Courage Under Fire: Christopher Nolan recreates the miraculous evacuation during the WWII Battle of Dunkirk

Movies Features

Early in World War II, German forces surrounded some 400,000 Allied troops at Dunkirk, a small coastal port in France. In ten days, Operation Dynamo managed to evacuate close to 330,000 of those soldiers to England.

In Dunkirk, a Warner Bros. release opening July 21, writer-director Christopher Nolan immerses viewers in a step-by-step, moment-to-moment account of life and death in that evacuation. Unparalleled in its use of large-format photography, Dunkirk sets new standards on several levels for war movies. It was by far Nolan's toughest production, starting with the script.

"I wanted to make a film about Dunkirk for a long time," he says by telephone. "It's a story I grew up with. I spent years trying to figure out what approach to take. Before I wrote the script I determined that I wanted to take a very subjective point of view, a very experiential point of view. I wanted to show the point of view of soldiers on the beach, but also the point of view of the people in boats coming to help them, and the pilots trying to protect them from the skies above."

In early May 1940, British Army forces, along with French, Belgian and Canadian troops, were forced to retreat after being defeated in the Battle of France. Once Allied soldiers reached the beaches of Dunkirk, they had nowhere else to go. They and the destroyers waiting just offshore were easy targets for German shells and planes.

Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema film these attacks with horrifying precision, using actual equipment on real locations.

At one point a soldier known only as Tommy (played by Fionn Whitehead) lies prone on the beach, bombs exploding behind him in a straight line leading right to his head. At The Mole, a causeway that provided the only shore access for larger ships, bombs destroy a hospital boat as a naval commander (Kenneth Branagh) watches helplessly. And in the skies, Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) tries to fight off the Germans while running out of fuel.

"I did a lot of research into the real events in Dunkirk," Nolan says. "We wanted the film to be authentic, to convey the truth of the story. But over time I came to realize that I needed to fictionalize the characters. I didn't feel comfortable with the presumption of speaking for real-life characters, putting dialogue in their mouths. And I needed to use fiction to free me up to tell the story. So what we have is a fictional set of characters and a fictional set of stories against a real-life background. Everything in the film is inspired by or based on research in some way, but it's synthesized into drama."

Nolan interweaves three different timelines through the movie, each operating on a different scale, sometimes overlapping and repeating incidents. It took Spitfires an hour to reach Dunkirk from England, while rescue ships needed a day to cross the Channel. The foot soldiers were trapped on the beach for a week in some cases.

"We tried to balance that subjective point of view, where you don't know more than the characters would about the situation they're in," Nolan explains. "These guys on the beach weren't face-to-face with the enemy, they were just hearing these planes come in and then seeing the explosions around them. They didn't know what the generals were planning in London, and that's part of the intensity, the fear they faced."

Characters in each of the three storylines have very different perspectives about the operation. As the movie progresses, their stories begin to combine to provide a fuller picture of the evacuation.

"We're trying to achieve that without going to the more conventional film grammar, with that omniscient point of view," Nolan says. "You know, where the audience is exposed to information that none of the characters could have."

Dunkirk stands apart from most war movies in never showing the enemy, apart from the looming presence of strafing planes. Nolan admits that this was a conscious decision.

"When you read firsthand accounts of the evacuation, the thing that becomes most interesting is how different it was from a conventional battle," Nolan explains. "It's really about the evacuation, about these guys in this very paradoxical situation, most of them experiencing a sense of dread, hearing the enemy coming closer. They were being barraged by mortar fire, and couldn't see where it was coming from. And these awful Stuka dive bombers screaming in and dropping bombs on them. There's just nothing they could do. There's no enemy to fight in a sense."

Along with van Hoytema's cinematography, and longtime associate Lee Smith's editing, a brooding score by Hans Zimmer adds to Dunkirk's relentless tension and sudden bursts of violence. But Nolan pauses at times to note acts of personal heroism, small gestures of kindness that bring a sense of intimacy and immediacy to the movie.

"We used what I call a very objective point of view," Nolan says. "Subjective in terms of how you're seeing events, but one that's not obviously or theatrically emotional. We don't have people talk about who they are, for example. We take an approach that's a little colder than that, because we're counting on the audience's natural empathetic response to a human being in peril.

"In that way my hope is that when these what I call grace notes appear, these moments where somebody showed a kindness or some human-scale form of heroism rather than movie-scale form of heroism, it will resonate more, be more impactful. It will feel more earned, I hope."

Balancing the movie's enormous scope, its planes and ships and thousands of extras, these personal encounters make Dunkirk a surprisingly intimate epic.

It's also a remarkably realistic one, thanks to Nolan's efforts to rely as much as possible on genuine equipment. The production employed some of the private small craft that were used in the evacuation. (Hundreds of smaller vessels joined the effort.)

"What you're seeing is overwhelmingly practical effects," Nolan says. "There aren't any shots in the film that don't have at least a basis on things that we photographed for real. I think the combination of World War II imagery and computer-generated imagery has never worked successfully in my view. So we really wanted to use more old-fashioned techniques, do more things for real, really try to never violate the sense of grit and reality that the live-action photography was always intended to have."

Nolan is especially proud of the dogfights in Dunkirk. "We had real Spitfires, real Messerschmitts, real bombers," he says. "We bought an airplane called a Yak, similar in size and shape to a Spitfire, and because it wasn't an antique we could drill into the wings, we could build camera mounts so that we could put an actor up in the air alongside a Spitfire, filming for real over the real location."

The director relied on previsualization for the flying sequences, a process he has preferred not to use for visual-effects sequences in his other movies. But the ability to program complex simulations with specific parameters made previz essential for blocking out shots and planning flight routes.

"The dogfights, as I put it to everybody, would not be car chases," Nolan remembers. "They would be chess games. They would involve the audience in the difficulty of planning and attempting to shoot down another plane from the plane you're in and show how difficult that would be."

A stripped-down aerial unit was available throughout the Dunkirk shoot, in part to test the equipment, in part to amass and adjust individual shots from the previz checklist.

"When we looked back at the way dogfights had been done in films, modern films as well, the one thing that seems to let them down were the cockpit shots of the actors, how they were integrated into the real photography," the director notes. "We felt it was time to try and take that to the next level and have those shots be as authentic, feel as authentic as any of the other aerial shots.”

Nolan's earlier movies like Inception and Interstellar used extensive aerial footage, so the director had pilots he could call upon for Dunkirk. And working with them throughout the production allowed the team to be more spontaneous, adapt to changing weather conditions, incorporate a striking cloud formation into a sequence.

"What we tried to achieve is something with our large-format photography that just hasn't been done before in terms of really getting up there and doing this stuff for real and putting an actor in the middle of it."

All of Dunkirk was shot on film and in a large-format process. Despite the staggering size of the production, this may be the most spare and focused narrative Nolan has ever attempted. And its visuals are so spectacular that they beg to be seen on a large screen.