What The Water of ‘Dunkirk’ Means And Why It’s So Important
Dunkirk is a 2017 war film about Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France who are surrounded by the German Army, and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.
Christopher Nolan isn’t making films for entertainment, even if that is a natural by-product of the experience. There is no doubt that sitting through any one of his movies is great fun and many, if not most, take them in as such, looking for a simple escapist distraction and move on, barely giving them a second thought. Others, however, enjoy his films for a different reason. It is the challenge, the effort in looking closer for clues that shed light on a possible deeper meaning or latent interpretation. Movies like Inception and Interstellar seem made entirely for this purpose.
That’s why many were a little taken aback when Nolan decided to follow up these movies with a war film, and an historical biography at that. Here’s a guy who has spent more than fifteen years befuddling his audiences, tasking them with becoming more that passive bystanders in his stories, but active participants. What was he doing making a war movie? Hadn’t Steven Spielberg already made the greatest WWII movie already? However, it being Nolan, his war movie would be unconventional by any standard, a cinema experience that has little to do with following the norm per se in battle theatrics but rather a deeply thought-provoking encounter that left many thinking less about any hidden agenda and more about its overall impact. Yes, certainly war movies have done this before, but Nolan was painting with all new brushes.
Inspired from an experience he had in the 90s while retracing the journey of civilian ships in the Dunkirk evacuation, he opted to make a film less about the dialogue and politics and instead sought to let cinematography and music tell a story, one that could be easy to follow without verbal cues and yet, thankfully, for those trained by years of watching his films, loaded with reason to look closer. The result is one of the more affecting war films ever made, a stirring, often terrifying visual experience that earned some of the highest praise for any of his already highly-influential and celebrated projects.
The story is told in three overlapping parts, taking place on land, on sea, and in the air, each separated by time even as they all remain connected by action. It follows the evacuation of Allied forces in World War II from northern France at the city of Dunkirk, where hundreds of thousand of Belgian, British, and French soldiers retreated after a battle with German forces left them stranded. There are a few main characters, played by Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, and Mark Rylance, among a few others, though they hardly speak, the camera instead following them almost in documentary style as they navigate through the chaos. They are fictionalized but participate in recreated events.
Now, let’s dig deeper, and by doing so, presume you’ve seen the film. If not, spoilers ahead, though, I should note that even if you haven’t seen the movie, perhaps reading what follows might better inform you of what to look for while you do. Either way, know that parts of this monumental film will be explored. Here goes.
Despite the large cast, the most important ‘character’ in the movie is not any of the people we see but rather water itself, a dominating force throughout the film that Nolan uses in a number of impressive and sometimes subtle ways to layer the story in symbolism and metaphor. The ocean, of course, is at the center of each of the three major stages and is often seen in a dichotomous nature. First, while it offers the only avenue for escape, ‘home’ just beyond the horizon, it is also an abyss of immense dangers, both from the air and under the waves.
And it’s here where it’s necessary to mention the ending, a brief scene where we hear a soldier read an excerpt from a newspaper quoting Winston Churchill‘s now famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech. This is the one where the Prime Minister states that the people of England and Great Britain shall defend their island … whatever the cost may be. This is a sentiment that is projected over the entire film before these words are even said. So how does this connect with water?
Throughout the movie, Nolan gives water a kind of sentient quality. It surges and breaks upon the beach, in one scene literally foaming as if alive, seemingly looking to consume those who tread near it. It consumes whole ships carrying soldiers and becomes a tomb for those lost. In the movie, while the armies are trapped on Dunkirk shores, civilian boats from across the English Channel take to the sea in attempt to bring them home, many piloted by Naval personnel. Nolan uses water to symbolize the entire story with small personal encounters that reflect the larger takeaway, representing the Allies, Germans, life, death, and Churchill’s own words.
