In the past, I didn’t consider myself a war movie enthusiast. But that was before I became a chaplain in a retirement community where I host a monthly veteran’s group. Most of the veterans served during World War II. Each time a new veteran joins the group, each one shares some of their own war experiences. As they told me of their heroism, my curiosity about World War II grew as well as my appreciation for what soldiers endured and accomplished. I feel like I’m rubbing shoulders with humble heroes. AARP’s 2018 Movies for Grownups Award winner Dunkirk, a film by Christopher Nolan, authentically captures their stories and their thoughtful, honorable and often courageous actions during World War II.
‘Dunkirk’: AARP Movies for Grownups Winner
Dunkirk traces the land, sea and air retreat and rescue of over 300,000 British and French soldiers from Dunkirk, France, across the English Channel to Great Britain during the last week of May 1940. As German troops press dangerously and lethally against frantically retreating British and French forces, urgency arises as the fleeing soldiers realize the only way Great Britain will survive is if they manage to get home to continue the fight against Nazi Germany.
Watching Dunkirk is gripping, in part because Christopher Nolan’s cinematography puts viewers literally in the action, so we experience and imagine what it would be like to fight in World War II, whether as a fighter pilot or on a naval ship, making desperate decisions to help other soldiers. It’s like Nolan allows us to stand in our World War II predecessors’ giant shoes of bravery. Over and over, we are shown (mainly) men facing life and death with strength of character, mastering their fear and terror because of their commitment to the war’s outcome — victory for the Allies and preservation of home. That’s part of the film’s appeal, seeing soldiers and by extension nations working together for a common cause. Nolan purposefully excludes some of the actual polarization of those times in order to show the equally real common heroism. Dunkirk offers viewers a refreshing break from our polarizing times.
Bravery in the Face of Horror
Nolan knits together individual soldiers’ stories to form a mosaic of World War II soldiering. Thousands of soldiers line up on the beaches in the dark, anxiously awaiting ships to bring them home. Suddenly, a German bomber roars overhead and soldiers drop to a crouch. Bombs fall, and some solders are blown up, while others get up and reassemble, grabbing stretchers to carry their fellow wounded comrades first to the ship. Rather than telling the story of Dunkirk though one individual soldier’s experience like in Saving Private Ryan, Nolan instead creates a tapestry of nameless and often voiceless soldiers whose actions reveal bravery in the face of the horror of war. While Dunkirk shows the grisliness and inhumanity of war, it does so without bloody gruesome scenes.
One of the most moving aspects of Dunkirk was the historically accurate depiction of many British citizens taking their own personal boats across the English Channel to help rescue their own soldiers in the face of German bombing raids. After hearing about thousands of desperate soldiers attempting to cross the English Channel, the film shows one older man and his son taking their small luxury cruiser — used to offer vacation cruises around the cliffs of Dole — across the channel to help with the retreat. After rescuing a downed German fighter pilot, the German pilot wants them to turn around to head to the safety of Great Britain, rather than into the face of German bomber squadrons arrayed in the skies above Dunkirk. The pilot says, “You old fool!” to which the older man replies, “You think we would just send out our young men to fight? The call went out, and we aren’t the only ones to answer.” I hadn’t realized how many regular citizens also braved fear and death, acting selflessly to save their own soldiers.
Deepening Connections, One Veteran at a Time
To my eyes and ears, Dunkirk authentically echoes my veterans’ stories about fighting the Second World War. There’s something distinctive and historic about World War II. Dunkirk reveals both the horror of war as well as many soldiers’ heroism and patriotism that arose in the face of such horror. Not only that, when our veterans share their stories with one another, it deepens their connection to one another and history.