Christopher Nolan in Command: The Dunkirk Spirit Fleshed

How does Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" differ from earlier on-screen iterations of the evacuation?

By Jerome ChristensenAugust 18, 2017

Christopher Nolan in Command: The Dunkirk Spirit Fleshed

DUNKIRK IS A FILM of shocking suddenness, visceral impact, and constant fear, all of which the audience is made to feel, as if participants in the miraculous evacuation from the shores of France in May 1940. We witness the hasty improvisation of a civilian navy, rescuing more than 300,000 Allied troops in a flotilla of “little boats.” We see the unstinting resolve of the beached British army, under constant threat of annihilation by the surrounding German army, its relentless air force and lurking U-boats. We share the cockpits of British Spitfires with airmen as they perform daring maneuvers — as they engage swift ME-109s, which suddenly appear, closing in, out of the sun’s glare. We vibrate with the reverberations of the exploding bombs and suffer the claustrophobia of a packed ship’s hold, as the fabric of steel, perforated by a machine gun, gives way to the sea, and we frantically struggle to reach the surface. How the British army was forced into its perilous position at Dunkirk is never examined; what mistakes were made and who was responsible for them are never suggested, but what is at stake is existentially clear: the survival of the badly beaten, demoralized British Expeditionary Force, and, therefore, the capacity of the British nation to defend itself against German aggression — formidable, fierce, and, thus far, completely unstoppable.

Christopher Nolan’s version of Dunkirk, as an event to be experienced, not recounted, was preceded by two very different cinematic treatments of the subject, one a Hollywood film and one British. The first movie to include Dunkirk as an episode was Mrs. Miniver, an MGM picture starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, directed by William Wyler. Completed just before Pearl Harbor and released in early 1942, Mrs. Miniver was intended by Louis B. Mayer as a scrupulously neutral appreciation of the hardships incurred by an unusually handsome and prosperous middle-class family when war unfortunately breaks out and troubles their comfortable lives. The unfolding of the bittersweet melodrama was transformed by Wyler and his screenwriters into something else by the inclusions of two scenes of blunt propaganda. The first is framed by the departure and return of the husband Clem who has joined the flotilla recruited to the rescue. As he pilots his boat down the Thames, civilian crafts amass until they reach the mouth of the river, there to be addressed by the voice of Rear Admiral Ramsay, architect of the evacuation, rallying them for the dangerous journey ahead. Fade out. The film then shifts from conventional melodrama to edgy kitchen sink realism when Mrs. Miniver discovers a wounded German airman prostrate in her garden. The German pilot pulls a gun, forces entry into her kitchen, and menacingly harangues her with his confident prediction that the master race will destroy the English. When he faints from loss of blood, Mrs. Miniver grabs the gun, hides it in the pantry, calls the police, and graciously turns him over for internment. Soon after, her husband returns home from his adventure and politely asks what she did during his absence. With conspicuous modesty, she replies that she had only captured a German pilot by taking away his gun. Surprised and somewhat abashed, Clem learns that he has returned to a home that his wife has successfully defended. The newly awakened spirit of Dunkirk has, with unforeseen indirection, already crossed genders and reached into the domestic sphere.

Mayer demanded that this scene of female empowerment, with its hostile depiction of a vicious Nazi, be balanced by the inclusion of a “good German.” Wyler refused, and he got his way. A good thing for MGM. The scene of a middle-class woman stoutly standing up to the feverish invective of the Nazi and taking his gun into her own hands doubtless contributed to the film’s immense popularity at home, where it won six Academy Awards, and in the United Kingdom, where it was even more successful. It powerfully assisted the efforts by the Office of War Information to prime Americans to support the government’s commitment to the Atlantic Alliance.

