Is Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ an Accurate Representation of History?

Warning! Spoilers for ‘Dunkirk.’

On July 21st, 2017, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk hit theatres all over the world, starring multiple new and up-and-coming actors such as: Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Harry Styles, and Kenneth Branagh. The story follows three different storylines taking place within the same time frame. Each storyline follows a different group of men who endure different areas of war, such as air, land, and sea. The movie tells the story of the Dunkirk evacuation during World War ll. However, most war-time movies often exaggerate for drama and entertainment. With Dunkirk being so new, it allows for interpretation since nobody has yet deemed it accurate or inaccurate. So, is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk accurate to its time period?

History

The Dunkirk Evacuation began on May 27th, 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force and other Allied troops from France became trapped by German troops that surrounded the Dunkirk area. The German troops had planned to cut off the Allied troops’ supplies rather than waste ammo and tanks. Over 68,000 British soldiers were captured or killed during the battle and over 300,000 were rescued throughout the nine days. The British government had requisitioned hundreds of small boats such as ferries, fishing ships, and merchant crafts. The battle and medical ships were being attacked and, as a result, were too easy of a target for the Germans. The smaller ships were harder to hit and were able to make it all the way to the beaches through the shallow waters that the larger ships could not navigate through. Overall, the entire evacuation took about a week. During that week, the troops were mostly trying to not die. Though the Germans did slow down, they still attacked the beaches through the air, but through the combination of the Royal Air Force and cloudy weather, the bombings were not as deadly as they could have been. However, these men had just come from a battle, which they had lost, meaning that many of them were sick and wounded. Thousands of French soldiers had partaken in what would be called the “last stand.” Just 40 miles to the southeast, French troops had staged defenses against seven German divisions. This defense was carried out with the hope that the French could hold the Germans back as the evacuation took place. The battle at Dunkirk was not entirely a defeat; it was more of a disaster that was miraculously prevented from getting worse. Dunkirk was the morale booster that the British troops needed to help them push forward and win the war.

Movie Summary

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk follows three different storylines taking place on land, at sea, and in the air. The storyline that takes place on land follows a group of soldiers who are desperately trying to board a ship and escape the beaches of Dunkirk. In each attempt, something happens that prevents them from escape. In one attempt, the ship was torpedoed, which resulted in hundreds of men being stranded in the waters or drowning. Later on, the group of survivors find an abandoned fisherman’s boat where they take refuge and wait for the tide to come in and sweep them out to sea away from Dunkirk. Things go south when a German soldier begins using the abandoned boat as target practice. When he realizes that there are people in the boat, he begins open firing and leaving holes in the side of the boat that will cause it to sink. When the tide comes in, the boat begins to sink rather than float, causing the men to flee; in the attempt to escape, one soldier’s foot gets caught and he unfortunately drowns.

The second storyline follows a father, son, and an apprentice on their fishing boat where they sail to Dunkirk to help evacuate the trapped soldiers. Along the way, they find a stray soldier sitting atop a sunken ship. They pick the soldier up and find that he is traumatized from the battle and refuses to return to Dunkirk. The father explains to him that “there is no hiding from this, son” (Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk). They attempt to make the soldier comfortable below deck; however, the son becomes paranoid and locks the man in his room. The soldier later escapes the locked room and argues with the father about how they can’t go back to Dunkirk or they will die. In the heat of the argument, the soldier accidentally pushes the apprentice down the small flight of stairs which results in the boy hitting his head. The son rushes to care for him as the soldier admits defeat and wallows in the regret of hurting the boy unintentionally.

The third storyline follows a pilot who makes his way toward Dunkirk to help ward off the German planes as the evacuation continues. The pilot goes on to take down a half a dozen German planes, all while having an issue with the amount of fuel left. Halfway through the storyline, the pilot realizes that he only has enough fuel left to get home, but he hasn’t completed his mission yet. He chooses to finish the mission, knowing that he will run out of fuel and likely die. As he pushes forward, his fuel depletes rapidly and he later finds that he is going to crash into the waters below him. The pilot manages to land the plane into the water, but that doesn't stop it from sinking. When he tries to escape, he finds that the hood of the plane is jammed and he is unable to escape. He desperately tries to pry the hood open and even break it with his gun, but to no avail. He realizes that he has run out of options and accepts his fate as the water continues to flood the plane.

Criteria

To be able to evaluate this film and truly peg it as historically accurate, there must be a lot of criteria. For starters, I chose to evaluate accuracy, meaning how close to the actual event was the movie? Was the story true? Or was it rewritten for entertainment? I also took a deeper look at things like costumes, sets, drama, and characters. There’s more to a film than just its script; it takes actors, costume designers, and sets to truly capture the history that is being depicted in the film. The final criteria that I looked into was education, meaning, what did we learn from the film? Did it just provide some entertainment or were we more educated upon the end of the film?

