July 31st, 2017

Movies: the Dunkirk din

I thought “Dunkirk” was the sort of movie that would be good to see in one of those RPX movie theaters. But I took the precaution of taking some earplugs along with me to protect my sensitive ears.

I was tremendously glad I did. One of the first things I noticed about the movie was the assaultive, hideous sound, which even the earplugs couldn’t dull enough for me. I felt the need to push them in deeper with my fingers and kept covering my ears, too. And even then, the blasting percussive bass made the seats vibrate so forcefully that it almost felt as though those Spitfires were flying right over us.

I assume that was the point. Unfortunately, it seemed to be almost the only point of the movie, which concentratee on giving the audience the feeling that we are participants in Dunkirk, The Video Game.

The film is a real blockbuster and has been widely and highly praised. But I had so many quarrels with it that I left the theater almost angry.

Let me start with the good stuff. The dogfights in the air—which make up a large portion of the film—were an astounding piece of filmmaking. I don’t really mean the fight portions, which were a bit muddled and hard to follow, but the flight part, the swooping and the chase and the wide expanse of sky and sea. The big screen really came into its own there, and it was truly spectacular. Reportedly those scenes were filmed with IMAX cameras “attached to the fighter planes using specially-made snorkel lenses – in the back and the front” of each plane.

The technical aspects of those portions of the film were so impressive that I found myself wondering how it was done even as I watched, which could have distracted from my following the story except that there was really very little story from which to be distracted. If you already know the basics of what happened at Dunkirk, the film doesn’t give you much more: men were trapped there, some were killed there, and hundreds of thousands were successfully evacuated by sea. And the film concentrates on the first two parts and gives the third part rather short shrift.

Characters? You barely learn who they are. They don’t say much, and what they say is almost unintelligible. There’s almost zero historical context given for the entire thing, either. I kept wondering what young people, many of whom might not know what Dunkirk was, would be likely to take from this movie: that there were guys standing on a beach in a war, many died in harrowing ways, there was a lot of noise, and many were ultimately rescued.

And the music—ah, the music! It’s a very special part of the experience, a pile-driving discordant cacophony that augments the sound effects until you wonder which is more aurally disturbing, the sound of the bombing or the sound of the music. Yes, I know this is supposed to be “immersive,” but I found it took away from the plot and made it all about the movie rather than Dunkirk itself.

Have I forgotten anything? Yes—many of the actors look so much alike that unless you know who they are already (and I didn’t) you can’t tell most of the apart.

And then there is the movie within the movie—another, far more conventional movie that follows the doings of a small boat manned by three civilians who end up picking up various survivors. This boat is captained by actor Mark Rylance, whose performance features an old-fashioned approach to conveying some actual nuances of character (gasp!). But to do that he had to be given the opportunity—the time, and some lines of dialogue, and some peace and quiet in which to deilver them. It’s not the fault of many of the other actors that they weren’t given those opportunities.

“Dunkirk” cuts back and forth in time among several stories it follows—with the effect of making the viewer maximally confused, as far as I can see. But it also cuts and forth between the two widely different acting and directing styles, creating another discordance.

In preparation for seeing the movie I skimmed quite a few reviews and the vast majority were raves. Well, this review’s not among them. After I came back home and read some more, I did find one reviewer who disagreed with the others and whose opinion resembled mine: David Cox, writing in—of all place—the Guardian. His review is entitled, “Bloodless, boring and empty: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk left me cold.”

Preach it, brother, preach it.

By the way, it wasn’t just my delicate little ears that had trouble with the overwhelming sound:

It might be the loudest movie I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean like a gun shot here or an explosion there, I mean sustained loud noises for minutes at a time. For large sections of the movie the soundtrack and the effects merge in this cacophony of noise and it becomes difficult to differentiate between any of the sounds. On a number of occasions it actually distracted me from what was taking place on screen. If you have trouble with prolonged loud noises you might consider waiting to see this until you can control the volume.

And this:

Just finished watching Dunkirk IMAX 70mm at Metreon 16 in SF. Loved the movie but holyshit, this was definitely the loudest movie i’ve ever heard, and probably the loudest thing i’ve ever experienced. There are periods of sustained loud sound lasting 3-5 minutes at a time, and not just an instance or ‘bang’. I calibrate my sound setup to 75-85 db, this must have been 100-110 db. In every sense of the word, it was deafening and uncomfortable. I get immersion and all but yeah this was too much for me… prior i’ve never found a movie or concert/club was too loud, a first for me.

So i really recommend bringing ear plugs just in case you experience immense discomfort like i did… wish i knew before hand.

And the person who wrote that liked the movie.

By the way, actual veterans of Dunkirk had this to say about the sound:

Branagh said that about 30 veterans—now in their 90s—came to the U.K. premiere of the film last week, and when he asked them what they thought of it afterward, they said, “The film was louder than the battle!” They explained that on the actual beach, because that stretch of land is so large, the noise of the bombs drifted away on the air.

I didn’t feel comfortable taking my earplugs out until I was in the lobby of the theater.

