Oscars: 10 Things to Know About Best Picture Nominee 'Dunkirk'

11:56 AM 2/19/2018

by Michael Waters

The 19-hour sailing trip that inspired the film, a glaring historical error that had people talking, and whether Christopher Nolan really knew who Harry Styles was before casting him.

In May 1940, German troops advanced across France, trapping Allied soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk. To save them, the British government — with the help of soldiers throughout their empire, including many Indian soldiers — staged a high-profile rescue mission. But the English Channel, which runs alongside Dunkirk, was too shallow for British Navy ships to cross. In a last-ditch feat of planning, civilians were recruited to join Allied troops in funneling the soldiers back to safety in small boats. 

When Christopher Nolan decided to memorialize the rescue mission in his epic Dunkirk, which has been nominated for eight Oscars including best picture, he wanted to cast new actors to play the lead roles. Though Dunkirk's ensemble teems with stars, including Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, up-and-coming actor Fionn Whitehead and former One Direction star Harry Styles play the lead roles.  

But to make the $100 million war epic, Nolan used a series of innovative shooting, production and sound techniques. Not all of Dunkirk's history, however, is accurate, and not everyone involved with the film understood the significance of its lead actors prior to production. Below are 10 facts you might not know about Dunkirk

  • The Idea for 'Dunkirk' Came After a Long Trip Across the English Channel

    Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures

    Nothing inspires like 19 hours at sea. In the mid-1990s, Nolan and his co-producer and wife-to-be Emma Thomas were sailing across the English Channel to Dunkirk when they hit bad weather and struggled to finish. All told, the trip took nearly a full day. “It was one of the hardest things Chris and I have experienced in our lives," Thomas told THR. "But it really did bring home how incredible the achievement of the evacuation was.”

  • The Last Oscar-Nominated Movie About the Battle of Dunkirk Was a Propaganda Film


    In 1943, the film Mrs. Miniver brought home six Oscars for its depiction of the same battle as Nolan’s 2017 release: Dunkirk. In Mrs. Miniver, the titular character — a wealthy British woman — deals with the fallout of World War II as her husband races off to participate in the Dunkirk evacuation and a German soldier surprise-lands in her village.

    Director William Wyler developed Mrs. Miniver with an explicit goal of rallying support for World War II. Wyler, who was concerned about American isolationist leanings, said at the time: "Let's make propaganda pictures but make them good."

    He seems to have succeeded. THR reported that at the 1943 Oscars, “a high point came with a message from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. ‘We have succeeded in turning the tremendous power of the motion pictures into an effective war instrument," he wrote, ‘without the slightest resort to the totalitarian methods of our enemies.’”

  • Nolan Wanted Audiences to Experience the Battle in Real Time

    Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures

    When Christopher Nolan began filming Dunkirk, he had one overarching goal: He wanted to capture as best as he could the full experience of the rescue mission. To accomplish this, he set the film to unfold over the span of a few hours so that audiences can experience what the rescuers had in nearly real time, and he devised a script with minimal dialogue. “[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,” star Kenneth Branagh told THR

  • The 'Dunkirk' Team Reverse-Engineered Planes to Capture Their Sounds

    Courtesy of Warner Bros.

    When he started searching for World War II military sounds to include in his movie, Nolan kept running into a problem. Most of the surviving audio was either scratchy or nonexistent. For instance, 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."

  • Many Dunkirk Soldiers Weren't European


    Though almost all of the faces in Dunkirk are white, that isn’t representative of the battle’s real-life history. When Dunkirk debuted in India at the end of July, critics were quick to point out its erasure of Indian soldiers. In World War II, nearly 2.5 million Indians served in the British army, many of them at Dunkirk. But Hollywood has a long history of ignoring the contributions of people of color in World War II. One of the few high-profile movies to feature a World War II-era Indian soldier is The English Patient (1996), in which Lost’s Naveen Andrews played an Indian Sikh soldier stationed in Italy.

  • Nolan Shot the Film in an Old-Fashioned, Wide-Screen Format


    During Dunkirk's initial release, more than 131 movie theaters screened the film in the old-school 70mm format, making it "among the largest 70mm releases in the last quarter century," THR previously reported. 70mm is a wide, bright, and ideally crisp format that has been used in classic films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, and West Side Story, but it fell out of fashion because of its enormous expense. Today, most theaters opt to show films in the cheaper 35mm format. But 70mm has seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, in part because of the efforts of Christopher Nolan himself—his epic Interstellar (2014), along with Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight (2015), had large runs of 70mm screenings.

  • In a Mysterious Audition, Nolan Cast an Acting Newcomer as the Lead

    When former London barista Fionn Whitehead walked into auditions for Dunkirk, he didn’t understand the significance of his role. "All people knew was that there was a group of boys auditioning," he said in an interview with THR. "We didn't know how many parts there were, how important the roles were. We didn't know anything." When he found out that he had been cast as the lead, he started screaming. Up until last July, when Dunkirk premiered, Whitehead’s only other credit was from the 2016 TV miniseries Him. 

  • For Nolan, the Two-Hour Runtime of 'Dunkirk' Is Really Short

    Warner Bros. Pictures

    Nolan hasn’t released a film as short as Dunkirk since his directorial debut. Known for the length of his films, Nolan can only point to one film shorter than Dunkirk, which has a runtime of one hour and 47 minutes: his first, Following (1998), a neo-noir crime drama that lasted only one hour and nine minutes. By contrast, Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) ran two hours and 32 minutes, while Inception (2010) clocked in at two hours and 28 minutes. 


  • Actor Barry Keoghan Channels His Experiences With Foster Care in His Roles

    Austin Hargrave

    Barry Keoghan made a name for himself in 2017 with his roles in Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, adding to his repertoire of acting credits that skew dark. In an interview with THR, Keoghan described channeling his five years in foster care for his roles. "Heroin came into Dublin, and it caught every family. My mother was one of the unlucky ones. She got caught on it, then she passed away," he said. He and his brother later moved in with his grandmother, who Keoghan described as “a tough one." "I'll come home off a film set where I'm getting pampered, and I'll get a slap in the head if I don't make my bed. That's what I love about her."

  • Not Everyone Involved in 'Dunkirk' Fully Understood who Harry Styles Was

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    When Christopher Nolan offered Harry Styles a lead role in Dunkirk, he didn’t fully understand who he was casting. He knew Harry Styles had fans, but, as he told THR, “I don't think I was that aware really of how famous Harry was.” He added, "I mean, my daughter had talked about him. My kids talked about him, but I wasn't really that aware of it. So the truth is, I cast Harry because he fit the part wonderfully and truly earned a seat at the table."

    The astonishing popularity of Styles, a former One Direction member who recently released a self-titled solo album, also caught Dunkirk actor and Oscar winner Mark Rylance by surprise. He first heard of Styles through his 11-year-old niece. "She was just more excited than anything I've ever done because I was going to be acting with Harry Styles.” As Rylance soon realized, "I went up in her estimation. I won the Harry!”