The British production of Dunkirk (directed by Leslie Norman) was not released until 1958. If there is good reason to take account of the 2017 Dunkirk’s contemporaneity with the nationalist exit of Great Britain from the European Union, there is ample precedent in the 1958 Dunkirk, which revived the spirit of Dunkirk to redress the sense of humiliation among the British following the Suez Crisis. In October 1956, the British government, along with the French, had followed Israel’s lead, sending their troops to seize the Suez Canal, which had been nationalized by Gamal Abdel Nasser earlier in the year. Unwarned, President Eisenhower eventually threatened extraordinary financial sanctions on Great Britain unless it withdrew. The threat worked. Britain did withdraw that December — a decision which, for many, marked the end of Britain’s standing as a major power. Although Norman’s Dunkirk also scanted the actual evacuation, it was attentive to its planning, to the debates in the government regarding its practicability, to the involvement of brave civilians in the enterprise, and to its inspirational value for the populace at large. It should be credited as the chief cinematic exponent of “the Dunkirk miracle” that Nolan’s film reworks and elevates to an altogether higher level of accuracy and artistic achievement.

Both Miniver, a melodrama, and Norman’s Dunkirk, a discursive historical drama, were firmly situated within the narrative conventions of classical Hollywood cinema: character-driven causality; unity of space, time, and action; sequenced in shots long, medium, and close-up; practically every scene including reversed angled dialogue. Those conventions have, of course, long since ceased to inhibit filmmakers, especially those who specialize in the tentpole features that have come to dominate the studios’ output since the epochal transformation of the Hollywood industry that occurred after Spielberg’s Jaws, Coppola’s The Godfather, and Lucas’s Star Wars. These blockbuster filmmakers are generically associated with such self-consciously historicizing and market-conscious labels as “New Hollywood,” “Post-Classical,” or “Post-Film Cinema,” or (from the title of the Thomas Elsaesser essay from which I have harvested those labels), “Digital Hollywood.” The characteristics of the cinematic experience to which those labels generally refer are “metaphors centered on space, on embodiment, on sensation rather than visual perception, all guided by variables other than those rigid Euclidean categories of the cinematic apparatus.” Under this new posting, Elsaesser adds:

[T]he movies emerge above all as an event in which to figure one’s participation as member of an instant community rather than as singular spectator being seated “in front” of a picture window screen; the new image also manifests itself as a space which to inhabit rather than to be scanned, scrutinized or looked at; it is experienced as a second skin or total perceptual surface by which to dress rather than be addressed as subject.

Practically all of those criteria fit Nolan’s string of successful motion pictures since Batman Begins, which have certainly raised him to the plateau that Lucas, Spielberg, and James Cameron patrol. In a different essay, “Auteurism Now,” Elsaesser describes these post-classical directors as those whose “ambition is now — beyond [crafting] an unforgettable story and a moving experience — to lend body and sensuous skin to an icon or a brand.” Dunkirk, as it is deployed by British politicians and journalists, is a brand for a certain configuration of beliefs in British qualities and aspirations, which Nolan, auteur, makes his own. From corporate to military leader, Elsaesser aptly describes the post-classical director “as commanding officer or general,” and as such, Nolan has carefully deliberated a return to the English past rewired to be immanent to the immediate event.

But Nolan’s return to “the Dunkirk miracle” (itself a classical Hollywood brand) and certain hallmarks of the classical filmmaking tradition distinguishes him from his post-classical peers. It consolidates the terms of his “post-classical neo-classicism” — not a return to classicism, per se, but a transcendence of the terms of the post-classical, which is a category or context that Nolan deliberately repudiates, just as he repudiates the constraining prejudgment of the context for Dunkirk. Consider his deployment of a flexible Euclidean geometry to map the aerial combat; his socially salient — call it critical — literariness, and his choice of cinematic apparatus: not computers, which de-realize the marvels they represent, but supposedly outmoded machines assembled or rejigged, including bulky 70mm and 65mm cameras, dexterously handled or ingeniously mounted.