[ADDENDUM: About people’s different reports on the loudness of the sound when they saw the movie—as I noted in the first sentence of the post, I went to an RPX theater to see it. That’s not quite IMAX, but it’s not a regular theater either. It’s got a much bigger screen than the usual, although smaller than IMAX. There are supposedly more speakers than in a regular theater, but the sound isn’t quite as over-the-top as IMAX.

I have a feeling I would have had trouble with the sound for “Dunkirk” in any theater, even a regular one, but I’m sure not going back and watch the movie again in a regular theater just to find out.]

51 Responses to “Movies: the Dunkirk din”

  1. Carlos Says:

    Neo, saw “Dunkirk” yesterday and I echo your comment, “… and what they say is almost unintelligible.” I put it down to bad sound design and dialects-selection (glad to see that they didn’t “BBC” the dialects) but it was incomprehensible and I have good “ears.” Commented to another theater-goer that I was glad that when I came I already knew the story, but would have to wait to see it again when I could read the captions.

  2. groundhog Says:

    neocon says: I kept wondering what young people, many of whom might not know what Dunkirk was, would be likely to take from this movie: that there were guys standing on a beach in a war, many died in harrowing ways, there was a lot of noise, and many were ultimately rescued.

    Ironically, though, that might be a very accurate description of the experience. Dying, noise and confusion is war at its most intense level.

  3. renminbi Says:

    Thank-you for the warning, Neo..Odd that most reviewers wouldn’t note that shortcoming.

  4. huxley Says:

    neo: Good to know. I really dislike loud stuff.

    Characters who look alike is a problem I’ve noticed in other British films. (Which tall good-looking white guy with straight dark hair is that?)

    Then again, with the exception of the Heath Ledger “Joker” I haven’t much liked anything director Christopher Nolan has done since “Memento” although his movies have made, wiki tells me, $4.4 billion.

    I’ll see it on DVD when I can control the sound.

  5. Patrick Says:

    You aren’t alone in finding the narrative portion of the movie lacking, I’ve seen that in several reviews. I’m debating seeing it for the spectacle part of the movie, but thinking also it could turn into a chore to sit through without much of a story to grab on to. Thanks for the warning about the sound – I’m a regular ear plug wearer in most movies.

  6. LCB Says:

    I really liked it, but to me it was more like a water color with broad strokes than an oil painting trying to catch all of the little details. I felt we were seeing the event from a close up view, as if from a soldiers view. I’ve read where others have complained about the loudness of the music and how the dialogue was sometimes hard to follow. I wonder if that’s more a function of individual theaters or IMAX than the movie itself. Wasn’t too loud were we saw it and the dialogue was easy enough to follow. The music WAS a crushing presence in tone, but then so was being on that beach.

  7. Matt_SE Says:

    As others have noted, the lack of a narrative was probably the point. This film was almost closer to a documentary than a story, with the exception of the noise.

    War is long stretches of boredom, punctuated by moments of terror. Dunkirk was more realistic than Saving Private Ryan, even if less satisfying.

  8. OldTexan Says:

    Thank you Neo. I have been debating on seeing this in the theater or waiting until I can control the sound because I wear hearing aids and loud movies don’t work well for me. The reviews I have read warn about the sound making it hard to understand the dialog.

    As for Dunkirk I am an old history buff and I have read a number of accounts but until I read book Dunkirk by Norman Gelb last week I had no idea the various aspects of the evacuation, political, number of ships and boats and amount of time involved, the rear guard action to hold the Germans off and the practical reasons for the Germans coming to a halt.

    The real miracle is the Brits were hoping to save 10 to 20 thousand soldiers and they save over 240 thousand Brits and 60 thousand French and Poles. This gave the British a core of seasoned troops to rebuild and expand into a formidable fighting force.

    Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s dad was U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. and his assessment was that they were done and would be unable to hold on, Democracy was dead over there and it would be best if they would make their best deal with an armistice before the Germans invaded and it was too late. Of course when that advice became public he resigned.

    Dunkirk was one of those huge turning points in the entire war and Churchill was barely hanging on a Prime Minister and the successful evacuation probably saved his position and allowed him to keep spirits up during the subsequent Battle of Britain. Of course having on to enough air craft and not committing them to Dunkirk losing planes and pilots turned out to be a good idea later in the summer.

  9. parker Says:

    I agree the music was a bit much, but I liked the film. It wasn’t filled with graphic gore. I thought dividing the movie into 3 different narratives was a good idea. The only thing missing was a hat tip to the French forces that held off the Germans long enough for the evacuation to succeed.

  10. Cornhead Says:

    Didn’t like it much either. Overrated.

  11. Sgt. Mom Says:

    I saw it last weekend – in an Alamo Drafthouse cinema, and didn’t have an issue with the sound being too loud. It may be the individual theater. The Alamo Drafthouse management does well by their audiences, generally.
    I had a mixed review myself. – linky here: http://chicagoboyz.net/archives/55642.html

  12. huxley Says:

    Sgt. Mom: Nice review!

    OldTexan: Thanks for the historical material, particularly on Joseph P. Kennedy.

    When I was a boy I took it for granted that the Allies would have won WW2 because we were the Good Guys.

