I hadn’t watched Dunkirk since I saw it in theaters. But I have always desired to revisit it, knowing, as with all of Nolan’s films, the re-watch would be rich in reward, unraveling layers of complexities and understanding that the ‘spectacle’ of the first watch overpowered (Tarantino’s word in his ‘Rewatchables’ episode).
And I wasn’t disappointed.
Dunkirk resonated much more deeply, when the timeline was less surprising. And the movie’s theme of a national struggle meant so much more in this time of life compared to when I saw it last.
In that ‘Rewatchables’ episode I mentioned, Tarantino starts by telling the story of when he watched Dunkirk in a theater in Britain and how he was struck by the pride of the ticket taker that welcomed him into the theater and of those young Brits going to watch the film with him. He felt that Dunkirk was meaningful to this ticket taker and the country she represented.
I found that insight interesting, but not profound. However, I get it now. Dunkirk is about sacrificing for a nation, for a cause that is uncertain, with limited reward for that sacrifice, in a time of uncertainty. And I didn’t see the movie this way before. But now I do.
The context for the film is important and easy to forget amidst the small and large victories won throughout the movie. The film leaves the viewer with a sense of victory, catharsis, and accomplishment, but it does also remind us, that this was an orderly retreat. The soldiers came home expecting to be reviled as losers who had lost the mainland of Europe and leaving England exposed to a barrage of German bombings that would be the greatest test of their national mettle to date.
In that context, the simple decisions that are too easily viewed as obvious moments of heroism, seem tentative and riskier. A man and his son crossing the English Channel in their boat, having no idea anyone else was doing so, heading straight into the heart of a warzone, in the off chance that they are able to rescue some soldiers and bring them back to Britain to face an even more daunting future, is beyond brave, it’s reckless. It demands that we ask why they would even bother?
Same with the fighter pilot, Ferrier, whose orders were to turn around with enough fuel to make it back home, who instead decides to carry on towards Dunkirk, to try and protect as many lives as possible, despite not knowing a fleet of British small boats were on their way to rescue those soldiers, despite the possibility he would be shot down or run out of fuel and crash to a watery death before accomplishing much of anything.
And for that matter, same with all the young men who fought for their country, who were forced to stand on a beach or a pier or in the hull of a destroyer as enemy bombers reigned down fire from above and a German army pressed at their backs, threatening to push them into the sea.
The situation at Dunkirk was hopeless and bleak, and that’s important to understand to grasp the significance of the rescue at Dunkirk that Nolan so perfectly captures. Because in that desperate situation, there were an incredible number of selfless acts from Brits for Britain that all came together at once, to keep Britain alive and the war effort alive and, by extension, freedom and democracy alive.
This is why Nolan’s use of time in this movie is so powerful. At three different times, in three different ways, without knowing what the other was doing, men and women made choices for the good of Britain, not for the good of themselves. And as we watch them suffer through the bleak moments that threaten them, as George’s death almost turns the Moonstone around, as the fighter pilot almost turns back without any fuel, and as destroyers are sunk on the beaches and men are killed by bombs from above, we can’t possibly imagine how this all ends up okay, and we know it does. How could any of them have hoped for more than we dare hope for them?
And then these divergent timelines merge. The boats come over the horizon driven by stern faced Brits flying their country’s flag and determined to help however they could. Ferrier shoots down that last plane and drifts to a landing, fuel-less and cheered on by the men on the beach, some of whose lives he saved, and Peter pulls Tommy onto his father’s boat, escaping a watery and fiery death, and I was struck by the profoundness of each one of their individual, selfless decisions for the national good.
And I thought back to the pride Tarantino felt from the ticket takers and movie goers in modern Britain, because of a director making this film and telling this story. This isn’t just a war movie, and it’s not just about heroism. Dunkirk is about a country coming together, not under a national mandate, but as individuals wanting what was best for their home. That is why Commander Bolton saw ‘home’ in those boats, because those boats, as much as being borne on waves, were born on ideals that tied everyone together, from whatever timeline or task, under the banner of Britain.
Eighty years later, we can all understand how profound a concept that is, to have a nation united against a common enemy. Maybe not all the country, but enough of it, to rally together and commit isolated acts of selflessness, in the face of such loss, and with a future so bleak, and with so little in return. I don’t think I could have understood why they would have that much pride in that moment, but I think I am starting to grasp it.
As I watched men and boys risk their lives in Dunkirk this time, I understood their profound offering to their country and to each other. I don’t understand it in the way they did, or the way descendants of those men and women do, but I do understand it in some way. Hopefully, someday in the future, I will understand it as they do.
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