This article is an edited transcript of How Accurate is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk? with James Holland
on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 22 November 2015. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
There are no dates involved in the film ‘Dunkirk’. You’re never quite sure exactly what point we’re entering it, but there is a timescale for what is going along on the beaches and along the east mole (the jetty that extends out of the old Dunkirk harbour).
The timescale given is one week, which is broadly correct because the Admiralty’s evacuation plan, Operation Dynamo, begins at 6:57 pm on Sunday, the 26 May 1940 and lasts a week.
By the night of the 2 June, it’s all over for the British and the last remnants of the French troops are picked up by the 4 June.
At the start of the operation the BEF is in dire straits.
They have been corralled around this port of Dunkirk, France’s third-largest port, and the idea is to pick up as many of them as possible.
However, at the beginning of the operation, there wasn’t much hope that very many would be picked up at all, and what you don’t get in the film is any sense of what’s come before.
You’re only told that the British Army is surrounded, and they have to get out of Dunkirk, and that’s it.
In my book, The Battle of Britain, the idea that “The Battle of Britain” doesn’t begin in July 1940 is central to the thesis, and instead it actually begins with the Dunkirk evacuation because it’s the first time RAF Fighter Command are in operation over the skies.
That week is when Britain comes closest to losing the war. Monday, 27 May 1940, ‘Black Monday’.
One of the things that Dunkirk gets right is when you see from the perspective of the two Tommy’s and one Frenchman, I think their experiences are pretty close to what a lot of people would have been experiencing.
The Mark Rylance character coming across in his boat, in one of the famed little ships is pretty accurate.
I think the sense of chaos and mayhem on the beaches is pretty accurate. That’s about it. I’m completely honest.
The sounds and the amount of smoke and the visual context make it a really good taster.
A sense of scale
I was over in Dunkirk when they were filming it, interestingly, and I could see ships out at sea and I could see troops on the beaches and I could also see clouds of smoke over Dunkirk town.
They basically bought the town for the duration of that sequence of filming.
It was brilliant that they were actually using the real beaches themselves because it has a faint religious overtone and it is such a key part of British history and part of our kind of national heritage in a way.
So to actually do it on the right beaches itself is just fantastic, but actually, there just wasn’t enough of it. If you look at contemporary photographs or you look at contemporary paintings, they give you a sense of scale of it.
The smoke from the oil refineries was far heavier than was depicted in the film. There was much more of it.
It poured some 14,000 feet into the air and spread out and created this huge pool, so that no one could see through it. From the air, you couldn’t see Dunkirk at all.
There were more troops than were depicted in the film and there were many, many more vehicles and particularly ships and vessels out at sea.
The sea was just absolutely black with vessels of all sizes. Hundreds took part in the Dunkirk operation.
Ironically, although it’s big studio and big picture and although some of the set pieces were clearly incredibly expensive, in actual fact, it actually falls a little bit short in terms of depicting complete mayhem.
I think that’s because Christopher Nolan doesn’t like CGI and so wanted to have it as clear of CGI as possible.
But the consequence is that it actually feels a little bit underwhelming in terms of the amount of mayhem and chaos.
I should say here that I really, really enjoyed the film. I thought it was terrific.
Header image credit: German forces move into Dunkirk hours after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force was completed. A beached French coastal patrol craft at low tide at Dunkirk. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.