Wednesday, March 21, 2018

An Inadvertent Trilogy: Their Finest, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour

We wound up watching these movies within a few weeks of each other and found that these separate takes on the battle of Dunkirk made a wonderful, if inadvertent, trilogy. They also make an interesting set of movies for reflection in the storytelling art, since they all center upon the same event but from very different points of view. 

During the Blitz in WWII, young Catrin Cole is hired to write the "slop" (women's dialogue) in propaganda films for the British public. These heavy-handed films are viewed with derision by the public so a film crew is assembled to make a better film that will have "authenticity, informed by optimism." And, of course, our young heroine is part of the screenwriting team that shapes the film which winds up being about a plucky pair of sisters who pilot their father's boat to Dunkirk to save soldiers trapped on the beach.

This largely ignored movie wants to be about a lot of things and mostly succeeds. It has a meeting of like minded souls, it nods to feminism and ageism, it shows what it was like to be in London during the Blitz, it is a movie about making movies and therefore takes us through the art of translating story into film. I found it likable but couldn't love it unabashedly, although I definitely do recommend it. It certainly is a basic, if sideways, introduction to the battle of Dunkirk for those who weren't aware of the desperate situation those soldiers faced and the bravery of the ordinary citizens who set out to save them.

This shows the results of the Dunkirk tale on the British public during the war, which makes us curious to know exactly what happened at Dunkirk. So let's see ...

The German army has trapped the British Expeditionary Force (400,000 soldiers) on the beach near the French town of Dunkirk. The ground forces halted but German planes continued to bomb the British. Meanwhile, the British soldiers knew only that they were trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea with no escape in sight.

This movie shows us three stories: two soldiers trapped on the beach with the troops, a small boat on the way to rescue soldiers, and fighter pilots trying to keep German bombers at bay so the boats can get the soldiers away.

Christopher Nolan wanted to make a movie that dropped the viewer into the experience of the battle of Dunkirk. He certainly succeeded. Nolan watched a number of great silent films in preparation, knowing that someone in peril isn't constantly narrating their own actions. As a result, there is a lot of action where we are simply watching and not needing dialogue. It works.

Because we are concerned with only the immediate plight or tasks of the moment, there are no politics or important people featured. This is about how everyone felt in their particular places and the measures they all took to succeed. Christopher Nolan does jigger the timelines for each story so that we see each one culminating at the same time but you can largely ignore that and just watch for the stories. It works either way.

This movie shows us how the term “Dunkirk Spirit” was coined. After this the national mindset was united among both soldiers and regular citizens to never surrender. If there is someone we wanted to hear from during Dunkirk it was Winston Churchill. So let's hear what he was doing ...

Unstoppable Nazi forces are on the point of conquering Europe. The Allied army is cornered Dunkirk’s beaches. Britain’s fate hangs on the abilities of Winston Churchill. Should he agree to negotiate for peace with Hitler or fight on against incredible odds?

This movie reminded me that there was nothing certain about the outcome of WWII and just how grim everything was as Europe fell to Hitler. The sense of doom was palpable as we watched German progress across Belgium and France. Dunkirk is the battle against which we see Churchill's decisions being made and his political struggles with those who want to sue for peace instead of fight. As I watched, I kept thinking of what we'd seen in Dunkirk, that while those men battled for life on the beach there were similar political battles being fought behind closed doors. All of which culminated in a seminal turning point in WWII.

This was also the first movie I'd seen from director Joe Wright, whose cinematic style captured me early into the film. His use of symbolism, light and shadow, movement and silence, all enhanced the story while seeming a natural part of what we saw. A really effective film and my favorite of this trilogy.


  1. These were three movies I actually saw in the theater. I had similar reactions as you do. To be honest, I hadn't heard of Dunkirk until these movies. I mistakenly thought that Dunkirk and Omaha Beach were one and the same. The first one I saw was Their Finest, went home and googled Dunkirk, so by the time that movie came out I knew what was going on. Seeing Churchill having to deal with it so soon after he became PM added a whole new side to the story.

    1. I'm not sure how I knew this but I had the very basics about Dunkirk with lots of soldiers pinned down on the beach and the little boats heroically saving them. However, I now have a much deeper knowledge of the event because, like you, I began reading about it after seeing Their Finest. And then we just kept diving deeper, thanks to famous movies becoming available at the library in time for us to keep the trilogy going!