This is a visceral immersion into the ignominious retreat that became a huge moral victory.

But it's interesting how differently Writer and Director Christopher Nolan treats this unique story.

            First, there are no Germans.  Though it's all about how the Germans had so soundly routed the French, British, and Belgian troops that they found themselves suddenly trapped against the sea.  The Allies just hadn't figured out how to counter the German “Blitzkrieg,” or “lightning war,” but though all of that is a prelude to this movie, we don't really hear about any of it.  No discussion of tactics.  No war rooms of generals or Chancellors or Prime Ministers.  The tale is told from the point of view of the British soldiers themselves, either standing on the beach waiting to be rescued, or else up in the Spitfires trying to counteract the Luftwaffe, the German air attack that bombed any ship of any size trying to escape.

            So Churchill's rescue plan is brilliantly simple:  ask every pleasure boat in England to cross the Channel and pick up some troops.  The Germans couldn't attack them all.   And it took maybe 30,000 boats to rescue the 400,000 troops stranded and strafed on the beach.  It's a fantastically unique tale of civilian bravery and chutzpah in the face of a superior enemy force.

            Director Nolan also supplies us with no romances, and no cutesy kid triumphs, either.  In fact, one kid on a rescue boat gets rather brutally treated by a PTSD soldier.  And he's not the only soldier not exactly heroic.  Some tried to slip onto the Red Cross ship by helping transport the wounded on portable stretchers.  (But ironically, those big, slow hospital ships were tempting targets for the German dive bombers.)  Some tried to hide, but that was exactly the problem:  there was no place to go.  And some just plain tried to run away.

            We're also treated to a few dogfights, that is, Spitfires and Messerschmitts manuevering to shoot each other down.  What's not said is the tremendously high mortality rate for pilots on both sides.  But Director Nolan just lets us experience the difficulty of aerial combat, but also the vital necessity of air superiority for both naval and land-based engagements.

            We experience the chaos of those harrowing days, but the explosions and the loud score combine with some thick Cockney accents to make for a sometimes-muddled dialogue.  And no, there's no real follow-up on what happens to the British troops who were so fantastically rescued.  Most, of course, returned to fight another day, but that story is for the next war movie.

            It's not sweet, it's not humorous, it's not charming,  It's rather grim and brutal and mind-numbingly violent, as you would expect a war movie to be.  But it's also a compelling drama with an ending that we all know, but revel in seeing, anyway.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Can you name other battlefield defeats that turned into huge moral victories?

2)                  Can you name other instances of civilian bravery in the face of superior eenemy forces?

3)                  What's your favorite World War II story?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association