    Now I realize how much of a close-run thing it was and how many turning points went our way by the skin of our teeth — Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Stalingrad, Midway.

    I love “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick about an alternate future in which the Axis won the war. The Amazon TV series based on the book was better than I expected and worth a look.

  13. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “There are periods of sustained loud sound lasting 3-5 minutes at a time, and not just an instance or ‘bang’. I calibrate my sound setup to 75-85 db, this must have been 100-110 db.” movie goer comment

    “When listening to a personal music system with stock earphones at a maximum volume, the sound generated can reach a level of over 100 dBA, loud enough to begin causing permanent damage after just 15 minutes per day!”

    For decades, many movies have been far too loud. What a wonderful opportunity for a class action lawsuit…

  14. Oldflyer Says:

    Neo, how disappointing. I had planned to see the movie, but like others I don’t tolerate noise very well; and if the movie does not set the context for Dunkirk, why bother?

    Huxley makes a good point. We would have won WWII in any case–if the country stayed committed long enough–but wonderful fortune played a huge role. Hitler had no idea how close he was to defeating the RAF. The U.S. Navy at Midway–to be honest–stumbled all over the place and stumbled into a huge victory due to individual heroism, and Japanese miscalculation. If the British Expeditionary Force had been destroyed on the beach at Dunkirk, it is problematical whether the Brits would have continued, or negotiated a peace. People who set out to make this kind of movie, have an obligation to tell the story; otherwise it is just another car chase/ explosive special effects show.

  15. neo-neocon Says:

    huxley; Oldflyer:

    Please see this.

  16. Ann Says:

    From a review in Le Monde, via Google Translate:

    Dunkirk, in fact, rather than a classic war film, is a survival film. Its pushed to the maximum, impacts of bombs and bullets hissing to the ears of the spectators, bigger format and more vibrant than nature, dark colors and landscapes of apocalypse, camera embedded in the most atrocious situations, ubiquitous partition and once again Hans Zimmer’s remarkable tendency towards industrial music. …

    From the sole point of view of this sensation transmitted, Dunkerque would be a success. The problem is that a survival may as well turn into an elevator, and that Christopher Nolan fails to honor the obligations of the context in which he was pleased to plunge his. The representation of war requires the understanding of its complexities and the attention paid to the human person whose negation it is. Nothing like this here, primarily dramaturgically. Few dialogues, no more characters, in the full sense of the term. At best, figures that at best decorate an aesthetic of sensation, certainly intense, and an art of fresco, admittedly magnificent, of which they are never the center.

    Another reservation, this time affecting the plot vision of the film. The battle of Dunkirk is, in fact, a purely English history. A dozen seconds devoted to a group of French soldiers, who were not very friendly, defended the city, some others devoted to a second role disguised as an English soldier to flee the massacre, did not account for the French involvement indispensable to this Mad evacuation. Undoubtedly the Germans are never shown either, except through their firepower. No doubt one can deny to a creator the right to focus his point of view on what he sees fit. So long as this point of view, at least, does not distort the reality which it claims to represent.

    Where are the 120,000 French soldiers also evacuated from Dunkirk in this film? Where are the other 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against a superior enemy in arms and in numbers? Where are the members of the First Army, who, abandoned by their allies, estimating the lost part, nevertheless prevent several divisions of the Wehrmacht from going to Dunkirk? Where is Dunkerque, half destroyed by the bombardments, but rendered here invisible?

    This Anglo-Saxon tropism, which makes of Dunkerque the condition of the pugnacious survival of England and the promise of the future liberation of the continent with the help of the United States, is obviously not questionable from a retrospective point of view . It will not be long, indeed, for France, fallen under the Nazi cup and entrusted to the guardianship of Petain, undertakes the path of collaboration. On the date of Dunkirk, however, a rare moment in this war which honors the heroism of the French army, this point of view is not yet valid. Another film that would have begun to evoke this burst of despair, at the same time as this Shakespearean moment of divergence between the French and English staffs, would have been pathetic and exciting. Christopher Nolan – from an English father, an American mother, a Hollywood obedience – chose to turn to France, to rain there the manna of a blockbuster, to lead a promotion of hell , But to better ignore it, in fine, in his film. Except for his respect and the eternal debt which France owes to her liberators, there is there a stinging impoliteness, a distressing indifference.

    That “fails to honor the obligations of the context” and “distort[ing] the reality which it claims to represent” I see more and more of in movies and TV dramas now.

  17. AesopFan Says:

    Sgt. Mom Says:
    July 31st, 2017 at 4:21 pm
    I had a mixed review myself. – linky here: http://chicagoboyz.net/archives/55642.html

    * * *
    Very well-written review, and the commentariat was interesting and informative.

  18. ed in texas Says:

    Been in a war.
    Found it quite noisy at times. Also, boring at times, and hugely inconvenient.
    I’ve tried to avoid them since.

  19. TommyJay Says:

    I saw it in a basic digital projector theater. I warned my wife and she brought earplugs. It was loud generally, but the only really loud scenes were the Stuka dive bombers with the sirens. That WAS the point of putting a siren on a dive bomber; to scare the heck out of soldiers on the ground.

