Traditional armchair generals should know Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic “Dunkirk” (** OUT OF ****) has little to do with the battle of Dunkirk. You won’t see German Panzer Corps careening through Belgium and plowing into France. In fact, the only Germans in “Dunkirk” are either flying aircraft (so cannot see them) or show up as infantry from unknown units. Instead, “Dunkirk” confines itself strictly to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F.) in three segments: one on land covering one week, one on sea covering one day, and one in the air covering one hour. Of course, much, much more occurred at Dunkirk than just the wholesale evacuation. Presumably, the “Dark Knight” filmmaker didn’t want to overwhelm himself with an ambitious battle extravaganza. “Dunkirk” was produced for $100-million, and likely millions went to publicity. So, if you’re looking for something like “The Longest Day” (1962), “Battle of the Bulge” (1965), “Anzio” (1968), “A Bridge Too Far” (1977), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016), prepare to be disappointed. “Dunkirk” doesn’t recreate historic battlefield combat, not even the infamous Wormhoudt Massacre. Adolf Hitler’s Waffen-SS soldiers slaughtered as many as 80 British soldiers along with some French POWs. The cold-hearted SS crowded these prisoners into a stable, tossed in stick-grenades, and then finished them off with bursts of machine gun fire. Something like this might have given “Dunkirk” greater dramatic gravity. Instead, we see neither German tanks nor troops storming through France and Belgium. This 107-minute movie boils down to a series of survival episodes that occurred at Dunkirk. Notably, the RAF preferred to confine their resources largely to the island in preparation for the inevitable Battle of Britain, later made into the exemplary film “Battle of Britain” (1969). Along with the RAF, the courageous Royal Navy and the Small Boat Owners emerge as the heroes who rescued the BEF waiting anxiously on the beach.
“Dunkirk” opens with several British infantrymen sauntering down a road inside the Dunkirk city limits as the Luftwaffe showers them with propaganda leaflets. No sooner have they had a moment to glance at these surrender summons than gunfire erupts from an unknown source. As they scramble for cover, unseen shooters kill all them except Tommy (newcomer Fiona Whitehead), who crosses a street and comes under fire then from French troops. They wave him toward their lines, and later he wanders onto the beaches. As far as he can see, queues of troops are standing on the beach awaiting transport. “Spectre” lenser Hoyte Van Hoytema’s atmospheric cinematography shows these soldiers in their brown uniforms standing like ducks in neat, orderly rows on white beaches. These scenes resemble something out of “Lawrence of Arabia” in all their sprawling immensity. Van Hoytema’s cinematography adds to the spectacle of the event. Not long afterward, as Tommy tours the beach, screaming Stuka dive-bombers plunge from the skies, seeding the beaches with bombs. The worst death in “Dunkirk” occurs when one of these bombs blast a British soldier to smithereens as he shoots vainly at a Stuka. Tommy meets another soldier under mysterious circumstances on the beach. Might he be a German saboteur? Without challenging him about his strange behavior, Tommy pitches in to help him. They become fast friends who desperately break the rules and the lines so they can get aboard a transport. Cheekily, they seize a stretcher case awaiting transport and dash to an embarkation station. They reach the ship at the last minute, but they are sent packing because they weren’t Red Cross personnel. Nolan has these two heading off to find passage elsewhere by any means whatever. Their exploits turn into shenanigans as they deal with one setback after another, even after they stow aboard a ship.
Although the RAF lost fewer planes than the Luftwaffe: 145 to 156, “Dunkirk” shows no more than six Spitfire fighters cruising the English Channel in search of prey. Again, budgetary concerns may explain the aircraft shortages. Also, Nolan doesn’t go for too much CGI, so he resorted to cardboard cutouts of troops on the beach. Nevertheless, we get one hour’s worth of the RAF giving the Luftwaffe utter Hell. Predictably, one pilot perishes in a crash, another ditches in the sea, but the third is far more fortunate. RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy of “Mad Max: Fury Road”) riddles repeatedly the Luftwaffe in “Dunkirk’s” most exciting scenes. Christopher Nolan does a decent job of staging several tense scenes of soldiers confronting catastrophe. Unfortunately, apart from Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot, Kenneth Branagh’s Naval officer (rarely endangered), Mark Rylance as an intrepid civilian sailor, and Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier, celebrity movie stars of prominence are far and few between in this epic. Indeed, most of the actors are unknown, except perhaps for “One-Direction” singer Harry Styles. Suspense works best when a character is conspicuous enough either as an actor or as a character for us to care about. Everybody is virtually a nobody in “Dunkirk.” Meantime, evoking sympathy for soldiers so desperate that they take refuge in a beached ship and become targets seems like the province of a horror chiller. Quoting the cliché, they die like fish in a barrel during target practice. Indeed, two of the soldiers trapped in the boat are the same duo who have tried to bluff their way board a Red Cross ship. Oscar winning actor Mark Rylance has one of the better roles as a small boat owner who has already lost a son in the RAF. The episode with the shell-shocked soldier involving the inconsequential treatment of a civilian teen is the least savory scene. Nevertheless, Rylance’s character is never in jeopardy. Often wearing an aviator’s oxygen mask, Tom Hardy looks like the villainous Bane from Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” but he comes closest to being a blood and guts hero. Ultimately, despite its heartfelt tribute to British resiliency in the face of annihilation, “Dunkirk” qualifies as a fair war movie.