Review – Three Stories Of Courage (“Dunkirk”)

Redeeming himself from his mind-numbing Interstellar, writer/director Christopher Nolan has fashioned a historical biopic told in a non-linear, three-part narrative from  different points of view, which all collide at the end. An impressive juggling feat that only Nolan and his trusty IMAX cameras can bring to the screen.


Based on true events, we begin in 1940 Dunkirk, France, right before the U.S.’s entry into WW2. Story #1: A disastrous military blunder has left the beaches there strewn with 400,000 soldiers waiting for transport to take them home, a mere 55 miles across the English Channel to Britain. BUT! With no hiding space on the beach and the ships being late, the men are sitting ducks to German planes, strafing the shoreline and bombing the ships. Here we meet Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a soldier that is desperate to get off the beach and tries anything to get home, even sneaking on-board a wounded-only ship.

The only way to get the men off the beach faster is to enlist the random boats and vessels of private citizens back home to sail to Dunkirk. That’s Story #2: Fisherman by trade, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his teen son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their young friend, George (Barry Keoghan), set off for Dunkirk and pick up a stranded solider (Cillian Murphy) afloat at sea. But this PTSD affected man has little intention of going back to the place he just came from and demands that Mr. Dawson turn his boat around.

Up in the air above, three British Spitfire planes are closing in on Dunkirk, taking out enemy fighters along the way, which leads us to Story #3. Using NO CGI, the aerial dogfights are breathtaking, as these three brave pilots risk it all to save the soldiers on the ships below. After one of them is shot down, it’s up to remaining pilots Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) to carry on, which isn’t easy with wave after wave of German Messerschmidt’s on their tails. Collins and Farrier manage to hang on, until…

The three storylines soon converge with each other as Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), lamenting the day, surveys the damage from the pier as Tommy, having THE worst luck EVER, can’t seem to catch a break leaving. There’s trouble on-board Mr. Dawson’s boat as multiple explosions and ships are being blown up, despite the last-ditch efforts of Farrier, who is having problems of his own. Everything finally comes to dramatic and harrowing conclusion as the timelines meet and the stories sync-up. Now, imagine all this with Hans Zimmer’s constant clock-ticking, pulse-pounding, musical score. Whew! What a ride!

Nolan has spared us the gory, gruesome, blood-soaked violence, usually associated with other war films like Saving Private Ryan, so there’s very little of that here. But what he leaves behind in blood ‘n’ guts on the screen, he more than makes up with in nerve-quickening energy and visual style. The man knows how to direct the hell out of a movie. Also writing this film, it’s surprising short on dialogue; Nolan has the characters do their ‘talking’ with their eyes and acting. Hardy, for example spends 99% of the movie wearing a flight mask, yet conveys so much with just his eyes, just like he did as Bane in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.

Whitehead as Tommy is great, capturing the whole boy-next-door innocence both with a look of wonder and dread, but it’s Rylance as the doting father Dawson that makes the film. His time on the boat with his son and the soldier is amazing and filled with sympathy. You’d think with an epic film and storytelling such as this, the movie would span a good two and half hours easy, but shockingly, it’s only 1hr and 47min.                       

The Great Escape (1963)
Escaping from those nasty Nazi’s seems to be a recurring theme with many WW2 films and whether you’re 400,000 strong on a beach or 250 in a prison camp, escaping is escaping. Based on a true incident in Poland, this gripping tale of escape boasted a cornucopia of A-list actors from Hollywood & Britain.
In 1943, the Germans have moved all the most escape-prone prisoners to a new, high-security POW camp. But, the Commandant there fails to realize that putting all the best into one camp will more than likely MEAN escapes! No, duh! British intelligence officers, Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) and Capt. Ramsey (James Donald) decide to dig three tunnels (called Tom, Dick, & Harry) while making the German’s think the whole camp is doing nothing but gardening and stuff. While tunnel-digging master, Danny (Charles Bronson) digs, the get-anything scrounger, Roger (James Garner), acquires a camera to make passports. Objective? Move out all 250 under cover of night! But they need intel first on what’s beyond the forest line.
And for that, they’ll rely on reckless Capt. Hilts (Steve McQueen). Tunnels are built and found by the Germans, but one remains hidden and that one is the key to success. But a major snafu the night of escape gets only 76 to exit, and each one has adventures of their own of either getting killed, caught, or making it to safety. It’s all harrowing and nail-biting to see who will live and who will die after months of exhausting and back-breaking work. In the sad ending, only a handful make it, but you can’t help but root for each one.
A crackerjack script by novelist James Clavell (Shogun) and W. R. Burnett (whose screenplays date back to the 20’s) is just brilliant. Exceptional storytelling that not only blends drama with biting humor and seat-gripping thrills, but has wonderful dialogue that never gets dated. Aside from the action and the ultimate pending escape, the highlight of the film has always been McQueen’s motorcycle riding in the film. A superb rider, that’s really him riding and jumping (plus the other Nazi bike rider), but he didn’t do the final famous barbed-wire jump, that was stuntman Bud Elkins. The studio didn’t allow McQueen to make the jump, even though he said he could do it. Yeah, he probably could have.

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