    The Spitfire engines were loud but many consider it to be a wonderful sound, so much so, that the Rolls Royce Merlin engine even gets a line in the limited dialog. I remember in the late ’70s sleeping in late on a Saturday morning a block from Mission Bay in San Diego. I was half awake, half dreaming and I thought some battle from WWII had descended on my neighborhood. Turns out there were a dozen unlimited hydroplane boats racing in Mission Bay, all running Rolls Royce Merlin engines recovered from WWII.

    Chris Nolan and Quentin Tarantino and a few others are trying to keep a Kodak film factory running so that they can shoot with silver halide. If I had read up on the film first I might have driven to a real IMAX theater. The film is very different depending on the delivery. 70mm IMAX has a 1.43:1 aspect ratio, basic digital projector is 2.20:1, and an old 35mm projector is 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

    A key focus of the film, I thought, was “The Horror” writ small and large; in the sense of Conrad and Apocalypse Now, although even more impersonal. The narrative of the pleasure yacht and crew, and the spectacle and even majesty of the air battles provide some respite from this. Later the pilots and yacht captain have their horrors also.

    The French effort was in the film but I had to look up those odd French helmets to figure it out. The other amazing fact contained in the film was the limited air support that Churchill ordered. That took brains and guts and was likely essential in surviving the Battle of Britain.

  20. neo-neocon Says:

    Sgt Mom:

    I feel as you do about the coming attractions shown in the theaters. Dreadful and repetitive. It’s like the same movie over and over again.

  21. neo-neocon Says:

    I’m not sure if people noticed that I mentioned I went to an RPX theater. That’s not quite IMAX, but it’s not a regular theater either. It’s got a much bigger screen than the usual, although smaller than IMAX. There are supposedly more speakers than in a regular theater, but the sound isn’t quite as over-the-top as IMAX. I have a feeling I would have had trouble with the sound for “Dunkirk” in any theater, even a regular one, but I’m not going back and watch the movie again just to find out.

  22. huxley Says:

    I’m not sure if people noticed that I mentioned I went to an RPX theater.

    neo: I noticed but didn’t want to go off into the weeds on it.

    Nor did I wish to reveal my ignorance of the “RPX theater”!

  23. neo-neocon Says:


    I had to look it up myself before I went.

    But that’s how I knew I’d better take earplugs. However, I keep them in my purse all the time, anyway, just in case. I’ve had too many bad experience at concerts.

  24. Ira Says:

    I saw it with high hope, only to be disappointed. Great cinematography without story does NOT make for a good movie.

    I was actually bored by it. Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Hacksaw Ridge were much, much better movies.

    When one considers that the Dunkirk evacuation was a momentous turning point in WWII (and for the fate of Western civilization), the making of this movie was a real lost opportunity (unless the intent was to further confuse Millennials).

  25. Stephen Ippolito Says:

    Thanks for the customarily insightful review, Neo.

    How disappointing that such a “meaty” story has been overwhelmed by modern whizz-bangery and special effects.

    No doubt the sudden explosions are meant to convey to us a little of the discomfort, chaos and fear that war is all about, (or as much as coddled civilians in a comfortable movie theatre in the 21st century can relate to that reality), but I would have thought, personally, that the deeper story here perhaps called more for quiet – as each man on the beach went inside himself to wrestle with his own deepest thoughts, feelings and demons while he stood, seemingly forever, passively, dangerously exposed as a target in a queue, waiting for an enemy to strike at will from the sky in circumstances where he was powerless to fight back. It must have seemed quite surreal to those there.

    Beyond the stories of dash and derring-do that feature at the heart of every treatment of WW2, as interesting as they are, I wish one day they would make a movie that explores what it was like to live in such a time when leaders had enough respect for their people to speak bluntly to them, even by conveying awful and terrifying truths, as Churchill always seems to have done.

    At the time of Dunkirk Churchill had only been PM for about a fortnight and on the day he was commissioned had bluntly told parliament and the people that: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”.

    It must then have been tempting for him, under the circumstances, to try to spin the miracle of the evacuation as a victory or turning point of the war but he did no such thing. Instead, after giving due thanks to providence and bravery, he focused his people on the grim reality that “Wars are not won by evacuations”.

    Churchill’s mature and respectful approach to those he led never waivered, it seems to me, as demonstrated by his approach two and a half years further into their gruelling war when, after their first really meaningful victory, at El Alamein, he cautioned the British people:
    “This is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”. That is as far as he would go because grown-ups can be trusted to handle the truth.

    Oh for the days when a leader trusted the maturity of the people enough to level with them and when the people were mature enough to merit that respect.

  26. neo-neocon Says:

    Stephen Ippolito:

    Churchill was unique, I believe, even for leaders of those times. He was sui generis, and in my opinion a genius on several levels. He certainly was a genius with words. In some ways it was as though Shakespeare had become prime minister—that’s the level of brilliance I think Churchill attained in writing his speeches—and had also gotten one of the greatest actors of his time to deliver them.

