We Americans tend to have a U.S.-centric view of history. Consider World War II, for example. We know all about Pearl Harbor and D-Day and Hiroshima—the three most critical days of that bloody conflict. Well, at least from our perspective.
D-Day certainly was a turning point in Europe and Hiroshima definitely did quicken the end of the war in the Pacific, but World War II started a full two years before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
And, if not for heroics by British citizens at Dunkirk, France, in May and June of 1940, Hitler’s Army may have conquered all of Europe before the United States even got a chance to fight.
The highly anticipated Dunkirk (PG-13) opens this weekend in a retelling of one of the largest evacuations in human history. With German forces surrounding British, French and Belgian troops at the beaches of Dunkirk, approximately 330,000 troops were evacuated to safety, dodging bombs and bullets from German fighter planes thanks to hundreds of British private boats that crossed the English Channel.
Dunkirk is directed by Christopher Nolan and stars a cast that is largely unknown to most U.S. moviegoers, minus a few exceptions (Tom Hardy plays a pilot named Farrier, singer Harry Styles plays a private named Alex, while Mark Rylance of Bridge of Spies and The BFG plays a British yacht owner named Mr. Dawson).
The movie rotates between three scenes: the land, the sea and the air, spotlighting specific characters as they try to push back against Hitler’s advance. On the land, we follow two privates as they try and escape the beach. On the sea, the movie trails Mr. Dawson and two companions as they cross the English Channel to rescue the trapped men. And in the air, it’s a handful of British pilots who desperately are trying to destroy German planes before the evacuees are bombed.
Dunkirk is one of the more “minimalistic” mainstream movies of the modern era, meaning there’s little dialogue. There’s subtlety within the musical score. This simplicity even is seen in the opening title sequence, in which we’re told the soldiers are “hoping for a miracle.” Then the movie begins with one word on a quiet, black screen: “Dunkirk.”
The minimalism, though, works wonderfully, allowing the viewer to get lost in the story. The action carries the movie. It’s surely as close to being there without being there. The only downside: You end the film unsure of character names. But that’s worth the tradeoff.
Dunkirk is one of the more “clean” war movies you’ll ever see, even if it does feature some war violence and a bit of language. Let’s examine the details …
Warning: minor spoilers!
Moderate/Extreme. For a war movie, the violence is restrained. Bombs explode and people are shot and killed, but we don’t witness the hard-core stuff that other war films feature (think: decapitations and amputations). There’s not a lot of blood and guts. Still, it is a war movie, and the content can be quite disturbing. We watch as two troops try to bury a dead companion in the sand. We see a man pointing a gun at someone, threatening to kill him. Men get trapped in water-filled rooms in sinking ships, trying to avoid drowning. Bombs drop and bodies fly.
Minimal. I counted eight coarse words: misuse of “Christ” (2), h-ll (2), misuse of “God” (1), f-word (2), s–t (1). There also are a couple of uses of the British slang “bloody.”
We hear a Winston Churchill speech that references God.
Where do you start? Although there are no explicit Christian elements, the movie is one big sermon on adversity, sacrifice, courage and hope. There’s a heroic moment every five minutes. Think about it: More than 300,000 Allied troops were surrounded by German forces. The Germans even were dropping leaflets proclaiming: “We Surround You. Surrender & Survive.” Then hundreds of people volunteered their boats to help rescue the men. As Mr. Dawson says to someone who urges him to turn his boat around and go home: “There won’t be any home” left if those troops aren’t rescued. When German planes fire at his ship, he keeps going.
War is ugly, but sometimes in a fallen world, it’s necessary (Ecclesiastes 3:8). We know about the atrocities that Hitler committed, and with that backdrop, it’s difficult not to be repulsed at the actions of the Germans in Dunkirk. We watch German planes drop bombs on thousands of helpless Allied troops and then on Allied ships. The British general understands the significance of a German defeat of France: “Britain’s next, and then the rest of the world.” Jesus once said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). We see that in Dunkirk.
This one has too much violence and too many disturbing elements for little ones. But for teenagers, it’s family-friendly.
What I Liked
Too often, directors of war movies get caught up in realism, wanting to depict events exactly as they happened. Perhaps there’s a place for that, but often the heroism and bravery are overshadowed by a blood-splattered mess. It’s nice, for once, to have a PG-13 war movie that many families will be comfortable watching.
What I Didn’t Like
There was no Christian dialogue. Then again, there weren’t many coarse words, either (at least, for a war movie).
Thumbs Up … Or Down?
Dunkirk might be my new favorite war movie of all time. Thumbs up.
1. What can we learn from the heroes of Dunkirk? Do you think you would have done what Mr. Dawson did?
2. What was your favorite heroic moment? Your favorite character?
3. Some observers call the World War II generation the “greatest generation.” Do you agree with that description?
4. What was your reaction when troops were turned away from the row boats? Should the troops have been allowed on the boats?
Dunkirk is rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.
Entertainment rating: 4 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 3 out of 5 stars.