“It’s not an action film, it’s a survival film”

Missing are the huge fireballs. Missing are the spectacular explosions and that the magnanimous background score. Missing is the hour-long exposition.

Dunkirk wins on subtlety and spectacle. A horrifying one.

First, a history lesson. The story of Dunkirk is the story of the rescue of 400,000 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. This was the majority of the British army.

Safety was just across the channel for the allies. The Germans had driven the allied forces all the way to Dunkirk beach and they were being hammered down by the Luftwaffe.

dunkirk beach
British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation

Safety was just across the channel for the allies. The Germans had driven the allied forces all the way to Dunkirk beach and they were being hammered down by the Luftwaffe.

Rescue from the beach was a major task as the big ships could not enter because the water was too shallow and the ships that did enter were bombed by torpedoes and aerial bombs.

But alas it was too near yet too far.  And Christopher Nolan brings it about powerfully.


The story is divided into 3 points of view, the land, the sea, and the air. The Nolan trademark of a non-linear narration is present in Dunkirk too, as he cuts in and out of narrations effortlessly, without making it too abrupt.

Now you might think that Dunkirk is just another war movie. With Top Gun like firefights and Saving Private Ryan style infantry war and Battleship Style Naval battle.

Well, it’s not. It’s so nontraditional that you don’t even see the faces of the enemy, you just know that they are there. Ever present and ever dangerous. But the one villain that we do see is time.

Time is the only thing against the hundreds of thousands of soldiers stranded on Dunkirk beach. Even though their home is a mere 30 miles away, they are stuck. And time is running out as they are bashed and bruised by the Germans.

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The story follows not the trials and issues of one single man, but those of a multitude of characters. No one character arc is highlighted. The focus is on the collective will of the soldiers to survive. Nolan wonderfully captures the absolute hopelessness in the minds of the soldiers as they wait for rescue.

dunkirk ship rescue

We see their despair and helplessness as ship after the ship is brought down by the Germans. The soldiers are like fish in a barrel. With bombs from the sky killing hundreds.

We also see the story of a few men who try to escape on their own, by breaking the line and by hijacking a ship. But they fail time and time again.

This connects that the viewer feels with the characters is multiplied by the fact that Nolan barely used CGI in the movie. The entire movie was shot inside and on real ships and boats.

But what I believe really engages the viewers is the background score by Hans Zimmer. We are all familiar with his work but with Dunkirk, he takes it to whole new level. It makes us cling to our seats. It is maybe the excellent symbiotic relationship between the visuals and the music that created an experience which gave me and my friend goosebumps.

There is also the ever important timeline of the air force pilots who try and fend off the Luftwaffe. The dogfight sequences in Dunkirk are not those you’ll find in Top Gun, where you are aware of the entire situation from a bird’s eye view. It is deeply personal or perspective focused.

We are in THE cockpit with THE pilot. We feel his confusion, his anxiety, his will to win, his despair at the loss of his mates.


And last is the arc of the civilians who show up to help. We see these ships come under fire and survive. Although not totally historically accurate, it is the redemption that the soldiers had been hoping for. The arrival of the civvies ships totally changes the mood of the film and gives it a positive spin.


But the main theme of the film is a sacrifice. The sacrifice of those holding the Germans while the others flee, the sacrifice of the RAF pilots, the sacrifice of Tom Hardy’s character, who in the end sets his plane on fire and is captured by Germans.

Through Dunkirk, Nolan lets us know that war is an ugly thing, there is no glory, only sacrifice. He also tells us that sometimes the worse of things can lead to a good thing. The soldiers at Dunkirk were horrified at the idea of retreating and were scared that the public would shame them.

Instead they steamed into the loving arms of the people and as a result, the term ‘Dunkirk spirit’ was coined. The movie ends with a healthy dose of this spirit with Churchill’s famous lines ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’.

Although I do have a few quips. Some facts were represented. The primary among them being the contribution of Indian forces. There were 4 Indian companies on Dunkirk beach and they were detrimental in the rescue effort and also the war effort at large.

The popular narrative leaves out the contribution of the British Raj at large and only focuses on the main British army. When the British faced defeat at Dunkirk, it was the Indian army that picked up the slack in North Africa.

But for the movie itsel, all in all, the excellent cinematography, the mind-blowing background score, and gripping story give us a marvel of modern cinema.

Image Credits: Google Images

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  1. Yo doesnt detrimental mean bad? You mean the Indian Army is bad for the rescue effort?

    Make a edit + replace detrimental with smth else (crucial, indispensible, etc.)

    Great article and very inspiring


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