Article by Cameron Fenwick
Dunkirk hit the theaters on July 13, 2017 (IMBD Release Info). Directed by Christopher Nolan (IMBD Dunkirk 2017), this movie presents the historical retreat of the British and French armies during WWII and is told through the perspectives of an air pilot, a soldier, and a captain of a small ship (IMBD Plot). Critically acclaimed and a box office success, this movie has already made well over 400 million USD (IMBD Dunkirk (2017) – Box Office), but there have been claims that Christopher Nolan has not done justice to the battle of Dunkirk, due to the many historical inaccuracies scattered throughout the film (Sebag-Montefiore). So how well does Christopher Nolan communicate the story of the retreat of Dunkirk?
Throughout the film, a theme representing the “Dunkirk Spirit” is presented, which inaccurately conveys the strategic retreat. By ending Dunkirk with hundreds of small ships sailing to the beaches of Dunkirk, the movie makes it seem as if the small ships lead by regular citizens saved the day (Greig). However, large ships saved the majority of the stranded soldiers (Greig) (Counter). In fact, 95% of the stranded soldiers were transported to Britain in the big transport ships (Counter). Boarding onto the large ships via the East Mole’s dock is also historically inaccurate. The movie shows the soldiers boarding onto the large ships in broad daylight, and the generals packing as many soldiers as possible onto the boats (Sebag-Montefiore). In real life, however, the generals made sure no more than half of any ship’s capacity was filled, making sure soldiers only boarded at night (Sebag-Montefiore).
Spitfires are portrayed inaccurately as well. The Spitfire plane manufactured by the British had the capability of firing ammunition for 14 seconds (Greig). However, in the movie, Spitfires are portrayed as shooting for over 75 seconds (Greig). Another major mistake in the movie is the number of soldiers smoking. In the movie, only a few soldiers are spotted smoking; whereas, in real life most men in this stressful environment smoked (Counter). Critics also criticized Christopher Nolan for under-representing the French soldiers in the movie (Counter). Over 120,000 French troops were evacuated in real life, but in the movie only British troops are evacuated (Counter).
It may seem as if Dunkirk is a movie ridded with inaccuracies, but it still has historical resemblance. For example, Christopher Nolan does a great job conveying to the audience the importance of conserving fuel through the aerial scenes of the movie when he makes the audience feel the danger of flying farther than the fuel allowed (Phillip). Characters in the movie are also drawn from history. For example, Christopher Nolan drew inspiration for the character Commander Bolton from Captain William Tennant (Broich). Captain William Tennant was a Navy officer who assisted in the evacuation of Dunkirk (Broich).
Christopher Nolan did not intend for the film to be a documentary, but more of an experience for the viewers to know how it felt to be stranded on that same beach (Broich). If he had followed the battle date by date, he would have ended up with a confused film and scattered plot lines. Historical facts often end up as a nuisance in writing entertaining and engaging scripts (Aelarsen). Limitations induced by historical facts causes most films to deviate from history (Rile). However, one should take this caveat with a grain of salt: It is important to make historically based movies accurate as well as entertaining. If these movies are not accurate to a certain degree, they might end up promoting historical ignorance (Aelarsen).
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Rile, Karen. “Getting Historical Movies Right: Hollywood vs. Historians.” Daily.jstor.org, 3 Feb. 2015, daily.jstor.org/getting-historical-movies-right-hollywood-vs-historians-2/
SCMP. “How Historically Accurate Is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk?” South China Morning Post, 21 July 2017, www.scmp.com/culture/film-tv/article/2103599/dunkirk-how-historically-accurate-christopher-nolans-second-world
Sebag-Montefiore, Hugh. “‘Dunkirk’ Is Full of Inaccuracies. And Then There Are Omissions.” The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 5 Aug. 2017, www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/dunkirk-is-full-of-inaccuracies-and-then-there-are-omissions-1.3175704