When Hitler ordered an all-out assault on the Western Front in the spring of 1940, the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line proved to be no match for the German blitzkrieg. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France all fell to the Nazis in a matter of weeks.
By May 26th, about 400,000 British, French, Polish, Belgian, and Dutch troops had been forced to retreat to Dunkirk, a port located along the northern coast of France. The soldiers were stranded on the beach because there weren’t enough military naval vessels to evacuate all of the forces.
The logistical nightmare left most of the battle-weary men in need of a miracle because they were sitting ducks for the Nazi artillery fire and Luftwaffe bombs. At 7 p.m. that evening, Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, issued an urgent appeal to private boat owners to help in the rescue effort.
By dawn, over 800 hundred vessels had been pressed into service. The flotilla included everything from speed boats and yachts, tugboats and fishing trawlers, and ferries and ocean liners.
For the next nine days, they sailed back and forth across the U-Boat infested waters of the English Channel. About a third of the ships were sunk by the enemy, but the altruistic patriots managed to save 338,226 troops.
Afterwards, Winston Churchill put a positive spin on the devastating military defeat. that had claimed the lives of 68,000 British soldiers and left the country vulnerable to an imminent invasion. On June 4th, he took to the floor of the House of Commons and delivered his famous speech that assured the country that there was no doubt that Great Britain would ultimately prevail.
“Whatever the cost may be,” he said in a stirring summation, “We shall fight on the beaches …. We shall fight on the landing grounds …. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets …. We shall fight in the hills ….” concluding, “We shall never surrender!”
All of the above has been portrayed in Dunkirk, a visually captivating World War II epic directed by Christopher Nolan. Mr. Nolan, who is the best British director besides Alfred Hitchcock who has not yet won an Oscar, has made many memorable movies that include Memento, Inception, Interstellar, and the Batman trilogy, among others.
In Dunkirk, he’s found a novel way to recreate the historic evacuation. Instead of having the documentary drama describe a single protagonist or military unit, he has deftly interwoven several discrete storylines that highlight the different perspectives of a number of unsung heroes. Whether on land, by sea, or in the air, many among those patriotic saviors survived, but some did make the ultimate sacrifice in the valiant stand against the evil that was spreading across Europe. Shot with 70mm film, Dunkirk is an instant classic worth seeing on an IMAX screen.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense battle scenes and some profanity. Running time: 106 minutes. In English, French, and German with subtitles.
Production Studio: Syncopy. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.