Dunkirk: Survival and the Silent Sacrifice
by Mari A. Gomez
Reflections on Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.
The beaches of Dunkirk. 1940. The enemy is a leviathan force, savage and elusive. We do not see its face, but we feel its terrifying strength in the form of bullets, fighter aircraft, falling bombs, U-boats, torpedoes, and for a second at the end of the film, as blurred out shadows. Because of this the enemy takes on multiple levels. It’s more than just the Nazis; it is what they stood for: tyranny, the abyss.
It was on those shores early on in the war, that hundreds of thousands of soldiers were pushed closer and closer to the edge. Inevitably some fell into the darkness and into the pages of history, others would continue to battles ahead. Defenseless, all they could do was run, swim, or wait. The British were on the brink of defeat and the film conveys the nation’s survival instinct.
The film hinges upon all of that, but it zeroes in on two indispensable human traits: sacrifice and survival. Told through three points of view: land, sea, and air, all essential elements man needs to survive, Nolan portrays what these aspects of humanity look like in different forms. The battle in all three is distinctly different, but demands nothing less than an absolute indelible determination to survive and the willingness to sacrifice when necessary.
This is captured through a British soldier on land, Tommy, representing the young British soldier, and his brave and silent companion, Gibson.
The opening scene shows a group of British soldiers as they walk towards the beach. They come under fire from behind and out of the whole group only Tommy dodges the bullets. From these opening scenes we are warned that the enemy is right behind them, just out of reach, the whole time.
When Tommy reaches the French line in charge of keeping back the Germans, they nearly shoot him. He yells out that he’s English and they signal him forward. As he reaches the line the French soldiers say nothing. Instead, they stare at him with hostility and resentment.Without a word spoken, Nolan is acknowledging an important part of the story. Many French soldiers stayed behind to secure the beach and allow time for the evacuation. Most of them would die or be captured as France fell to the Nazis. These soldiers holding the line, understood their fate; it was their place to stay and fight, while the British retreated. It is details such as these, that make the film an incredible feat of storytelling.
In the next sequence, Tommy finds himself on the beach, along with hundreds of thousands of other British soldiers. He finds a small dune off to the side where he tries to relieve himself. Before he can unbuckle his pants, he sees another soldier burying a body. Tommy goes over to help bury the dead. The camera focuses, just for a minute, on the dead body’s bare foot protruding from under the sand. The next frame is the hands of the other soldier tying the laces of his boot. It is a cinematic gesture that reveals an important detail. Once they bury the body, Tommy walks away towards the camera and slightly out of focus, the other soldier, Gibson, is fixing his pants, tying the belt, tucking in the shirt. We find out later that this lad is a French soldier and that in those opening scenes Tommy almost discovers him putting on the boots and the uniform of his dead British comrade.
From that moment Gibson, a young French lad, carries a heavy burden. He wears the uniform of the dead and knows, deep down, that he’s running. He’s running from what seems inevitable for him, and at that point in the war, for France. His countrymen are back there holding the line and he wants merely to survive. This French lad however shows monumental courage, perhaps prompted by a sense of guilt, and he exhibits effort after effort to save others, like Tommy, and later Alex.
His silence and his constant alertness, the way he shifts his eyes in quiet paranoia, are manifestations of the fact that he does not speak the language and has to read everything one step ahead. Tommy and him spark an almost uncanny connection, a silent alliance in their cause for survival. And it never occurs to Tommy, until others demand it, that he had never spoken a word to his companion. Gibson shows a swiftness for survival, a reluctance to give in, to accept, as does Tommy. “I’m going home,” he says.
When the French lad is discovered as such amongst a group of British soldiers, they face an ugly reality. They become desperate and want to kick someone off the boat because it is sinking. Alex accuses him of being a German spy and he finally speaks, for the first time in the film, revealing he is French.They are willing to sacrifice him in a move of desperation to save themselves.
Tommy is wrestling with this, “He’s on our side,” he says. “It’s not fair.”
“Survival is not fair,” replies Alex, who was saved by Gibson when he risked himself to let out drowning soldiers.