Costumes, Sets, & Characters

Christopher Nolan did extensive research before beginning to film to make sure that Dunkirk was as accurate as possible. The costumes are an important piece of the film, because they allow the audience to know what time period this story is taking place. Although we already know that it takes place during World War II, the costumes allow us to feel immersed in the world that we are watching; it allows us to believe the events that are taking place. The costumes were subtle colors of greens and browns that looked worn and rugged. In an interview with Dunkirk’s costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland, he stated that he wanted the costumes to stand out, but be subtle at the same time. While the costumes were very accurate to the time period, I found them to be very dull in differences. There was no indication that one soldier was French, one was British, and one was German. However, we don’t see a German soldier appear in the film, but there was still no difference between the French and British. There was nothing special about the costumes that allowed for anyone to stand out. The main characters often got lost in a sea of other men simply because they all looked to be wearing the same thing. In another interview with Dunkirk’s costume designer, he said that there were subtle differences in coats on each main character; there was a small shape difference. However, for the audience, it becomes confusing. We are not going to look at two characters and notice a slight difference in coat shape; if they’re relatively the same design, we will see no difference. I understand that there is nothing special about the group of men we’re following throughout the story; they are just men in the crowd. It became frustrating, however, when we would lose our main characters in a sea of other men. Although frustrating for the audience, it is historically accurate. There is nothing special about the characters we are following throughout the storyline. They are just like the thousands of other men trying to get home.

The sets were very accurate to the time period. Christopher Nolan wanted to tell an accurate story and took many steps that helped achieve that goal. The whole story was filmed on the actual beach where the real event took place. The beaches were beautiful and had a real sense of history to them. The street scenes, however, were filmed in the nearby town of Malo-les-Bains due to the fact that most of the actual buildings in Dunkirk were destroyed during the war. As far as the ships and planes, they were not replicas that were built for the movie; they were actual ships used in combat in World War II that had been preserved. It took the crew five months to find ships that were in tact and able to move. The biggest ship was a 350 foot long French destroyer; a museum piece from Nantes that had to be towed by a pair of two hundred foot tugboats. The little boats used in filming were also boats that were used in the actual Dunkirk evacuation. The planes were also authentic; real RAF Spitfires were used in shooting. Two of the three Spitfires used were Mark 1s while the other was a Mark 5s. While Mark 1s were used in the battle of Dunkirk, Mark 5s weren’t used in the war until a few years after the evacuation. Although real planes were used in the filming, there was one minor inaccuracy with them. Throughout the film, painted nose cones can be seen on the nose of the planes. During the aerial battle, the German planes have a yellow nose cone, which they did; but they were only introduced to the war a month after Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan has commented on this inaccuracy saying that the colored nose cones allowed audiences to know who was who. The sets and props looked amazing for being originals and it added to the authenticity of the film; it shows how dedicated Christopher Nolan is to his work.

The characters themselves seemed bland and gave no real reason for the audience to care about them. Christopher Nolan said that the characters are fictional which allows freedom from historical accuracy. However, these characters were given no backstory, no substance, and no indication as to what their names were. I found myself not being affected when a character was killed, due to the fact that I had no reason to care about them. There wasn’t so much as a mention of family back home, which kept the audience from relating to these characters. These men barely had any emotions, showing them only when it seemed like the script demanded it to cause drama. The beaches would get attacked by a German plane and they would continue on like nothing happened. I found no way to relate to them; they seemed like bland characters who were only reacting a certain way because that is what they were told to do. I’m not saying the acting was abysmal; the acting was phenomenal. Each cast member was able to stay focused and in character, despite the bland characters they were playing.

Drama & Action

Dunkirk is considered a historical drama, so it must excel in that aspect. I found that the drama took the form of survival rather than confrontation. Due to the lack of dialogue throughout the film, it allowed the audience to focus more on the situation rather than the dialogue. The action never seemed forced, although it was almost predictable at times. When things seemed too good to be true, something went wrong that kept the soldiers from escaping. When our main characters boarded a ship that was going to carry them home, a torpedo was fired that caused the ship to sink which brought about the risk of drowning. Not only did this seem predictable, but the characters, themselves, predicted it within the movie with the line “..he’s looking for a quick way out, just in case we go down” (Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk). Overall, I found the movie suspenseful, and I was kept on the edge of my seat. Seriously, I was actually sitting on the edge of my seat in the movie theatre! I was particularly moved with the shot of another soldier stripping off his gear as he walked into the water to drown. It was not technically considered action, but I found it to be a form of drama. It was a powerful shot that showed how dire the situation really was. It really allowed the audience to see what these men were going through, and it seemed like the most realistic shot that portrayed humanity. Nothing is more dramatic than a man giving up and taking his own life in the middle of war; so much was said with such little dialogue. As far as the action sequences, nothing seemed forced or unrealistic, and it was just enough to keep the audience engaged. After a little research, I found that Christopher Nolan used almost no special effects, meaning that all the explosions and bombs were real. It allowed for the actors to react in a realistic way without having to fake a reaction. The drama and action was loud and attention grabbing, but also subtle and quiet when it needed to be; it was the perfect balance of exciting and subtle.

