What Christopher Nolan's WWII epic gets right — and what it dramatizes — about the famed British rescue mission.
In Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which chronicles the 1940 British attempt to rescue Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, there are no grand speeches. Although each character makes enormous sacrifices, Nolan doesn’t grant them moments of celebration. His mission was to make Dunkirk as true to life as possible, including by trading glamorized battle speeches for harrowing shots that embody the terror and isolation of the moment.
To allow audiences to experience the rescue mission as it actually happened, Nolan devised a script with minimal dialogue that unfolded in close to real-time, minimizing time jumps as best as he could. “[Nolan] wanted it to be an experiential ‘fight or flight’ test, and it’s unrelenting in its engagement and doesn’t let the audience off the hook. You’re invited in to experience it as they’re experiencing it — as in, with not enough time to think or process things,” Dunkirk actor Kenneth Branagh told The Hollywood Reporter.
But though there is a lot that his Oscar-nominated film gets right about the British rescue mission, Nolan’s Dunkirk also contains a few noteworthy historical inaccuracies.
In the film’s opening, Allied soldiers walking through Dunkirk, a city located opposite Britain along the English Channel, noticed German fliers demanding that they surrender. “We surround you” was scrawled across a map that showed German troops closing in on the beaches after capturing much of France.
According to historian John Broich, these fliers were real (although they looked slightly different than the ones portrayed in the film). The German blitzkrieg across France, which began soon after their declaration of war a year earlier, had been highly successful, and German troops ultimately managed to trap 400,000 soldiers Allied along the beaches of Dunkirk.
With Allied soldiers under assault from oncoming German troops, the British government — both in the film and in real life — launched a desperate bid to bring many of these troops home. Strapped for supplies, they really did enlist civilian help. In May 1940, the BBC aired a plea from the British government: “The Admiralty have made an order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30ft and 100ft in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned.”
Though members of the British navy generally captained these civilian boats, which in some cases included giant yachts, civilians were occasionally asked to drive them themselves.
Though Dunkirk doesn’t explicitly say whether any of its characters are modeled on real historical figures, many historians have speculated that Captain William Tennant, a British Navy officer who continued rescuing soldiers on the beaches until the very end of the mission, inspired Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton.
Elements of Tom Hardy’s Farrier, a pilot who provides cover fire during the rescue mission before he eventually runs out of fuel, may have also borrowed from the life of New Zealand officer Alan Christopher Deere, whose plane crashed onto the beaches of Dunkirk.
Even those characters not based on specific figures had arcs that broadly represented the experiences of many soldiers. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles, for instance, played soldiers whose rescue attempts failed multiple times — a common trope during the battle. Even the presumed fate of Hardy’s character aligns with that of thousands of other Dunkirk soldiers: While 340,000 Allied troops made it across the English Channel, nearly 40,000 were left behind, either to be killed or to become prisoners of war.
In one scene in Dunkirk, determined to escape his growing hopelessness, a soldier walks into the ocean. According to historian John Broich, this moment isn’t just played for drama: The battles at Dunkirk so deeply traumatized Allied soldiers that some had breakdowns and decided their best hope at survival was simply to walk — through the water — back to England.
To capture the full experience of the battle, Nolan directed his sound team to include as many authentic battle sounds as possible. But most of the surviving audio was either scratchy or nonexistent, especially when it came to the noises made by war planes. Because he and his team could not find any useful recordings or blueprints of German dive bombers (known as stukas), Dunkirk sound engineer Richard King decided to re-create the planes from scratch. "I built a bunch," King told THR. "I just deduced the shape of it from photographs to figure out which would be best."
In Nolan’s Dunkirk, there is hardly a person of color to be seen. But that doesn’t square with the historical reality. Both Britain and France were imperial powers during World War II, and many soldiers from their colonies played pivotal roles. On the French side, Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian and Vietnamese forces proved instrumental in slowing German advancement during the blitzkrieg, and some continued to fight at Dunkirk. Britain, too, enlisted countless soldiers from its colonies, including 2.5 million Indian soldiers. Though most were concentrated in North Africa and the Middle East, hundreds fought during Dunkirk as well, a fact that the film erases.