In interviews, Nolan has explained that the mechanics of the evacuation, not its politics are what really mattered to him as he constructed his screenplay. The same can be said about his role in the production, which is consistently promoted as intensively hands on. James Cameron is famous for his similarly deeply involvement also, but like Spielberg, who no longer requisitions mechanical sharks, Cameron has moved from the machinery of the abyss to the CGI wonders and 3-D wizardry of Avatar. From Batman Begins through Interstellar, Nolan has shown himself to be a master of riveting special effects, but throughout that series of blockbuster motion pictures, he remained faithful to celluloid, as he retained a principled commitment to 70mm, which spins through cameras that only a mechanic would look comfortable carrying.

But the bulky, analog cameras capture exquisitely luminous and detailed images designed to be exhibited in IMAX theaters. The IMAX sound system is also engineered to enhance the muscular sonic effects that Nolan exploits to magnify both the thundering reverberation of the bombs and, crucially, the varied, consistently impressive, orchestral accompaniment composed by Hans Zimmer. The score is galvanically propulsive, as in the Hitchcockian, shrilly percussiveness that intensifies the suspense of the remarkable tracking shot of “Tommy” (Fionn Whitehead) and his comrade Alex (Harry Styles), as they race to a Red Cross ship with a wounded man on a stretcher, hoping that he will be their ticket for passage home. [1] When the rescue is finally assured, the score ascends to a lyricism as soaringly powerful as Elgar’s adagio Nimrod, from which it is derived.

Apolitical beyond a fault, this film does not demonize the Germans or glamorize the British. It does not offer a view on the conduct of the war. It doesn’t solicit strong identifications with its three focal figures: Tommy, a young soldier; Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a middle-aged civilian rescuer; Farrier (Tom Hardy), a nearly mute airman. Their bodies, under pressure, are the medium for ours to unthinkingly participate in the event of Dunkirk. Politics, in this context, are subordinate to the dictates of survival. Dunkirk renders Brexit as Dunkirk politics — forced appropriation of the event by parliamentarians and editorialists in an effort to add prestige to an isolationist policy shift as if its approval were a matter of survival. Nolan’s Dunkirk also forswears recourse to the event in order to enrich a romance narrative, as it’s used in two other on-screen Dunkirks, Atonement (2007) and Their Finest (2016).

Nolan has earned his lofty reputation as a successful post-classical director at home with CGI, non-linear time, and concocted thrills. With Dunkirk, he aims to transcend that status by also distinguishing himself as a director fit to be included among those classical auteurs who were capable of achieving their purpose by adapting the means at hand, but rarely to such extraordinary effect. What we see and hear on the screen feels real, takes away our breath, and only in its aftermath invites us to think.


Nolan’s film begins as six young soldiers, helmetless and carrying heavy carbines, wander the deserted streets of Dunkirk. Suddenly, a blizzard of leaflets fills the air. One man stops, grabs a sheet, and holds it so that he and we can see the brutally crude graphic of a rough triangular shape, its flat side representing the sea, its angled, bulging verticals representing the German army which enclose the form, as if a blood-red stage for the performance of a massacre. The words “We Surround You” are in the middle, “Surrender” at the bottom. For him, there is nothing to learn or to ponder. He stuffs the paper in his coat pocket, and that leaflet counts as our exposition. It’s the last map we shall see, and the last word from the Germans in this nearly wordless motion picture.

Bullets snap in the air. The soldiers run toward a gate. All are shot down, excepting Tommy, who scrambles over and approaches a barricade from which rifles protrude. For a moment we think it might be the Germans. But the youth identifies the distinctive helmets of the French, shouts, “Anglais, Anglais,” and is reluctantly allowed to pass by the clearly bitter French soldiers.

