the movie, giving one the sense of a very few against the entire Luftwaffe. Perhaps that was the intent, because from the vantage point of the ground pounders, “where was the Air Force?” That question was asked in this movie, and it was asked in the 1958 movie. Most of the air-to-air fighting was done away from the beaches.
To imagine the scale of Operation Dynamo, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were trapped in a very small pocket of land about the size of Hong Kong waiting to either be rescued by the British or captured by the Germans. Almost 700 ships of all kinds [some were just pleasure boats, not ships] were needed to evacuate such an enormous mass of humanity. That wasn’t really depicted in the new movie. When the “cavalry” finally does appear and Kenneth Branaugh says he can see “home”, it’s underwhelming.
Claustrophobia. The claustrophobia you sense in the new movie is more on a micro level rather than a macro level. It comes on the ships once the troops were evacuated. One gets the sense that the thing that will kill the evacuees would be drowning below decks on the ships that get attacked by the Luftwaffe and the U-Boats. You’re in the cockpit of one RAF pilot who had to ditch his Spitfire. The water is rushing in but the pilot can’t get out because his canopy is jammed. But fear not – without giving away too much of the plot, this guy lives.
There are two enemies in this movie – the Germans and the English Channel. The Channel is ever-present, but one never really gets the sense that the Germans are closing in, tightening the noose around the BEF with each passing hour. In the 1958 movie, you saw Germans. You saw their faces, your heard their voices, you felt the approach of their tanks outside of Dunkirk. The new movie doesn’t have that. You don’t see any Germans at all until the last frames of the movie.
Shell shock – Cillian Murphy is a British private who is rescued [by one of the civilian boats requisitioned by the Royal Navy] from the remnants of a sunken ship. Not only has he been chased out of France by the Germans, he nearly died after a U-Boat sank the ship that got him out of France. He’s seen a lot of bad stuff, he’s been “in the shit”, and he’s seen enough. He doesn’t make any bones about wanting to go home. But when he found out the boat he was on is going in the opposite direction, he freaks, with some unfortunate consequences. When he asks the boat captain why he, a civilian, is doing such a thing to deliberately go into harm’s way, the boat captain has the best line in the movie - “Men my age dictate this war, why should we not fight it?”
Conclusion. The new version of Dunkirk proves to me that “newer” doesn’t always mean “better.” This movie has been hailed by some critics as a “masterpiece.” The bar for such a distinction must be pretty low these days. I’ve seen masterpieces, and Dunkirk  is not one of them. It isn’t crap either. For me it is a case of missed opportunities and heightened expectations. While Dunkirk is not a masterpiece, it isn’t crap either. It is a good movie that could have been great. Save your money and wait for pay per view.