Dunkirk and the History Christopher Nolan Failed to Mention

British troops evacuate from Dunkirk, France, as the German Army invades (1940).
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Dunkirk and the History Christopher Nolan Failed to Mention

Forget about Harry Styles, the real protagonist of Dunkirk was God.

The following is from yesterday’s Trumpet Brief. These daily e-mails contain personal messages from the Trumpet staff. Click here to join the nearly 20,000 members of our mailing list, so you don’t miss another message!

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk opened last Friday to massive crowds and rave reviews. By the end of the weekend, the movie had grossed more than $100 million worldwide; $24 of which came from my wife and me. Dunkirk, in my opinion, is an entertaining film and a fine diversion, but entirely underwhelming and a missed opportunity.

Dunkirk is everything you’d expect from 21st-century Hollywood. There’s plenty of action, some epic panoramas, and more than one plotline crafted to tug the heartstrings. Add in (another) superb score from Hans Zimmer, and Dunkirk is everything Hollywood tells us we want. But although it is viscerally stimulating, Dunkirk lacks depth, meaning and substance. There’s no historical context, nothing to stimulate or challenge the intellect, nothing meaningful to take away. For a film so obviously connected to an explicit historical event, there is a surprising dearth of history. May 1940 was arguably the most important month of World War ii, one that included other momentous developments. Yet Dunkirk somehow fails to explore the broader significance of the rescue of more than 330,000 Allied soldiers, and it fails to convey, even faintly, the colossal stakes of Operation Dynamo for Britain, France, Germany and, indeed, humanity.

The biggest disappointment, and the least surprising, was the failure to highlight the miracles that surrounded Operation Dynamo. For me, Dunkirk ranks in the top five on the list of Britain’s all-time greatest miracles. The most incredible facet of Dunkirk doesn’t relate to one event. Rather, it’s the fact that three highly unlikely events converged at exactly the right time.

First, there was the bizarre decision by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt to halt the advance of German panzer tanks when they were less than 10 miles from the defenseless British and French forces. Seventy-five years have passed and historians are still debating the rationale behind this decision. Whatever the field marshal was thinking, the two-day recess allowed French and British forces to make crucial improvements to their perimeter defenses. And when the tanks fired back up, these hasty improvements were enough to hold back the Germans. But it wasn’t just the engines on Rundstedt’s tanks that unexpectedly went quiet.

So did the English Channel. For nine days, this capricious and often-dangerous sea passage went, to borrow a phrase from Britain’s English Heritage website, “unusually calm.” The Daily Telegraph wrote on July 8, 1940, “Those who are accustomed to the Channel testify to the strangeness of this calm; they are deeply impressed by the phenomenon of nature by which it became possible for tiny craft to go back and forth in safety” (emphasis added).

If that isn’t fodder for an epic scene, what is?

Finally, as the English Channel turned “millpond flat,” the skies above Flanders erupted. For more than a day, torrential rain and low-hanging clouds grounded the German Air Force.

“I have talked to officers and men who have gotten safely back to England, and all of them tell of these two phenomena,” continued the Daily Telegraph article. “The first was the great storm which broke over Flanders on Tuesday, May 28, and the other was the great calm which settled on the English Channel during the days following.”

Imagine it: Between May 24 and June 4, not one, but three extremely unlikely events converged to allow the successful evacuation of 338,000 soldiers and the survival of Britain. Let’s say you’re from Oklahoma. This would be like learning you’d inherited $1 million, receiving an invitation to dine with President Donald Trump at the White House, and watching the Oklahoma City Thunder win an NBA Championship—all in the same week. That’s what happened in Dunkirk in May 1940.

Imagine the intellectual and emotional experience that the creativity and resources of Christopher Nolan could have created, if he only valued the history enough to communicate it honestly. Imagine if Nolan studied the history of Dunkirk for the lessons it actually furnishes, and not the lessons he wants it to furnish. It’s true; Dunkirk is a dramatic story about bravery and sacrifice and having hope even when circumstances seem hopeless. But far more than that, Dunkirk is about the miraculous convergence of three extremely unlikely events, and the Being who orchestrated that convergence. Forget Harry Styles, God is the protagonist of Dunkirk.

But why would God intervene like this? There are a few answers, one of which can again be found in the historical record. England’s king responded to the dire situation by calling for a day of national prayer on May 26. Across the nation, British citizens, the Church of England, the Catholic Church, Jews and other religions appealed to God for help. The King and Queen attended a service at Westminster Abby, along with Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, and the prime minister and other British leaders.

“In the cities and towns, leaders of civic life attended church on this Day of National Prayer at the head of their people,” the Times wrote. “From peaceful village churches in the remote countryside the same prayers were offered, just as in these fateful hours the same thoughts are in people’s minds.” Afterward, the archbishop of Canterbury called on everyone to pause at noon every day and pray for deliverance.

Imagine an entire nation, millions of people, simultaneously beseeching God for deliverance. What a scene that would be! Now imagine if Christopher Nolan not only depicted this national day of prayer, but also connected it with the miracles that began to unfold on the Channel and in the port of Dunkirk. Think about it: What if Christopher Nolan had reflected historical reality and actually made God the protagonist of Dunkirk?

Now that’s the Dunkirk movie I really want to watch.