  27. AesopFan Says:


    My old boss Conrad Black is critical of Dunkirk because he feels it might usefully have educated millennial dimwits as to who this chap Hitler was, other than the warm-up act for Trump, who runs over their safe spaces like the previous Führer did Belgium. But, as Nolan says, Dunkirk is not a war movie: There are no scenes of commanders poring over maps back in Whitehall basements. Churchill’s famous speech – “We shall never surrender” – is heard, but not in those sonorous Winstonian tones, only through the voice of an exhausted private reading it from a local newspaper. The flat and halting delivery oddly reinvigorates the familiar words: their power transcends the performance. So Lord Black is critiquing a picture Mr Nolan chose not to make. But nor is Nolan quite right that this is not a war movie but a survival picture. I don’t think whether anybody survives or not is what matters. Instead, a film without characters (in the conventional sense) is a film about character. That’s what counts: the character of the British people, in the wretched spring of 1940. There is chaos everywhere – great battleships upturned in minutes, the sea aflame – but amidst it all the people are sure.

    In that sense, as important as the Spitfire is, so too are the great urns of tea and bread and jam that greet the Tommies whenever they find refuge. God knows what the French made of them: perhaps it was the moment when the bleak reality of exile was finally made plain. The jolly ladies proffering “a nice cup of tea” to the wounded die as easily as soldiers and sailors do, but, like Mr Dawson, they are doing their duty, uncomplainingly. I have no idea of Christopher Nolan’s politics, and in Hollywood one is obliged to be circumspect about even the mildest deviation from the conventional pieties. Nevertheless, whether by intent or not, he has made a film that celebrates the character of a people, and the virtues that enabled them to snatch a mad, improvised victory in the midst of what seemed their darkest hour. After all, even after Dunkirk, the possibility of invasion and conquest was very real. Nobody had to explain what was at stake: That’s why they cast off from their sleepy fishing coves; that’s why they put the tea on.

    They won the war, and lost their country anyway. Britain’s new invaders arrive at Dover, and Heathrow and Gatwick, every day of the week, annexing territory and incubating therein the men who run you down on London bridges, and stab you in restaurants, and blow you up at pop concerts, and decapitate you in the streets. A little after mid-century, there’ll still be bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover, but the “white British” – ie, the men and women seen in this film – will be a minority in their own islands. Watching Nolan’s Dunkirk, you don’t get, as Conrad Black says, much sense of why the British Expeditionary Force was on the run, but you do a get a sense of how a people who share the same assumptions will share the burdens and sacrifices, too. In a lost Britain, it will not be like that again.

  28. Stephen Ippolito Says:

    I’m with you completely on the subject of Churchill’s literary/oratorical genius, Neo.

    Edward Murrow once observed that Churchill “mobilised the english language and sent it into battle”.

    Churchill, himself, seems to have acknowledged the value and power of his own oratory when, at the end of the war, on being praised for his courage, he replied that: “it was the nation and the race around the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar”.

    All this talk of Churchill has me thinking of my other boyhood hero, Lincoln, who was also a literary genius. (Lincoln wrote and spoke much more of genius than merely the Gettysburg Address. His Second inaugural, I believe, is for the ages).

    Genius is innate, of course, but life circumstances can surely serve to stifle or hone that gift. Both men, as it happens, while young, set out on deliberate courses to hone their literary styles.

    Churchill famously recounts in “My Early Life” spending most of his long idle days as a young subaltern just out of Sandhurst on the Indian frontier educating himself by reading and rereading, chiefly, Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which he thereafter recommended to all who would obtain felicity of expression.

    For the equally ambitious Lincoln it was famously the St James Bible and Aesop’s Fables.

    But here’s my real point: could not each man, through his reading of such classics, have gained something much more profound and ultimately more valuable to the society he led in desperate times than merely peerless style?

    Through studying the life of the Romans over centuries in Churchill’s case, and the Bible in Lincoln’s, both men I suspect gained something else as well. Surely each gained that rare commodity: cultural perspective.

    I think, perhaps, that when one reads deeply in great works of history or poetry or philosophy one necessarily absorbs the knowledge that it is the long-term that counts and that very seldom are great things achieved, (or squandered), overnight.

    Each of those two politician-orators led his society during long years of reverses but never lost heart because his readings taught him to take the long view in life. No?

  29. blert Says:

    Lost on virtually everybody: MORE French soldiers were evacuated than the British.



    The big difference is that they promptly returned to France — weapon-less to be consumed in the next phase of the Nazi assault.

    It also irritates the French no end that the perimeter of Dunkirk was largely held by the French army — no Monty’s 3rd Division.

    ( It was at Dunkirk that Montgomery established his bona fides up to the highest British military authorities. This led him, ultimately, to 8th Army and his legacy in the desert. )

    Spitfires over Dunkirk were a RARITY. Like the Luftwaffe, latter, the RAF couldn’t keep their fighters over the beachhead for more than a trivial number of minutes. It’s a total illusion to think otherwise. These were NOT P-51s.

    Further, Churchill just about had a fit. He KNEW that he’d need every Spit for the defense of Britain. In contrast, the Luftwaffe just about gang raped any Allied fighter to show up.

    This made for BAD propaganda. So, even today, the paucity of RAF air cover is largely denied.

    The story of Dunkirk is that of the MOLE.