And to the very end Gibson shows extraordinary courage. He resists until the last moment and meets his end having saved others. Alex escapes right before him, all he had to do was look back.
Alex and Tommy both make it onto the Moonstone a small civilian boat, headed by Mr. Dawson. They know Gibson was left behind and Alex seems to recognize his selfishness. Although there is no dialogue about it, one senses he is overcome by shame. Tommy seems to forgive him with a glance. Once they make it to England Alex begins to express this deep humiliation.
“All we did was survive,” he says.
“That’s enough,” a British civilian responds.
Surviving was what the army needed to do at that moment. It is true, that Tommy drops his gun within the first minutes of the film and is never engaged in actually defending himself against the enemy. The whole film, he is running, dodging death’s door by millimeters. And throughout Tommy’s journey, we see what takes to survive: an infallible will, a stone cold refusal to let go, a constant resistance against the abyss. There is an extraordinary moment in the film where Tommy, Alex, and Gibson sit on the shore waiting. They see a British soldier quietly and peacefully dive into the waves, as if he is to swim home to Britain. They all knew that he had given in. They had not.
This is Britain’s position at this point in the war. Retreat, survive. The only visible British force defending and pushing against the enemy in the film, are the two pilots, Collins and Ferrier, flying SpitFires above the English Channel, trying to counter the German planes dropping bombs on the evacuating soldiers.
When they make it home, Tommy and Alex ride on the train. Alex thinks he’ll come home to a disappointed Britain. “I can’t bear it,” he says. He picks up a paper that shows Churchill’s address to Commons. His humiliation is so deep that he can’t bring himself to read Churchill’s words. He could see the army had failed. He hands it to Tommy and in the voice of this washed up, tired, and shaken British soldier, a kid who has done everything, the impossible to survive, we hear the roar of Churchhill coming through.
“…We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets….”
The final scene, Tommy looks up from the page. It’s not over, he realizes.
The film has two other entire story lines. Mr. Dawson and his son Peter on the civilian boat represent the British will, the unity and determination. And in all of the stories we see the sacrifices, the big and the small, and how they add up to a nation’s unified war effort. We see it in the courage and sacrifice of Gibson the French soldier, who deep down must have known that wearing a dead man’s uniform was a curse in itself. Gibson is the embodiment of many young Frenchman thrust into war faced with leaving France or dying on its shores defending it. You see this in the sacrifice of Farrier the pilot, played brilliantly by Tom Hardy, who uses up all his fuel, knowing he won’t make it home, in order to hit a German plane. With that sacrifice, he potentially saved thousands of British soldiers.
You see it Mr. Dawson, who risked his young son for what he felt was their duty, and who had already made a great sacrifice, having lost his oldest early in the war. Yet with this risk, he saves many British lives. You see it in Peter, Mr. Dawson’s youngest son, whose friend had just been killed, but refrains from lashing out on the distraught British soldier responsible for it, in order to spare him the guilt of having accidentally killed an innocent British boy. You see it in the faces of the French soldiers in the opening scene, where they must sacrifice themselves for France and duty. You see it in the Commander Bolton, who chooses to stay behind for the French.
There is something about the scene when the hundreds of civilian boats appear on the shores of Dunkirk to rescue soldiers. It brought me to tears every time. Churchill would tap into this in his speech:
“I have myself full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war and to outlive the menace of tyranny…
“If all do their duty…” He meant all, every person. And what is that duty? To always fight, to sacrifice for something bigger than oneself, for what is right and true, and to resist the darkness at all costs. To neglect nothing. In other words, everything is an opportunity to advance, to save one more life, that may in turn save dozens more, to aid another. And in the end, of course, the Allies would fight off the abyss of tyranny and who knows how many indispensable, yet never recorded (some as mere statistic) silent sacrifices there were to achieve that.
You can’t help but think about the extraordinary unity that helped Britain survive that episode. The abyss of tyranny however, is never fully destroyed; it merely changes forms.
In order to understand your duty, you must understand your cause. And the cause should always be liberty.