For instance, let’s take a look at two Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots (after their leader is shot down) who take to defending the seas as best they can while civilian ships stage the rescue. In a small but important dogfight with Germans (escorting a bomber), one of these pilots, Collins (Jack Lowden) is also hit and is forced to ditch in the ocean. Almost miraculously, he is able to land the plane on the surface though it quickly takes on water. In the cockpit, the canopy becomes lodged shut and he is unable to get out, left to bash on the handle with a flare gun in hopes of breaking it to escape. Meanwhile, water continues to rush in, steadily engulfing him, and it is just as we are sure he will drown when a boat hook suddenly comes smashing down on the glass and allows him to escape, a civilian, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) who along with his father Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), arriving just in time to free him.
This entire scene is, in microcosm, the evacuation of Dunkirk, with the pilot representing the Allied soldiers, the plane the Allied military situation, and the water in the cockpit, the German forces. The water here is an overwhelming power that cannot be stopped, no matter the pilot’s (soldier’s) efforts. Even the flare gun is symbolic, as he it unable to be used as intended, his rescue a makeshift operation that needs the help of others (civilians) to work. What Nolan does is essentially illustrate the entire military disaster of the Battle of Dunkirk, including the evacuation, into a singular human experience.
What’s interesting about this scene is what is playing alongside it (as much of the film follows a staggered timeline with events not directly in chronological order). A group of British and Scottish soldiers have taken refuge in a beached fishing trawler stuck on Dunkirk shores after being abandoned, now at the mercy of the tides. The frightened men huddle below decks in hope of being washed out to sea when the water comes back to the beach. Among them is a French soldier who is wearing the uniform of a dead British soldier, having taken it in an effort to escape with the British as his army has fallen. Meanwhile, from a distance, German sharpshooters begin targeting the hull of the ship, puncturing the steel, which allows water to stream inside.
Here water is much slower than the water in the airplane, though the same thing is happening on a slightly larger scale. What’s important about this water is that the Germans don’t know that there are soldiers in the boat yet, using the ship as target practice. The story in the boat is about the Frenchman, who – and this is greatly significant – eventually drowns after begin caught in chains as the water rises, becoming the only one of the men lost. Here, the water, as it pours in from spouts created by bullets, looks like those lines drawn on a military map that show advancing forces overtaking a conquered land. As the British and Scottish men flee, they are unable to save the Frenchman, some even accusing him early of being a spy. The metaphor of the plane becomes expanded as the water consumes both the fighter plane and the boat, taking the French with it, he representing his country as a whole, lost to the German onslaught that conquered France. You literally see the soldier ‘swallowed’ by the rising tide and slipping away into darkness, his writhing hands reaching for help fading into the darkness. It’s a powerful image. The water is again the unstoppable force. Nolan is careful throughout the entire film, save for an ever-so-brief moment at the end, to keep the German military unseen, they a constant specter that feels ever-enclosing. They are the water.
Another interesting moment comes when three Allied soldiers, who end up on the above mentioned ship, are sitting on the beach after escaping from a military transport ship that’s been sunk. Exhausted, bewildered, and shaken, they rest in unease at their seemingly helpless situation. Not far off, they witness a lone fellow soldier approach the water, shedding his armaments and gear before striding into the crashing waves, letting it take him alive before disappearing into the surf. The boys do nothing but watch in silence. Again, Nolan uses the water to portray the might of the enemy, and lets this soldier face it with his last breath. This is not an act of cowardice but rather a defiant stance, one that says he would rather take his death on his own terms, that he will not be conquered. He will “never surrender.” In essence, he sacrifices himself to the water (ergo Germans) and it does not go without impact on the three soldiers watching.
Water throughout the film is seen with great menace, rolling over ships, pulling men down, even set on fire. At Dunkirk, it is a frightening and horrifying beast that boxes the Allied forces in and leaves them without any hope for survival, and yet, Nolan makes sure to lets these tragic and overpowering waters become eventually small as the fleet of rescuers arrive. These many boats crest over the waves and take position in the bay in a magnificent scene of inspiration as they stand with resolution over the now shrinking sea. It is the last symbolic image of the Nazi fate, soon to come.
Dunkirk is a visceral film, the bombastic and deeply emotive music accompanying a profoundly visual experience that tells much more than what we are seeing. In true Nolan fashion, it forces us to examine more closely and challenges us to reach beyond the surface. While it might lack a more interpretative narrative than some of his previous films, it nonetheless is a richly contoured and layered film that goes well beyond the action on screen.