    A ‘mole’ is a breakwater — that went so far out — was so wide — ie two-men wide — that the BEF could escape via it — directly onto RN ships.

    Forget the myth about going up to the beach. That’s even worse than a myth. It’s a fulsome lie.

    RN destroyers were pulling away from the mole with troops so heavy that they would’ve gone down in heavy weather. (!!!)


    The lads were standing shoulder to shoulder top side — and every where else — aboard said RN destroyers.

    THAT’S how the BEF escaped.

    This reality was kept a national secret for DECADES.

    So embarrassing.

  30. blert Says:

    Lastly, NEVER mentioned is that the RN could NOT travel directly to Dunkirk.

    Because of French minefields, the RN had to zig-zag all over the place — just to safely approach the mole.

    These zig-zags took HOURS.

    A 25 mile trip turned into a full day’s effort.

    BTW, it’s astonishing how many guys the RN could squeeze on a destroyer.

    Need I say it ?

    All weapons were tossed overboard.

    Yes, they weighed too much.

  31. Tim Turner Says:

    ” People who set out to make this kind of movie, have an obligation to tell the story; otherwise it is just another car chase/ explosive special effects show.”

    On the flipside, millions of people will now be Googling “What was Dunkirk about?”

  32. Lollypops from the Labryinth - American Digest Says:

    […] The Dunkirk din One of the first things I noticed about the movie was the assaultive, hideous sound, which even the earplugs couldn’t dull enough for me. I felt the need to push them in deeper with my fingers and kept covering my ears, too. And even then, the blasting percussive bass made the seats vibrate so forcefully that it almost felt as though those Spitfires were flying right over us. […]

  33. Ann Says:

    The BBC website has some radio broadcasts done at the time of Dunkirk. This one done by a reporter at Dover “describes the scene as the ships returned from Dunkirk and the troops disembark. He then follows the soldiers onto trains as they head home and also boards a ship to see what the conditions were like. Stubbs notes that, regardless of the strife, the port was well organised and the troops in good spirits”.

    Worth a listen; it’s very moving.

  34. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Short piece on Dunkirk in “In Which We Serve”. Very affecting.

  35. Grunt X Says:

    So baby boomers don’t like the first war movie in 50 years not shot through the lens of America’s Vietnam experience.

  36. neo-neocon Says:

    Grunt X:

    I have no idea what boomers think, or what the majority of boomers think. I know what I think, and I can’t say I’m typical of my generation in my opinions on most things. As far as I know, “Dunkirk” is popular across the board.

    Boomers probably don’t like to have their hearing damaged by a movie, though, especially at this point in their lives.

    By the way, for most boomers, the war movies they were raised on and saw in their youth had a pre-Vietnam sensibility and were not filtered through the lens of any Vietnam experience, mainly because most of those movies had been made earlier. World War II movies in particular don’t tend to have a Vietnam-experience filter, not only because the WWII movies of most boomers’ youth and young adulthood were made prior to the Vietnam War, but also because WWII movies (perhaps until fairly recently) saw WWII as “the good war,” the bloody but heroic war.

    Director and writer Nolan was born in 1970. I don’t know what war movies were formative in his life, but I bet they very much were filtered through the post-Vietnam lens. The war in Vietnam wasn’t concluded until 1975, and most of the first generation of Vietnam movies were made some years later (“Apocalypse Now” came out in 79, and “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home” in 78, and “Born on the Fourth of July” in 89. The only movie I can recall that was made about Vietnam in the Vietnam era (although I would guess there were others) was the far more heroic “The Green Berets (1968),” so it was made more in the mold of the previous WWII films.

  37. Grunt X Says:

    Saving PVT Ryan was a WWII movie through the lens of Vietnam. So was “Band of Brothers”, “Thin Red Line”, and others… All of them have the “What’s it all about, man? What’s it all mean, man?” boomer nonsense in them. No one there thought that way then. It was all about defeating Germany and Japan. Survival was enough; we’ll worry about the moral dimensions later. And, oh, Lord did we… Oh, did we… That’s how we got handwringing anachronistic nonsense like “Saving PVT Ryan” etc…

    “Director and writer Nolan was born in 1970. I don’t know what war movies were formative in his life, but I bet they very much were filtered through the post-Vietnam lens.”

    That’s precisely what makes this movie such an accomplishment. He played it straight.
    Read Mark Steyn’s Review. he speaks for me in this.

  38. TommyJay Says:

    My previous point about aspect ratio is that if you didn’t see the film on IMAX 70mm celluloid you missed a tremendous amount of the image beyond the top and bottom of the screen. Many years ago I visited the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and saw a short full-IMAX film shot from the top of an aircraft. I have never experienced the same level of vertigo since.

    So why didn’t Chris Nolan create a more traditional historical narrative? Those stories are usually a fabrication that is hopefully based on a great deal of factual knowledge. But for those living that historical moment, even the leaders don’t have much of that knowledge.

    While it is said that all military plans evaporate with contact with the enemy, I am sure that winning strategies such as Schwartzkopf’s in Desert Storm proceed vaguely as planned. In the battle for Belgium and France however, the Nazi attack was considered to be an impossibility. The vastly expensive Maginot line was based on the impossibility of moving large numbers of tanks, artillery, and troops through the Ardennes quickly, which is what happened.

