Terminal Beach

'Dunkirk' delivers the war-torn goods

Think of the different battlefronts in World War II. Now choose the one you are the gladdest that you missed. The Golden Staircase in New Guinea? Saipan? The London Blitz? That great engineer of cage-rattling cinema, Christopher Nolan, convinces you that Dunkirk ought to be way up on the list.

On the cusp of May and June 1940, some 400,000 troops of the British Expeditionary Force were pushed to the sea at the resort town of Dunkirk by the sudden collapse of the French army. A character describes the soldiers, lined up and waiting to be ferried back home, as “fish in a barrel.” It’s more like machine-gunning a sardine can. Strafing planes and dive bombers decimated the crowd waiting for rescue.

Nolan divides the film into a triptych: one hour with patrolling Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy); one day with Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), captain of the pleasure boat The Moonstone, one ship in the motley armada requisitioned by the Royal Navy; and one week with some nigh-mute soldiers who have an unspoken compact to escape together.

In different combos, these soldiers pose as medics, surviving one shipwreck after another. Part of the ordeal is hiding in a ship, waiting for the tide to rise, with bullets busting through the bulkheads—it’s as much of a wringer as the scenes in Das Boot when the water pressure blows out rivets like .45 slugs. Dunkirk is an ordeal in which every facet is stomach-turning with tension.

Nolan’s film misses the grim humor in Len Deighton’s histories of the war, or some other indication of how the Dunkirk Miracle proves the importance of being lucky over being smart. Winston Churchill propagandized a humiliating retreat as a brave regrouping, in one of his noblest speeches—his words are read aloud haltingly from a newspaper at the end of the movie.

The film’s final shot is of a survivor’s look of wonder, realizing the size of the feat. One could just as easily have finished with a caption: “And then the war began in earnest.”

‘Dunkirk’ is playing in wide release in the North Bay.