Once Tommy is set free, so is Nolan’s camera. After a cut, the camera catches him from the front, as Nolan toys with the illusion of digital compositing in the remarkable backtracking shot of Tommy racing away from the gate. The sharply etched, crystalline clarity of his figure, huge in the foreground as he runs toward us, looks as if it is overlaid on the images of the buildings he is passing, which, oddly, stay in odd focus as they recede. It’s not CGI nor back projection, but some kind of telephoto effect. Regardless, what we see is a conspicuously unnatural, virtuoso manipulation of the visual field. A few seconds later the camera switches to Tommy’s point of view as he slows at the sight of the expanding vista of a bright beach striated by long black files of soldiers, who scarcely move and do not make a sound. He is there. The town is behind him forever, and with it, all context for the main action (signaled clearly when, after he opens his great coat, crouches, and defecates, he wipes himself with the leaflet he had snagged). We have entered the slow time that the weary, desperate, silent soldiers endure as they wait for their unlikely deliverance. It is as if the men are so drained and traumatized that they haven’t the energy or capacity to speak. Suddenly, a cry — “Dive Bombers!” — is followed by the sight and terrifying scream of Stukas, which scatter the men and force Tommy into the sand, until quiet returns, and with Tommy we watch a destroyer slowly sink.

Tommy’s world has become the beach around the Mole, the seawall that supports the last undestroyed pier. It does not, however, comprehend the world that Nolan constructs, which consists of two shorelines — a beach in France and a wharf on the Southeast Coast of England — separated by a body of water named a channel but expanded to an immensity by the camera lens. Nolan fashions a subjective geometry of the world as experienced by the collectivity of nearly 400,000 soldiers, who have been ruled into long dark lines inscribed on the beach, a world completely decontextualized of politics or religion or history. Those lines and that channel define the schematics of vulnerability that the three fighter pilots oversee as they ascend from their base on the island. They must survey the enemy’s potential targets below and also scan the horizons beyond and the sun above for the enemy’s approach. They are trained to plot the parabolas of climb and dive and to maneuver their speedy Spitfires in combat to achieve the exact angle to make their kills and save men and ships.

The event of Dunkirk as experienced by the men — as we experience it — is choreographed into a performance of earth, water, and air, each of which is introduced in a separate time frame: earth, the week in which the evacuation from land is executed; water, the day it takes for Mr. Dawson’s pleasure craft, Moonstone, to complete its dangerous mission of rescue; and air: the hour allotted by 50 gallons of petrol for the Spitfires to disrupt the enemy’s command of the air. It is a remarkably skillful means of maintaining the integrity of the three elemental domains without whipsawing the audience from place to place in manufactured suspense. Those times are skillfully integrated late in the film by the fourth element, fire, which is ignited by the crash of a German bomber shot down by Farrier’s Spitfire as the plane crashes into an oil slick spread by a sinking ship. With horrific consequences: we are forced underwater to confront the writhing men, struggling to escape the blaze overhead until, unable to hold their breath any longer, they surface into an agonizing death in the raging inferno. Tommy and Alex outrace the flames to reach safety on the Moonstone, to join the “shivering soldier” (Cillian Murphy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), the downed airman rescued earlier.

As the price for our opportunity to be immersed in the event of Dunkirk, Nolan forbids us access to any strategic perspective, except that occupied by the director/screenwriter/chief mechanic. There are no scenes of the meetings conducted by Winston Churchill to bend the dithering politicians and military brass to his will. There is no access to the headquarters for Rear Admiral Ramsay who rapidly planned and organized the massive evacuation.

There are other more conspicuous exclusions. The number of officers present on the beach or the on the mole is incredibly small. The only two who discuss how to adapt the scarce resources of transport to the unprecedented scope of this operation are the army major, Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), and the naval officer, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). It seems dubious that the tiny number of officers shown to be involved in the evacuation is historically accurate. In any other war film, such an enormous disparity between officers departed would fuel griping in the lines. Apart from its three-man crew — Mr. Dawson, his son, and a teenaged stowaway, George — the Moonstone is, too, conspicuously solitary. Until the climactic arrival of a flotilla of hundreds of small ships, there are no other civilians, whether involved in the rescue or at home on the island.