    So on the allied side the result was retreat and chaos. Can you force an historical narrative on retreat and chaos? Sure, but it doesn’t tell you what it was like to be there. Retreat looks perhaps like the beginning of the film: three soldiers running away from the front line, French helmets slowing the Nazi assault, and one soldier survives.

    Neo says:

    “But it [the film] also cuts [back] and forth between the two widely different acting and directing styles, creating another discordance.”

    Exactly correct, but that wasn’t an accident. So why? When trying to figure out any “high concept” that a film might have, I like looking at the taglines.

    The important, slightly non-obvious one is,
    “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them. ”

    The quiet/noisy chaotic impersonal horror is a style that comprises most of the film except for the portion which represents order and home. Home has a story and characters with recognizable faces. The jarring contrast between the two styles is integral to the film’s concept. The death of the boy at the hands of a shell shocked survivor on board the pleasure yacht is a direct clashing of those two realities.

    It’s not my favorite Chris Nolan film. Those would be Insomnia, The Prestige, and Memento, in that order. But I thought it was good. Insomnia is one of the few not written by Chris and/or brother Jonathan Nolan, but was a remake written by a young Hillary Sietz.

  39. neo-neocon Says:


    That’s why I saw the film in an RPX theater. I don’t like the louder sound (obviously), but according to this (which I read before I went to the movie) the RPX format can take advantage of the larger (70mm) film if a movie if shot in 70mm, which most movies are not but which “Dunkirk” is.

    The situation is further complicated by the fact that IMAX theater are not all alike, either. There are various formats and many are not the original type of enormous-screen IMAX. All I can say about the theater I saw the movie in is that it had an absolutely enormous screen and I couldn’t see any black bands anywhere on the perimeter, plus the picture was very different-looking than a regular movie. It felt like you were flying in the plane. My guess is that I got the full 70mm experience, but I’m not 100% sure.

  40. TommyJay Says:

    OK, I can’t let go the history yet. Everybody loves the Spitfire plane, especially those who flew her, but I had heard that the Hurricane was the workhorse of the RAF fighters. I couldn’t find comparative stats on Spitfire vs. Hurricane during Operation Dynamo, the rescue at Dunkirk.

    this link
    has a large amount of info on how successful the Hurricane was during Operation Dynamo. Twenty seven Hurricane pilots became aces in Operation Dynamo and a total of 240 German planes were lost compared to 177 RAF planes. Both sides had limited fuel and time over target because the Luftwaffe planes were based in Germany.

    If I remember correctly, the Spitfires gradually replaced Hurricanes so this being early in WWII, I’m guessing that there just weren’t that many Spitfires around.

    For those who are interested, there is a French made documentary mini-series called Apocalypse: The Second World War that’s not bad. Episode 2 covers Dunkirk. Available on Netflix and The Smithsonian channel.

  41. neo-neocon Says:


    I understand the point of the different acting styles in the different sequences, but I just don’t think the device was successful. I think it was jarring and chaotic and the two just seemed disconnected from each other. It emphasized the fact that there wasn’t any connect at all; they seemed to exist in two different universes and never the twain shall meet. That’s the way I perceived it; I never forgot I was watching a very contrived movie, only the movie seemed to be two different movies. “Home” coming for “them” wasn’t the way I perceived it, and I have a feeling most viewers didn’t think of it that way, either, although it may have been Nolan’s intent.

    Also, you write “So why didn’t Chris Nolan create a more traditional historical narrative?” I actually wasn’t asking for that, and I understand it wasn’t his goal to redo something like “The Longest Day” or other war films of that type. But there’s a great GREAT deal of room between a “traditional historical narrative” and Nolan’s nearly complete blackout on any context whatsoever, which was so extreme that I believe the movie was robbed of significance for a lot of viewers who would have no idea what was going on. A little more context would have gone a long way. As would the ability to have actually heard whatever explanatory dialogue there was; subtitles might have been nice.

  42. neo-neocon Says:

    Grunt X:

    Well, I didn’t see those films, and I’m not interested in most “boomer nonsense.” My dislike of Nolan’s film wasn’t because he didn’t ask what it was all about. On the contrary, it was because the thing you wrote about in your comment—“It was all about defeating Germany and Japan”—went unmentioned in the film (except when the soldier reads a bit of Churchill’s speech from the newspaper, in a purposely toneless voice).

    A younger person could watch that film and not know the soldiers were fighting Germany. It might have been mentioned, but I sure didn’t hear it (as I said, the sound was bad).

    I just looked that last point up to make sure, and found this:

    I have seen the film twice, admiring it even more the second time. It is a stupendous achievement, although more than a little odd…It is deaf to history…

    Throughout [the movie the Germans] are called “the enemy.” Dolts seeing this movie could conclude the British and the French were fighting the Irish or Latvians. They would not know how dire the stakes were for Britain or, as Franklin D. Roosevelt understood, for the rest of the world. An evilly rapacious regime was on the march. Hitler was intent on murder without end.

