Imagine that is it 1940, only a little over twenty years since World War I ended. Europe had been decimated by ‘the war to end all wars” as it was known. So many young men had been killed or maimed by the hideousness of trench warfare. Royal cousins had fought against one another in a seemingly unnecessary battle that left the common folk weary and eager for peace. In the midst of the rebuilding of nations along came Adolf Hitler with far reaching ambitions for making his country great again. At first the world stood back in stunned disbelief when he began a land grab starting with Czechoslovakia. By the time that he invaded Poland all of Europe understood that he had to be stopped. Britain joined other nations in agreeing to fight against the growing menace of German fascism. Thus in 1940, soldiers from Great Britain and France were engaged in a battle with Germany that had turned into a stunning rout, stranding 400,000 troops on the shores of Dunkirk with their backs to the sea.
It had been an inauspicious beginning to war for both Britain and France. At Dunkirk the soldiers from those countries were in retreat and things looked very bad. The Germans taunted the soldiers with flyers dropped from planes bragging that they had surrounded the Allies on all sides. The troops waited to be rescued and returned to Britain while being continually subjected to air raids from the Germans. They were like fish in a barrel. Added to the difficulty was the fact that big ships could not dock close to shore, so troops had to be ferried in small boats, a tedious and time consuming task. Even though the Brits were able to gaze across the channel and see the outline of home they may as well have been thousands of miles away. In that dark moment many wondered if Britain would be forced to surrender to Germany, leaving Hitler to overtake most of Europe with little or no resistance. It was an horrific possibility.
There are certain times in the history of mankind when ordinary people find the courage to do extraordinary things. Dunkirk was one of those moments. The British understood that they had to get their troops home safely at all costs or face the prospect of an invasion at home. The troops endured nine days of air battles that killed thousands of men, sunk ships and resulted in the loss of many Royal Air Force planes and pilots. It was a dispiriting time and one of the worst military defeats in the history of the country, but help game from a most unlikely source. When word of the disastrous situation reached the people of Britain an incredible thing happened. Fishermen and pleasure craft seamen sailed their boats across the channel to Dunkirk to assist in the rescue efforts. Many of them would become casualties as a result, but even more would bring hope and a way home to the thousands of soldiers who had all but given up any expectation of seeing Britain again.
It is a story of bravery and loyalty and love that Christopher Nolan has brought to the big screen with his usual genius. With an incredible cast, music from Hans Zimmer and sweeping camera angles the movie transports the audience into the tense and unnerving evacuation scene. It is an breathtaking film that provides the viewer with a birds eye view of both the fears and heroics of the soldiers and their leaders as well as the citizens who chose to risk their own lives to help their countrymen. Mostly it is a study of goodness overcoming evil, a subject that Nolan knows how to portray so well.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what happened at Dunkirk in a world that had quite evidently gone mad. I find myself wondering if those of us who live today would be able to muster the courage that the people of that era drew upon again and again until Hitler and his minions had been defeated. Would we have sat back helplessly or would we have been able to draw upon our inner strength to do what was ultimately right? I just don’t know. We seem to have somehow lost our willingness to confront evil. Maybe we have to literally be pushed to desperation before we will ever be able to rise up against the forces who bring so much violence and death to the world. We Americans certainly sat back watching even in 1940, hoping that all of the trouble would somehow just go away while we were safely an ocean away. Ultimately when we felt the sting of attack a couple of years later we too found the grit to join in the fight against an evil that had to be stricken from the earth. Maybe the truth is that none of us want to even think of war until there is no other reasonable choice.
I feel very uncomfortable with the state of things in the present time. We seem to have a president who is more worried about his reputation and popularity than with the needs of our country. We have citizens and lawmakers who are intent on fighting with one another rather than having genuine concern for the problems that plague us. I seriously wonder how we would fare as a people and a country if were we to suddenly find ourselves under attack. Would our dysfunction prevent us from doing what was necessary to save and protect our nation? Would we find a way to demonstrate the kind of determination to preserve freedom that the British citizens did back in 1940? Have we somehow lost our way, and if so will we ever be able to find our way back? These are the troubling thoughts that continually pass through my mind.
I would like to believe that in times of trouble we will be able to join together just as the people of New York City did after 9/11 and much like the citizens of Boston after the bombings at the marathon. Somehow I think that we as a people are in a state of lethargy, but our basic instincts to maintain liberty and justice at all costs still linger inside our hearts. I hope that if there comes a time when we are challenged just as our grandparents and great grandparents were we will find the determination that we need. I refuse to believe that we have all forgotten our role in promulgating the good rather than bad, love rather than hate.
Movies like Dunkirk are important. They draw on our emotions to challenge us to think. They push us to ask questions and learn from our human history. I recommend that all Americans who are over the age of thirteen see this film and take the time to educate themselves about what was happening in that time of long ago. Perhaps it will convince us of the need to consider what is really most important in our society today and to choose leaders who will help us to end our malaise, not further divide us.