This is not meant to be a review of the movie “Dunkirk.” I just want to use it to make a few observations about stories and writing.
I saw “Dunkirk” last Thursday, and it deserves all the good things that are being said about it. (It was loud, though. For some reason either the theater turned up the volume on the sound, or maybe the sound was recorded that way, perhaps, as my companion said, to emphasize the nature of the warfare the movie displayed.) The movie is about the evacuation of British, French, Dutch and Belgian troops from the French port of Dunkirk in 1940 as they were surrounded by German troops. For some unknown reason, the Germans halted their advance on the Allied troops, encircling them on the beach, giving them a couple of days to evacuate. But the British navy didn’t have enough ships to do the job, so hundreds, if not thousands of smaller civilian craft, from small sail boats to pleasure craft, came from England to help. They eventually evacuated over 330,000 men, allowing the British to continue to fight later. (Keep in mind England and France declared war on Germany in September, 1939, after the Nazis invaded Poland.)
Dunkirk was a disaster of, if I may use a well-worn cliché*, epic proportions, and would have been much worse if the Nazis hadn’t stopped their advance and destroyed or captured them. The consequences could have been tragic. England would have had difficulty raising another army over the next several years, and the eventual invasion of France in 1944 probably would have been much different. Field Marshall Montgomery’s forces in Egypt in 1942 might have been much smaller, and his victory against Rommel could have turned out much differently. They have some unknown order to German forces to stop their advance to thank.
But most of this was never presented in the movie. Not even hinted at, except for the eventual count of troops evacuated. The movie took a far different route to tell the story. The story was told from the point of view of individuals, not armies or even divisions or regiments or battalions. Individuals just doing their job to either make the evacuation happen, or try their best to get off the beach. No large-scale events were described, or even hinted at. Just individuals. The story made personal. This was the story brought down to its basest level: the soldier or sailor himself, one at a time, running, swimming, dodging bullets, finding safety, or not. Nazi troops were not shown at all. Only their bullets. (Except for one brief shot where a Spitfire pilot who landed his plane on the beach when he ran out of fuel (“petrol”) was captured by German soldiers, and then shown only out of focus so their faces were not visible.)
I liked the way the story was told. I did have a little difficulty with the fact that the entire movie was told this way, because it didn’t put the affair in perspective. All events and all people have a greater impact on life than just their individual lives. Every human has two parents and four grandparents, and so forth. Every human exists in a larger situation. Even a man who retreats to a cave on a mountain top as a hermit has a larger life than that. Where did he come from? What drove him to that cave? How did he grow up? Did he go to school? And so forth. Other than the fact that the final total of troops rescued was given, little was said of the broader picture. That certainly wasn’t necessary to enjoy the movie, but it would have been nice to know. To complete the picture, so to speak.
I look for a broader picture when reading novels and non-fiction. Put things in context. But tell the story from the individual point of view. It’s far more satisfactory.
(*Of course, “well-worn cliché” is itself a well-worn cliché.)