The distillation of the rescue boats down to a single crew makes good dramatic sense in that it enables this lean narrative to attend to the Moonstone as a stage for its own drama. But the exclusion of the officers seems to answer a different motivation: Nolan’s determination to minimize the importance of rank among the armed forces, which is symptomatic of his avoidance of any class distinctions. The homogenization of the troops is not without fault lines: early on, Tommy and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) are ejected from a line of soldiers making its way to the ships when one points at his insignia says, “Grenadiers, mate.” Later, when Alex spots members of his regiment, the trio is admitted to the group, who takes shelter in a beached trawler to awaits the tide that will free them to chug off for Britain. The unity of purpose is soon dissolved when Alex targets Gibson, revealed to be French, to discard in order to lighten the ship’s load. Social class may not be a factor among the common soldiers, who have no officers to mock or vilify, but a Frenchman is qualified to be singled out for sacrifice.


Despite no conspicuous indicators, class will out when the subject is the British Empire. And it does when we consider who says “home” and what they mean by it. When the shell-shocked, shivering soldier discovers Mr. Dawson’s calm refusal to turn the boat back to England, he shouts, “You should be at home,” meaning the place where he lives. Dawson calmly replies: “There won’t be any home if we allow this slaughter across the Channel,” taking his boat and home as metonym for the place where his countrymen carry on their lives. When, having outraced a fiery oilspill, Tommy is hauled aboard the Moonstone, he whispers, “Take me home.” It is in the same the common sense of the word that Dawson has given it: the place where a soldier can ride in an English train, drink English beer, read English newspapers, and, probably, spend time with his family, if he has one, in an English town, on the leave he has earned.

Commander Bolton first mentions “home,” when the visiting Rear Admiral informs him and Colonel Winnant that there will be no attempt to make terms with the Germans.

REAR ADMIRAL: We need to get our army back …

The Rear Admiral points across the dark water …

Britain’s next. Then the world.

Commander Bolton puts his field glasses to his face.

COMMANDER BOLTON: Christ, you can almost see it from here …
BOLTON: Home. (Turns to the town) What about the French?
REAR ADMIRAL: Publicly, Churchill’s told them bras dessous. (Off look) Arm in arm. Leaving together.
WINNANT: And privately?
REAR ADMIRAL: We need our army back.

What the Commander does not quite see through his binoculars are the white cliffs, the part that stands for the Britain, which it is his mission to defend. Later, Bolton does believe he sees “home,” despite the mist all round, when he, like the Ancient Mariner, glimpses shapes in the distance. Unlike his cursed predecessor, he does not slake his throat by biting his arm and sucking his blood. Instead, he grabs Winnant’s field glasses:

Boats. Civilian boats. All shapes and sizes. An armada. […]

Commander Bolton slowly lowers the glasses.

BOLTON (gentle): Home.

Yes, we are in the land of literature, a region that has likely been left unexplored by the likes of Alex and Tommy, practical men, for whom a boat is no more than a promising vehicle. What Bolton “sees” here is a part that is both connected with and stands for the whole, which is not merely the nation that is at war with the Germans and, as Dawson, frames it, in peril of slaughter. The “little ships” are in Bolton’s imagination (as they indeed have subsequently become for all true Englishmen) a symbol that makes intelligible the ideal England that is not present to the naked eye but in which they partake.

