History Is People–One by One.

Soldier looking across a beachI meant to write about the film “Dunkirk” last week but it never happened. There are still plenty of showings in my area, so I think it’ll be going for awhile yet. We went weekend before last and didn’t realize until we were told the price of our tickets that we had chosen an IMAX showing, but I think in this instance it was well worth the money. This is a movie about a huge subject, so a huge screen seems appropriate. Even if you don’t normally shell out for movie tickets, preferring to wait until you can

watch it on Netflix or some such, I’d encourage you to see it in the theater if possible.

Let me first explain how Christopher Nolan did the timeline so that you won’t miss out, as I did, on the subtleties involved. Three spheres of action are involved: land, sea and air. Each of these segments covers a different length of time. We see the men trapped on the beach and then their escape, with the time stretching over the course of a week. The actions of the “little boats” that come to rescue them, with a focus on one particular yacht, covers one day. And the dogfights going on over the beach as RAF pilots try to shoot down Luftwaffe plane cover one hour. So each story starts at a different point. I hope that’s clear. Even though there are captions at the beginning of each segment telling the time involved, that information went right over my head. Jim and I want to see the film a second time, though, so I’ll try to keep things straight then.

But even if you get a little lost, no matter. You’ll get the gist. And then you can re-watch it if you want to, perhaps seeing it the second time at home. Christopher Nolan movies are very, very complicated. I’ve watched “Inception” four times and think I sort of understand it; I’ve seen “Interstellar” twice. I’ve seen all of his Batman movies once and have no intention of seeing any of them again; words cannot describe how much I hated “The Dark Knight.” (So was anybody holding a gun to your head, Debi?) “Memento” is quite a film, too, although I don’t think I could sit through it again.

Okay. I’m supposed to be writing, as per the title of this post, about the individual heroism in “Dunkirk.” Now, of course what makes a movie different from a documentary is that you get to make up your own characters and play with the facts. But what a movie can also do is to choose its focus. Out of the thousands and thousands of people involved in the Dunkirk rescue operation, Nolan traces a storyline about only a few: the little group of soldiers who struggle to get off the beach, the two fighter pilots trying desperately to keep German planes from bombing the beach and boats, the yacht owner who decides to take his boat across the Channel himself instead of just handing it over to the Royal Navy. The focus on a few people made me more aware, not less, about the importance of everyone involved. Every single one of those men and woman (there are a few women in the film, serving as nurses and canteen workers) had someone waiting for news about him or her. I always wonder when I see war films how the news ever got back to the families of the dead, especially in the utter chaos (as opposed to the normal chaos) of something like the retreat from Dunkirk. Soldiers manage to get onto a warship. They’re all being fed bread and jam doled out by a smiling, pretty woman. Suddenly the ship is torpedoed. The scene explodes, literally, into a maelstrom of rushing water and fire. How would anyone ever know who was on the ship in the first place? Even if someone had been taking names as the men boarded, the lists would have been destroyed when the ship sank. How did word ever get back? I know there were plenty of “missing, believed dead” and “missing, believed captured,” but what I wonder is how even those lists were compiled.

Our main guy makes it through. (No spoiler there, I’m sure.) There’s a lovely scene at the end when he’s on a troop train and a man runs up and bangs on the window. Our guy thinks the man is insulting him in some way, but then he realizes that he’s being offered a bottle of beer. People in England are rejoicing that the soldiers made it back. We know, though, that the war is far from over. The retreat from Dunkirk took place in 1940. If all of those men had been slaughtered on the beach it’s far from clear how the war would have ended. I was reminded once again, by the way, of not only the heroism of individuals but also the wickedness. Did all of this horror really stem from the Fascist fantasies of one funny-looking little man? Well, that’s a historical debate for later: Would World War II have happened even without Hitler?

For now I’ll just urge you to see this movie before it departs from the theaters. After you’ve done that, you can read or listen to a great but short novel that centers around a solitary man who participates in the Dunkirk evacuation, Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. I wasn’t able to find it at either library for which I have a card, so I ended up buying it from Audible.com for only six bucks. (I got the BBC recording with a cast of characters.) If you’d rather read it, it’s available in print or Kindle through Amazon. Well worth your time!


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