Dunkirk's Confusing Timeline Explained

Dunkirk's Three Timelines

WARNING: This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Dunkirk


This weekend sees the release of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, an intense and harrowing film depicting the miraculous evacuation of thousands of British soldiers from the beaches of France during WWII. Operation Dynamo, as it was officially called, was Winston Churchill's last-ditch effort to save the British Expeditionary Forces from a catastrophic defeat, ensuring England would be left with a large enough fighting force to protect itself from the German army sweeping across Europe.

Dunkirk is filled with fictional characters, but it's based on the true events of that week in the summer of 1940. Beginning on May 26th and ending on June 4th, the plan was to evacuate at least 45,000 troops -- the number thought to be needed to protect England from invasion -- but in the end more than 300,000 soldiers were ferried home across the English Channel. This remarkable feat was only made possible because of the many British and French soldiers who held off the advancing Germans, the air support provided by the Royal Air Force and, most amazingly, the civilian vessels that ventured into a war zone to bring home their soldiers.

It's those three elements -- the events on the beaches of Dunkirk, the civilian fishing ships and ferries crossing the channel, and the RAF pilots battling the German Luftwaffe in the skies above -- that comprise the bulk of the film's running time. However, given that this is a Christopher Nolan film and the director has a penchant for inventive storytelling, Dunkirk's plot is non-linear and the events do not transpire in a strictly chronological order. Instead, Nolan presents his film with three plots across three time frames, each starting at different points in relation to the evacuation's end. It's a disorienting presentation, to be sure, (and especially with a script that has limited dialogue) but it does help reflect the frenetic atmosphere of the Dunkirk evacuation.

Still, even for the most studied film buff, Dunkirk's timelines can be hard to follow. To help make sense of the different time frames covered in Dunkirk and to explain when they begin intersecting, we've outlined (as best we can) the events of the film in a chronological order.

One Week Out

Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk
Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk

Introduced as "The Mole" (the name for the concrete jetties which protect the beach and what the soldiers used in place of a proper dock), Dunkirk's first and largest time frame is concerned with the soldiers stranded on the beach -- specifically, Fion Whitehead's Tommy, Aneurin Barnard's Gibson, and Harry Styles' Alex as well as Kenneth Branagh's Commander Bolton and James D'Arcy's Colonel Winnant.

We are first introduced to Tommy as he and his fellow soldiers wander the abandoned streets of Dunkirk. They are soon set upon by enemy fire, leaving Tommy the only survivor as he manages to reach the beach where thousands of British and French soldiers are awaiting rescue. There, he sees another man burying a fallen soldier. Neither Tommy or Gibson (as identified by his uniform) say a word, but their looks speak volumes -- these men are sick of war and want nothing more than to get off that beach alive. After withstanding a bombardment from the Luftwaffe, they seize their opportunity.

The wounded are being carried on stretchers to a large naval vessel docked at The Mole, and after the bombing leaves one stretcher unmanned, Tommy and Gibson pick it up and start racing towards the ship. They push through hundreds of soldiers -- mostly French, since the British vessels were there to evacuate their troops first, leaving many French soldiers stranded -- and narrowly reach the ship before it departs. Unfortunately, once they've handed over their wounded charge to the medics, they're made to leave the ship as there's not enough room for them as well. Not wanting to return to the beach and miss their chance at leaving, the two climb under the pier to wait and hopefully sneak on to the next ship.

As that ship is departing, however, it's bombed by the Germans and begins sinking. Commander Bolton -- the pier-master for the evacuation -- gives orders for the sinking ship to be pushed away from The Mole out of fear it will damage the rickety wooden pier. Those who are able jump from the ship to save their lives, while most of the wounded are left to drown. Tommy and Gibson move quickly as the sinking ship threatens to smash into the pier, rescuing Alex from being crushed between the ship and the concrete Mole in the process. The three soldiers climb back up and manage to get themselves on another ship leaving that night. Tommy and Alex make their way below deck where they're served tea and some jam bread, while Gibson remains up top. As this ship departs, it's torpedoed. The sea water begins rushing in below deck as the ship capsizes, trapping Tommy and Alex. Gibson manages to free the door and rescue them from drowning. All three then swim back to shore where they await their next opportunity to escape.

As they wait on the beach over the next couple days, they witness a string of depressing events, including a man who commits suicide by calmly walking into the waves. There are also several soldiers who begin rowing themselves out to sea in lifeboats in hopes of finding a boat that will take them across the channel. One of these men is Cillian Murphy's character, a major player in the film's second chapter -- "The Sea".

One Day Out

Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy in Dunkirk

In England, the Navy are commandeering civilian vessels -- what would later be dubbed the "little boats" of Dunkirk -- to help in the evacuation effort, as most of the larger naval vessels cannot traverse the shallow waters and reach the French coastline. Mark Rylance's Mr. Dawson owns one of these boats, but rather than give up "Moonstone" to the Navy, he and his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his young friend, George (Barry Keoghan) decide to sail it over themselves.

On their journey they pass a large ship transporting soldiers from Dunkirk and they see some RAF Spitfires fly by on their way to engage the German bombers, each an indication they're getting closer to the war. They then happen upon a stranded soldier sitting on floating wreckage, the sole survivor of U-boat attack. The man is Cillian Murphy's Shivering Soldier, now experiencing PTSD or shell-shock, and who comes aboard their boat thinking they're heading to England. When he discovers they're going to Dunkirk, he becomes anxious and erratic, and tries taking control of the boat from Mr. Dawson. This leads to a struggle in which George is knocked below deck where he strikes his head. Peter goes down to check on him and after tending to his head wound as best he can, George reveals he's gone blind. Believing that the men at Dunkirk remain their top priority, Mr. Dawson decides to carry on.

Back on the beach, Tommy, Alex, and Gibson have joined with a group of Scottish soldiers making their way towards an abandoned boat grounded during low tide. The hope is to hide within the vessel and as high tide comes in, float out to sea. After making their way inside, they're spooked when the boat's Dutch captain returns, explaining to them the boat is beyond the British perimeter and at risk of attack. It's then the boat comes under fire, but rather than from an attack, German soldiers are using it for target practice. As the tide comes in, water begins rushing in through the bullet holes and it becomes clear that the boat will no longer float. Thinking all they need to do is lose some weight, Alex accuses Gibson of being a German spy because he's barely said a word and insists he be thrown off the boat. Tommy comes to his defense, at which point Gibson reveals that he isn't British or German, but rather a French soldier and he just stole the uniform of the man Tommy saw him burying. The atmosphere inside the slowly slinking boat becomes tense as it continues drifting out to sea.

Next Page:  One Hour Out

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