Bolton’s capacity to see the eternal England in the approach of the civilian boats is doubtless the mark of a patriot. But the single tear that in close-up we see streaking his cheek as he lowers his glasses, is here the sign of a man of feeling, moved by piercing thoughts of England’s noble past — perhaps thoughts of the epochal defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 by the English fleet of smaller, more maneuverable ships, which preserved Elizabeth’s reign. Yet because this is the only tear shed in the entire film, and because it leaks from the eye of Kenneth Branagh, we should recall his performance as Henry V in the film by that name, which he adapted from Shakespeare and directed. [2] We might also recollect that King Harry sheds exactly two tears as he completes his nocturnal monologue on the night before the climactic battle against a far larger French force at Agincourt, just 490 kilometers down the coast from the pier where Commander Bolton stands. That battle ended in a slaughter of the French army, a victory with as much claims to miracle status as Dunkirk. Nolan — an English major, after all — must have known this, and it must have informed his choice of Branagh to play Commander Bolton. In Bolton’s “home,” we hear that chord of Henry V, as the educated Branagh does, as Nolan does, and as Churchill, steeped in the literature of his country, surely would have, when drafting the epochal speech that revived England by turning “a colossal defeat” into the victory of the spirit of Dunkirk. Churchill’s speech concludes Nolan’s film: while rattling his way home on a train, the working-class Tommy reads it aloud from a newspaper, mass produced so that all Britons, even those who cannot see as Bolton sees, can, by reading or listening, imbibe the self-same spirit of Dunkirk.

We shouldn’t forget the French. Trounced by the British at Agincourt and this time Belgium, they figure intermittently in Nolan’s narrative: first, as the hostile soldiers at the barricade blocking the enemy’s path to the beach; second, as a group that is turned back from their attempt to board a ship by a warrant officer who shouts, “No French! Non Francaises! Seulement Anglaises! English only, you’ll have your own ships” — a promise which, as we learn in the third mention, this time from the rear admiral’s lips, is a lie; the fourth mention, of course, is through the disclosed nationality of Gibson, who is readied for the sacrifice. The French had good reason to be bitter, and they had good reason to believe that the warrant officer was lying, for the British had lied at least by omission, when they withheld their plans to evacuate before, and that lie cost thousands of French soldiers their lives.

The final mention of the French is made by the soulful Commander Bolton, when, as the last boat of English soldiers is about to depart, he informs Captain Tennent that he won’t join them:

COMMANDER BOLTON I’m staying. (Off look.) For the French.

The tone resonates with noblesse oblige. Once again there’s an echo of Henry V as he tearfully ends his monologue the night before the battle with the utterance, “All things stay for me.” The quotation alerts us to the difference between that man whose state is kingly, who can expect that others will stay for his call to battle, and another man who stays and waits at a superior’s orders. Bolton is a commander, not an admiral. As we have seen, he takes orders affecting policy before he gives them. And we have been informed of no orders that authorize him to evacuate the French army. The historians tell us that 100,000 French soldiers were evacuated on Churchill’s order, which reversed the policy earlier passed along by the rear admiral. But the film strikingly omits any account of how that order reached Bolton. If, as I have suggested, Bolton/Branagh’s earlier sentimentally acquires a regal resonance in the Shakespearean region of the English ideal that Nolan has summoned from out of the past, then the only source for his authority to utter the line “I’m staying … for the French” can have been Nolan himself, who here quietly takes the place that historians have conceded to Churchill. Screenwriter/director Nolan is the kingmaker who has written the line, hired Branagh, adapter/director/star of Henry V to speak it, staged, and shot the scene of this film’s sole version of a monologue: just five words. That’s the neo-classical auteur — freshly emergent from the post-classical ranks — as supreme military commander nonchalantly exercising his authority, exempt from challenge. Woe be to the king who dares to disobey!


Jerome Christensen is a professor of English at the University of California Irvine. His books include Romanticism at the End of History and America’s Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures.


[1] The name “Tommy,” which was the generic name applied to British infantrymen, is not mentioned in the film, but it is given in the screenplay.

[2] As an illustration of Branagh’s continued identification with Henry V, which was released 30 years ago, see the actor’s recent interview with Stephen Colbert. Although Colbert had not seen Dunkirk as yet, he graphically shows the relative proximity of Dunkirk and Agincourt.

LARB Contributor

Jerome Christensen is a professor of English at the University of California Irvine. His books include Romanticism at the End of History and America’s Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures.


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