Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a nail-biter from beginning to ending. With unavoidable spoilers, let’s take a quick look at its ending.
Although it takes place in one of the most dramatic events of World War II, Dunkirk isn’t really about conflict, or violence, or the terrors of the war. It’s really about what normal people act in desperate situations, when they’re being attacked from all sides by the rain of bombs and gunfire.
It’s definitely telling that one of the leads among writer-director Christopher Nolan’s ensemble, Fionn Whitehead’s rank-and-file soldier, Tommy, can’t involve in the kind of major heroics that we used to see in the war films in the 50s and 60s. For much of Dunkirk the movie, he’s just trying to stay alive, whether it’s by carrying a wounded soldier as an excuse to get on one of the ships evacuating troops from the beach, or hiding under a pier as bombs pour down from above. (Nolan also laudably casts young as the soldiers – a stark opposition to The Longest Day, in which the 55-year-old John Wayne was almost twice as old as the American colonel he was invited to portray.)
The more surely heroic characters in Dunkirk movie can be seen at sea and in the air. Having informed that hundreds of thousands of Allied troops are struck on the French coast by an advancing German army, Nolan demonstrates the rescue attempt through Mark Rylance’s Dawson – one of many civilian mariners who used their small boats to help the evacuation – and Tom Hardy’s Farrier, one of various pilots who brought aerial support. But even with these characters, who provide a close perspective on a major operation, Nolan’s careful not to grant them big speeches or moments of punch-the-air heroism. They simply get on with the task given; Dawson driving his tiny boat across the sea and picking up survivors along the way (the first of them was Cillian Murphy’s traumatized soldier), Farrier calmly deflects attacks from German fighters and bombers.
Even these Dunkirk characters’ moments of self-sacrifice are served up with an exceptionally British sense of understatement. In Dunkirk’s intriguing conclusion, Dawson decides to press on with his mission, arrives at the French extraction point, and lets as many soldiers on board as his boat allows. Note how Dawson and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) hold their anger at the incidental death of their young fellow George (Barry Keoghan) rather than traumatize more Murphy’s character. There’s an unspoken understanding between father and son, perhaps, that while George’s death was tragically inevitable, there’s no time for guilt or argue – the war has to be the priority.
Of all the characters in Dunkirk, Tom Hardy’s Farrier makes arguably the most meaningful sacrifice of all. It was mentioned near the start that the fuel gauge was damaged; despite this, he limps on, with only little idea of how much time in the air he has before the engine shuts down. As soldiers pour onto the fleet of small vessels queuing on the beach, Farrier, now effectively soaring with no fuel left in the tank, uses his last precious little time in the air to head off a potentially deadly attack from an enemy fighter.
While the shots of soldiers landing back in Britain are moving in themselves, as Harry Styles’ Alex wonders whether they’ll be criticized as cowards for withdrawing, it’s the last moments of Farrier’s story that, for this writer, are the most emotional. Rather than roughly land his Spitfire on the sea, Farrier instead lowers the landing gear and lands his plane gently on the now deserted Dunkirk beach. With all hope of uniting the extraction now gone, he’s left with no choice but to shoot a flare into the Spitfire’s cockpit; better to put his old pal to sleep than let it fall into foe hands.
Remaining true to his own aim of keeping German soldiers out of the picture, Nolan movies Farrier’s capture mainly in close-up; we see the soldiers approach, but they’re mostly blurred, their faces shaded by the warm light of a setting sun.
Farrier’s precise fate is left to our imaginations, but we know that, while some 340,000 British and French troops were saved during the “Miracle of Dunkirk”, other 40,000 were left behind. It’s all but certain, that Farrier would have been included in those thousands of prisoners of war, who marched hundreds of miles to camps in Poland and Germany. There, they were forced to work in factories or fields, and constantly beaten, starved, or even murdered.
As a piece of cinema, Dunkirk full movie is almost overwhelming with sound and editing – it’s surely Nolan’s most assaultive, intense movie ever. But while the sight of small boats carrying tired, traumatized troops to safety, and the famous words of Winston Churchill “We shall fight on the beaches” speech bring uplift, Dunkirk’s ending also shows what was lost along the way.
Had Dawson and his son abandoned their mission and returned, George might have been saved. Had Farrier landed his plane rather than soar for another pass at that German fighter, other teams might have lost their lives, but he might also have managed to grab a lift on one of those rescue ships. Nolan’s final scenes of the burning Spitfire, and Farrier’s stoic face as he’s led away, are an influential, unforgettable reminder of the sacrifices that had to be made to make happen the Miracle of Dunkirk Movie.
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