Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ re-creates epic WWII rescue
Director Christopher Nolan; his “Dunkirk,” scheduled to open in July, was shot with Imax and other large-format cameras. (Warner Bros.)
There’s no bigger example of film distributors dipping their toes in reality this summer than “Dunkirk” (opening July 21), Christopher Nolan’s massive re-creation of the most unbelievable rescue in military history.
When Hitler’s army smashed through Northern France in the spring of 1940, the British Expeditionary Force and a few Allied divisions were knocked back to the port city of Dunkirk. Surrounded, with their backs to the English Channel, hundreds of thousands of soldiers faced capture or certain doom.
Until, that is, some 800 civilian watercraft — merchant ships, fishing boats, yachts, dinghies — joined the Royal Navy in an operation that, over eight days, ferried nearly 340,000 Allied troops to safety in Britain.
Militarily, it was a humiliating defeat — Winston Churchill even lectured his celebrating countrymen that wars are not won by evacuations. But it surely saved the UK from the Nazis’ grasp, allowing the island nation to hold out until the Soviet Union and the United States joined it to ultimately win World War II.
For English people — including Emma Thomas, Nolan’s wife and producer of such large-scale works as his Dark Knight trilogy, “Inception” and “Interstellar” — the Miracle of Dunkirk is an unalloyed moment of national pride. And re-creating it on the French beach where it happened was, if not comparable to the harrowing real events, still quite a bear.
In “Dunkirk,” Tom Hardy plays an aviator named Farrier. (Warner Bros.) Warner Bros.
“Over the course of the movie, we had thousands of extras; on our biggest day, we had about 1,300 on the beach,” recalls Thomas, whose production includes actors Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, teen heartthrob Harry Styles and newcomer Fionn Whitehead, among many others. “Which, you know, was absolutely massive from a logistical standpoint, but the beach is so big and the number of men who were there during the real events was so huge that it’s kind of a drop in the water. But it was still enormous.”
Thomas doesn’t even remember how many boats were used in the shoot, but she points out that some 20 that actually made Dunkirk runs 77 years ago appear in the film. Some vintage Spitfires fly overhead, too, although close cockpit footage was taken on modified, similar-looking Russian Yak fighters with Imax cameras attached to their fuselages.
Oh yes, most of “Dunkirk” was filmed with lumbering, heavy and noisy Imax devices, which the camera team had worked with on a much more limited basis in earlier Nolan films. Sequences that required discernible dialogue were shot with quieter but still large-format 65 mm equipment.
Christopher Nolan, director of “Dunkirk,” with Emma Thomas, the film’s producer (who is also his wife). (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/file)
“In this particular instance, the camera crews had sort of double the trouble because we were also shooting on the beach with sand blowing around and filthy water,” Thomas notes. “It was extremely difficult, but we’ve sort of finessed the process of working with these cameras over the course of multiple movies, and I think that they’ve got it down.”
Thomas promises spectacular visuals, but also an intimately immersive experience that will make audiences feel as if they’re there on the bombarded beach with all those frightened young soldiers.
“It’s a different sort of film for Chris in that, in many ways, this is a very simple story,” says Thomas. She has been producing Nolan’s films since such early mindbenders as “Memento” and “Following.” “There’s not a huge amount of complex plot exposition, because it’s all about survival, about being trapped on this beach surrounded by the unseen enemy, and how on Earth are they going to make their way home.
“Dunkirk sort of defines that thing that British people take great pride in,” adds the London native — “which is all just gritting your teeth and getting on with it and triumphing in a moment of adversity. What’s also, I think, amazing about it is that it’s one of the few stories in history where civilians played a huge part in a military operation and really saved the day.
“For that reason, I think that what’s inspiring and exciting about the story is that it’s actually a very universal story. You don’t have to be British to appreciate it; it’s really about the human spirit. So it’s great to bring a story that’s so well-known in England to a wider audience that don’t necessarily know about the event.”