    You know the context, Mark Steyn most definitely knows the context, I know the context, a great many readers here know the context, but the film requires the viewer to fill in the blanks. If the viewer has no context, he has nothing to fill in and is actually left (paradoxically, I think) asking himself that very “boomer nonsense” to which you refer: “What’s it all about, man? What’s it all mean, man?” And that person might very well answer that it was about survival, but why anyone would put himself in that position—what they were fighting for other than survival on a personal level, or because they’d been drafted— would be completely opaque.

  43. neo-neocon Says:


    And speaking of history, here’s a poll that was done in Britain and tried to measure young people’s (aged 15 to 19) knowledge of the history of WWII:

    One in ten youths questioned in the survey, conducted by The Sunday Telegraph ahead of the 70th anniversary of the war’s outbreak next month, believed that Britain had fought against France.

    Almost half did not know in which year the war began.

    When asked who had used the famous words “We shall fight on the beaches”, over a third did not recognise the speaker as Winston Churchill.

    Seven per cent attributed the quote to Adolf Hitler whilst other responses included Stalin and Henry VIII.

    Read the whole thing; it’s quite sobering.

  44. Beverly Says:

    I found it moving and powerful. Take it for a slice of war.

    I read, too, admiration for the character of the English in the naval officers and in Mark Rylance’s English dad: loved that storyline. Also the pilots — so young! — who flew to the extreme end of their fuel tether for a hopeless gesture to protect their men: but that pilot was able to take down one bomber.

    And I cried when the Little Ships arrived. “What do you see???” “HOME,” said the admiral.

    And at the end, a bit of “Nimrod” by Elgar. It was a love letter to a people from a time now past.

  45. Beverly Says:

    From an eyewitness account: a man who took one of the civilian craft across to rescue the men.

    “The din was infernal. The 5.9 batteries shelled ceaselessly and brilliantly. To the whistle of shells overhead was added the scream of falling bombs. Even the sky was full of noise – anti-aircraft shells, machine-gun fire, the snarl of falling planes, the angry hornet noise of dive bombers. One could not speak normally at any time against the roar of it and the noise of our own engines. We all developed ‘Dunkirk throat,’ a sore hoarseness that was the hallmark of those who had been there.”

    Read the rest here: it’s riveting.


  46. Grunt X Says:

    ” And that person might very well answer that it was about survival, but why anyone would put himself in that position—what they were fighting for other than survival on a personal level, or because they’d been drafted— would be completely opaque.”

    For that movie to even cause that question to enter a viewers head makes it a masterpiece.

    Now at least they are asking the right questions…

  47. Grunt X Says:

    Richard Brody, New Yorker, hates “Dunkirk” cuz it fails to ask: “What’s it all about, man?”


  48. neo-neocon Says:

    Grunt X:

    I read that Brody review in the New Yorker several days ago, right after I wrote my piece. I don’t see Brody as “hating” the film at all. His opinion is mixed; he has some criticism of it and some praise (I “hated” the film far more than Brody did).

    Brody writes:

    Nolan suppresses the mutilations and agonies of war to focus on its basic moral horror.

    That’s the “what’s it all about” question—war as a horror show, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (or next to nothing)—that post-Vietnam movies tend to focus on, at least from my perspective (and, granted, I’ve not viewed them all). So Brody seems to be saying that Nolan’s film is about that.

    It’s the specific details of WWII (that they were fighting the Germans, for example), that Brody would like to see put in there as well. That’s just a desire for basic facts that give the story context, it’s not the over-arching “what’s it all about, man?” sort of question you were objecting to earlier.

    Brody is disturbed that the characters aren’t given a backstory: “The film is, rather, both literally and figuratively, a collection of war stories—a set of anecdotes that stay rigorously within the context of battle, that emphasize the courage and the severity, the existential moment of war (and do so with a portentous shadowing of telling details) while showing nothing (actually nothing) of the soldiers outside the realm of battle.”

  49. neo-neocon Says:

    Grunt X:

    Re your comment at 11:28 AM:

    ” And that person might very well answer that it was about survival, but why anyone would put himself in that position—what they were fighting for other than survival on a personal level, or because they’d been drafted— would be completely opaque.”

    For that movie to even cause that question to enter a viewers head makes it a masterpiece.

    Now at least they are asking the right questions…

    First of all, asking a certain question—or getting the viewer to ask a certain question—would not make a film a masterpiece. It would make it thought-provoking in the philosophical sense, but it could be a turkey of a film otherwise (not that “Dunkirk” is a turkey; it’s not).

    However, are you aware that that’s exactly the sort of question most post-Vietnam films have had their viewers ask? That that is the post Vietnam question, the one you seemed to originally be objecting to? There’s nothing unique or unusual about the film’s getting any viewer to ask that question.

    Unless that 11:28 AM comment of yours was meant to be sarcastic?

  50. Grunt X Says:

    Nah, those movies are always answering that question with some nihilist, leftist, hippy nonsense. The fact it’s left opaque here is the good part, and the most difficult. He played it straight…

  51. neo-neocon Says:

    Grunt X:

    Boy, that’s faint praise.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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