Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk: Epic History, Epic Rescue, Epic Fail

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk
Warner Bros. Pictures

What follows is only a sample. For a more detailed analysis of what is true, good, and beautiful in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, see episode 6 of The Pop culture Coram Deo Podcast (Click Play below). You can also subscribe on iTunesGoogle PlayStitcherTune InacastPlayer.FM, and other podcast platforms. You can watch Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk on Amazon.

As of today, according to its IMDB page, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has won 36 awards and has been nominated for a total of 187 (Source). So, why are the words “epic fail” included in the title of this article? Well, when you leave out an indispensable Character from the miracle at Dunkirk, the words, “epic fail” come to mind.

But before we get to the “epic fail,” let’s celebrate the epic history and epic rescue of Nolan’s Dunkirk.

*The questions that follow come from Ted Turnau’s helpful book Popologetics. I highly recommend it.

I. What’s the Story?

Dunkirk is a story that centers around a rescue that took place in WWII in Dunkirk, France. The story begins with the Allied soldiers severely outnumbered by the Germans. The Allies have retreated to the beach and are waiting for ships to come rescue them. They can even see Britain (home) from the beach. They’re pinned down and many are wounded. The question is if a rescue attempt will get there soon enough before the Nazis are victorious in killing over 350,000 Allied soldiers. Such a large loss of soldiers at this time in WWII, before America had even entered the war, had the potential to significantly deplete the Allied forces and influence the outcome of the war in Hitler’s favor. The freedom of the world potentially hinged on a successful rescue at Dunkirk.

II. What’s Good, Admirable, Common Grace?

There is much that is admirable concerning the history at Dunkirk and Nolan’s portrayal of it:

  1. The movie gets war right. War is awful, horrendous. And Nolan doesn’t want you to be a passive observer; he wants you to feel the dread and anxiety the Allied soldiers feel. The music further serves this purpose and is excellent. It forces you to feel the fear the Allies feel as the Germans attack them. They’re sitting ducks for the Nazi bombers; it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. You’re forced to sit in terror as you watch some of your kinsmen survive by the skin of their teeth against insurmountable odds. You may find yourself praying for a miracle!
  2. This movie gets bravery right. Evil must be opposed, and good must be rescued, even if it means we die. Bravery is not the absence of fear, but standing against evil even when you are afraid.

One example of bravery is Mr. Dawson and his son. They’re not soldiers. Yet, they head to Dunkirk to rescue as many soldiers as possible. They have a small yacht, but they’re willing to die if need be in order to save their kinsmen.

Another example are the three pilots who fearlessly fly to Dunkirk to take out the Nazi bombers. The planes are slowly but surely running out of gas, and the pilots know that they will at least crash. But, they’re willing to perish in order to rescue their Allied brothers!

  1. This movie gets the “greater good” right. There’s one scene where an Allied general does not want a ship full of wounded people to sink in the harbor. If it sinks, no other ships will be able to rescue the Allies, which means 400,000 men will perish. So, he makes a decision to allow the wounded to die (maybe hundreds of men) so that he can potentially save thousands.

III. What’s distorted, evil, and false? How can I subvert idolatry?

Like most examples of pop culture, not only does Durkirk have much that is good, it has idolatry as well.

The idol in this movie is man. By leaving God out, Nolan exalts man to the position of God. There is even one scene where an Allied leader exclaims anxiously, “We need a miracle!” Yet, we don’t see a single soldier pray the entire movie; and this is supposed to be an accurate historical portrayal of Allied soldiers in Dunkirk in 1940?! If man is to be saved in Nolan’s movie, only man can do it. Although, man accomplished a great miracle at Dunkirk historically, he wasn’t alone as Nolan portrays. God was with the Allies. He is with us as well, and everyone else. This is God’s world, after all.

Furthermore, we constantly hear in pop culture and in society that if man is to be saved, elite men or women must intervene on the behalf of victims. Yet, man continues to do evil, even the so-called “elite protectors.” With constant promises of utopia, no group of people, male or female, young or old, no particular race or races has brought any type of utopia. What is the issue? Some would say God, but the culprit is man. Man is always man’s greatest problem. And if man is man’s greatest problem, man cannot fix Himself.

So, what are we to do? We need someone other than sinful man to save us.

IV. How does the gospel apply?

If man is to be saved, he must turn to the One who has the power to save him. Only God is sovereign, not the Allies and not the Nazis. If man needs a “miracle,” only God can bring it. When I think of war, and I think about being out-numbered, I think of the Christian’s plight living in this sinful world. We are called pilgrims here in this world (1 Pet. 2:11-12). There is one scene in Dunkirk where one of the Allied leaders can see Britain through his binoculars. The Allies are not far from home; Christians aren’t either. Home comes and rescues the Allied soldiers. It reminds me of two Christian hymns, “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand,” and the Christmas Hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand

Verse 1:

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Verse 1:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

Verse 2:

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel

In this life, we’re in Dunkirk peering over into our true homeland, Heaven. The enemies of our Leader and our homeland bear down on us, much like the Nazis on the Allies. But we know a final rescue is coming. We feel like the soldiers depicted in this movie sometimes, as if we don’t know that we have been rescued, are being rescued, and will be rescued by God the Son Incarnate.

When will He come and set all things right, to “balance the books”? The answer is, “Soon!” And if he does not come in my lifetime, I will go to Him! Therefore, the Christian’s plight in not like the plight in Dunkirk. The Dunkirk plight is this, “Will a rescue get here in time?!” For the Christian, the rescue always gets here in time! Either Christ comes to rescue us or He rescues us by bringing us to Himself. All because of the grace of God, from the Father through the Son and by the Spirit.

Conclusion

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is epic history of an epic rescue, that’s undeniable. But, it is also an epic fail because when humans are helpless, whether Christians or religious or not, they often pray to God. When you direct a movie that claims to be historically accurate, and you leave out God, the Main Character who saved these men. That’s a fail. When man needs a miracle, where else can he turn?

And when man needs salvation, where else can he go but to the God who saves?

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My site. I’m married with 4 children, an SBC pastor, a TA for Dr. Kyle Claunch & a PhD candidate at SBTS. I’ve authored two books. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and Udemy. I host 2 podcasts: All Truth is God’s Truth (iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, Tune In) & Pop Culture Coram Deo (iTunes, Stitcher, acast, Player.FM).

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