Education

When I first walked into the movie theatre to see Dunkirk, I knew nothing about it. This wasn’t something I was taught in school, nor was it talked about on a daily basis. The only thing I knew when walking in was what I had learned through the trailer. When I walked out, however, I felt so educated; it had felt like I had witnessed history in the making.Typically, when we’re learning about the World War II era, we usually only learn the major points: how it started, who was on what side, and how it ended. We most typically only learn about events such as D-day and Pearl Harbour. While both of these events were turning points, there was so much more to the story that many students don’t learn. I had never heard of Dunkirk before this movie came out, and I found it to be very educational as it also brought a form of entertainment that kept you interested as you learned. I definitely learned more in this ninety minute movie than I ever would have through a textbook or a forty-five minute lecture. I have even gone as far as too read through a textbook after watching the movie, and I found myself becoming bored and disinterested. History is an important aspect of our lives and it is important to learn it. I have found that it seems to be most easily learned through visuals. Film is a way for educators to put a spin on entertainment, while also emphasizing historical accuracy; it is an easy way for us to learn something without tuning out or becoming bored like we would in a classroom.

The Inaccuracies

On paper, Dunkirk sounds like one of the most historically accurate World War II films to date, and it is. It sticks pretty religiously to the facts; however, it did not get everything right. I have discussed earlier in the paper the presence of colored nosecones on the planes, which had not come around until months after Dunkirk. This was simply an inaccuracy due to the theatrical production. Had they not been painted, the audience would not know who was on what side. Did it work though? Definitely, so I’d have to let that inaccuracy slide. One major historical inaccuracy I noticed was an issue in Farrier’s fuel tank. When we first meet Tom Hardy’s character, Farrier, he is already in the air. This was an intense storyline in the movie, and we were right there with him in the cockpit, feeling the pressure as the fuel tank begins to run low. He starts with fifty gallons and has to pop his reserve tank by the time he reaches Dunkirk. However, that is a problem; the main fighter used by the Royal Air Force at Dunkirk was the Supermarine Spitfire Mark 1. They were fast, agile planes with a fuel tank that could hold eighty-five gallons, giving them a three hundred ninety five mile combat range. In contrast, the evacuation route the ships used to cross the English channel was about fifty-five miles. Even accounting for the dogfights and switch backs to chase the bomber going after the British destroyer, he should have had enough fuel. Spitfires can fly two hundred and twenty miles per hour on only twenty-six gallons of fuel per hour. Over more time, running out of fuel is totally plausible, just not in the time frame given by the film.

We also saw in the film that the father, son, and apprentice risk life and limb to sail across the channel to Dunkirk. In real life, the British government really did requisition about seven hundred private crafts. They were called the “little ships” and they were actually really fun to learn about. It is true that many boat owners took up the call and sailed their own ships, just not very many. According to the ‘Association of Dunkirk Little Ships,’ the vast majority of these boats were requisitioned by the British government and given to naval officers to sail them to Dunkirk.

It makes for a great, heart-warming climax when the army of little ships sails up to the beaches of Dunkirk. However, there was no heroic moment when the ships arrived to save the day. Operation Dynamo lasted from May 26th to June 4th. Both the British Navy and the little ships worked endlessly throughout those twelve days. While the movie makes out the arrival of the little ships as the turning point, they actually didn’t rescue the majority of the soldiers. Out of the 338,000 men rescued, 239,000 were taken off the beaches by navy ships. Less than 100,000 were picked up off the beaches, and many of those were ferried out to larger ships Only 6,000 soldiers made the trip across the channel in one of the little ships. Their contribution to the war effort cannot be understated, but it can be overstated. Overall, most of the inaccuracies are minor and were only changed for the benefit of the audience. The entire movie, however, seemed to be so incredibly accurate, that I was learning, while enjoying the film.

Conclusion

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk does satisfy all of the criteria listed and has been found to be one of the most accurate depictions of history during World War II. I would put Dunkirk up with classics, such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. I found Dunkirk to be not only entertaining, but educational as well. I believe that Dunkirk is rightfully considered a historical drama and thriller that could most definitely be used in an educational setting. Christopher Nolan did extensive research to ensure that Dunkirk was as accurate to its time period as possible, and it really paid off. I would recommend Dunkirk to anyone looking for a quick film to watch for movie night or to anyone looking for an accurate and entertaining historical film.



Works Cited

Dunkirk. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Syncopy Incorporated, 2017. Film.

Kent, Michael.“Association of Dunkirk Little Ships.” 2017. Web. 17 Mar. 2018.

“The Beaches of Dunkirk”. 7 Jan. 2018. Web. 17 Mar. 2018. Documentary

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