The Real History Behind Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan has made a name for himself as a director of big budget blockbusters with equal parts visual splendor and emotional heft, but while he is best known for his sci-fi movies (Inception and Interstellar) and the acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, his next film is considerably more grounded in reality. A dramatization of the evacuation of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk during World War II, Dunkirk is a war drama which aims to put the audience in the middle of one of the most legendary war stories of the 20th century.

Nolan's signature attention to detail and desire for realism is on display in the recently released trailer, with much of the film shot with IMAX cameras in the actual locations in which the real-life battle took place. Whenever possible, Nolan and his team went to great efforts to avoid using CGI effects, including using real military battleships and aircraft from the era. By all accounts, Dunkirk aims to capture an unprecedented level of realism in his upcoming war film.

However, today's audiences may be somewhat unfamiliar with the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo, and the impact that these events had on World War II, here is a breakdown of the true events that inspired Nolan's dramatization.


Dunkirk Christopher Nolan

Some American viewers may be unaware of the significance of Dunkirk, since the battle took place in May and June of 1940 - well over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor led to American intervention in the war. By 1940, Nazi Germany had occupied many neighboring nations and the German armed forces - known collectively as the Wehrmacht - were deeply entrenched in France. Winston Churchill had just become Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the Allied forces (France, Belgium, and Britain, in this case) had one chance to repel the invaders and stop Hitler in his tracks.

The greater invasion of Germany into France (as well as Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) was known as the Battle of France and took place in May and June of 1940. Over the course of those weeks, it is estimated that roughly 27,000 Wehrmacht soldiers were killed, though some estimates range as high as 49,000. On the Allied side, the death toll was much higher, and the final tally indicated that at least 85,000 French fighters lost their lives in the fighting, with an additional 120,000 wounded. Around 10,000 Britons were killed, with nearly 60,000 injured. It was by no means the bloodiest battle in the war, but it was still a crushing defeat for the Allies.

The Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo

Dunkirk Teaser Trailer

It is within the greater umbrella of the Battle of France that we find the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo, the main setting of Nolan's film. During the Nazi invasion of France, the Wehrmacht pushed back Allied forces at virtually every turn (though not without a fight, as the aforementioned casualty figures attest). By May 24th, hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers had been pushed back to Dunkirk, essentially surrounded, with the unstoppable German tanks bearing down on them.

For reasons which are hotly debated to this day, the Germans did not stomp out the Allies, as they almost certainly could have. Instead, a "halt order" was issued, stopping the tanks in their tracks, and giving the Allies a stay of execution. Some theorize that the Nazis wanted to take the soldiers prisoner rather than kill them all, while others suggest that Hitler didn't want to waste his precious tanks, which could be used in more hotly contested battles than Dunkirk, which was already won.

Whatever the reason behind it, the Allies made the most of this opportunity, organizing and putting into motion Operation Dynamo - a mass evacuation of Allied forces away from the clutches of the Nazi occupation. Practically every naval vessel possible was called in to assist, including civilian ships. The Battle of Dunkirk, then, was the fight to protect the evacuation efforts. When the Germans caught wind of the Dynamo plan, Hitler rescinded the ill-advised halt order, but it was too late. Over the course of the next eleven days, British forces were able to safely recover about 338,000 men. In hindsight, though the Nazi invasion of France was an undisputed blow to the Allied nations, much solace was taken in the successful "Miracle at Dunkirk," as it came to be known.

Despite being championed as a silver lining in a disastrous campaign for the Allies, who were in desperate need of a way to boost morale both on the front lines and at home, the evacuation was far from easy. The shores were constantly being bombarded by German artillery, and the Luftwaffe dropped massive payloads in an attempt to hinder the rescue efforts. Thousands of Allied soldiers were killed during the battle, and nearly all of the British tanks and other heavy equipment were captured by the Nazis. In addition, despite the hundreds of thousands who were rescued, tens of thousands still wound up being taken prisoner, and many of them remained POWs until the end of the war - those that survived, that is.


Allied soldiers after Dunkirk evacuation

It is often said that any given test of willpower is a "make or break moment." Dunkirk proved that the true test of mettle is how leaders react following the failure of a "make or break" plan. Simply put, the Battle of France was a failure for the Allied Forces: Germany's invasion of France had proven to be a devastating success, and the Allies were scrambling. However, the Battle of Dunkirk allowed Winston Churchill to spin utter failure into a reassurance that victory was inevitable and imminent, though it would ultimately take years for France to be liberated.

On June 4th, 1940, the same day The Battle of Dunkirk ended, Churchill delivered one of his greatest speeches to Parliament, couching the hope of eventual victory in an acknowledgement of the great effort that it would take to achieve it:

"We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

With regards to the Dunkirk evacuation, the press had already turned the event into a symbol of Allied fortitude and perseverance. Though the battle was lost, the war was not over. France was lost to the German forces, but just four short years later the Allies, now with the US army on their side, would liberate their lost territory from the weakened Nazi war machine.

The Nazi invasion of France could have plunged Europe into eternal despair, but "The Miracle at Dunkirk" was the ray of light which rallied the Allies and ultimately kept them afloat for the rest of the war. As the tagline for the film states, Dunkirk truly is "the event that shaped our world."

Key Release Dates
  • Dunkirk (2017) release date: Jul 21, 2017
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