Explain Why Dunkirk Has Such A Crazy Timeline
Dunkirk is a buzzsaw of a movie. It starts at an 11 and only goes up from there. The music. The Editing. The acting is all honed into a perfect crescendo. It is really the most beautiful analog movie I've ever seen in such a digital world. IMDB
4.9Overall Score
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I adore Christopher Nolan. I’m betting that something like 10% of all the traffic coming into to this site is in regards to something Christopher Nolan has created. The Prestige article I wrote about the machine not working basically built this site on it’s own. Memento? And the conversation around the I Did It tattoo? Yeah, continued us on our merry way. The 7 Layers of Inception post catapulted us to the moon. And what about Interstellar? Or the Dark Knight trilogy?  Let’s just put it this way, this site owes a TON to Christopher Nolan and his complicated movies. They provided so many fantastic avenues for discussion and reinterpretation. Possibly the only other better director for this site would have to be Shane Carruth. And he’s only created 2 movies. So yeah, I owe an enormous debt to Mr. Nolan.

If you are one of the 12 people on planet earth that don’t know what the story is even about? Here. Have a trailer.

Which brings me to Dunkirk. I literally just walked out of the movie and now my head is swimming I have so many conflicting ideas and thoughts. But I spoiler everything, all the time, and I only want to talk to people who have seen the movie – please leave if you haven’t seen it yet. Ok? Seriously… go go go. Go see it, and leave this page! hahaha.

Dunkirk Quick Overview

The story of Dunkirk in Europe and England is legendary. Literally the stuff of legends. But since America doesn’t realize there was a war prior to our involvement, not many know about it here. Regardless, the story is wicked simple. 400,000 armed forces are trapped in Dunkirk as they are pushed against the western wall of the coast of Europe. Britain knew they needed every bomber and every destroyer they had to keep Germany from taking England, and so they held back critical resources. And instead, chose to send a civilian fleet of every boat imaginable across the channel.

Simple. Right? Except, in this movie version of that story, a fairly boring and straightforward story is transformed before our very eyes to one of the most complicated and most hard to grasp movies imaginable. Out of the gates we are given three plot lines. The first is that of a random soldier chased out to the beach and his attempts (numerous and varied) to get across the channel. The second is that of a random boat owned by Mr. Dawson (played by Mark Rylance), and their encounters that are complicated by picking up of a soldier (played by Cillian Murphy), who is desperately not wanting to go back to Dunkirk. And our final thread is that of Farrier (played by Tom Hardy), a fighter pilot tasked with protecting the soldiers on the beach from the air.

And this film is gorgeously shot by Hoyte Van Hotemea (who is known for his cinematography on Interstellar, Her, Spectre, etc.) The mechanical analog of the era just ca-chunks its way across the screen and drops physically into your laps. We are locked into that dogfighter with Farrier. There will be no CG to free us from the cabin and give us an exterior God view. We are locked under water with the numerous drowning soldiers. We are trapped on that small boat with the shivering soldier as it heads back into the jaws of war. Technically played it is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. And to see it in 70 mm IMAX? Is something to behold.

Three threads. Easy as pie.

Not so fast. Nolan, and Lee Smith have edited the heck out of this movie. And not in a Dody Dorn, Memento editing, Oscar nominee, sort of a way. With Memento, the movie had black and white scenes that marched forward in the hotel room that were interspersed with black and white scenes that moved backwards. The movie holds up and is logical, but you really have to study the logic to understand it. So how is Dunkirk, a fairly straight forward story, pulled together? I am sorry, but I don’t rightly know.

The Dialogue of Dunkirk

This section is going to be short. Why? There isn’t any. Look at the screenplay book that is for sale. It’s a 112 page book. Which includes pages for table of contents, copyright, end notes, etc. I’m betting that script is only like 95 pages. Which, is really incredible. That is sparse. Whole swaths of this film are just 70mm glory and intensity. But that’s ok, because what Nolan lacks in dialogue he makes up for in editing. Holy cow.

The Non-Linear Story That Is Dunkirk

As the story opens, we follow Tommy as he is trying to find a way across the channel. We also see a boat heading across the channel to pick up soldiers. And a pilot in the sky.

It is daytime.

And then at about the halfway point, it becomes night. At first I assumed that the movie jumped to later that night. But then I saw characters in situations they weren’t in moments before. Shivering soldier? On the boat? He’s now commanding a small vessel and telling others they can’t get in his boat, that they are fine, and they should swim to shore. WHAT?

And the guy that is with Tommy, who turns out to be a Frenchman? He was on a boat one second, and the next he’s on a different boat that is blowing up and diving into the water, again at night.

Like I said earlier, the story, told in a linear fashion is extraordinarily simple and looks something like this:

  1. England tries evacuating
  2. Guys stand on beach
  3. Germans kill guys
  4. Destroyers run
  5. England mobilizes 700 private boats
  6. Evacuates 400,000 people

But we actually start in the middle there. The movie launches at step three. Or even 4.5? Nolan thrusts us into the ending of a story. Which is why the music by Hans Zimmer is at full tilt crescendo the entire 2 hours. Listen to the soundtrack when you get a chance. It’s like you’ve been dropped into a blender. No. No dropping. It’s like you start of in the blender.

So every single time the movie goes to night, you have been thrown backwards in time to the previous day. Ok? The nice thing is, Nolan has given us such an obvious visual queue to tell us, chief… you’ve gone backwards in time. Ok? Good. Which actually helps.

Final Thoughts on Dunkirk

When I left the movie theater I was frustrated. I didn’t understand the complexities of what I had just seen. I felt like the editing was done for cleverness sake but not for any real reason. But as it’s been almost a week now since I have seen it the more it has settled in my mind. I understand that the back stories of the characters were to show them for who they really were. What they were really going through. For example, shivering man is afraid, but why? We had been watching the Frenchman try with all his might to get off the beach, but we didn’t know what he was running from or why. We had watched Tommy scramble and fight, but only in his back story do we really see what he is actually running from. By the time the movie starts he has already been through so very much.

Nolan is saying… you are watching the evacuation of Dunkirk, but everyone of these guys on this beach have already seen so much. They have so much horror and hell in their backstory that I am not even showing you. But each one deserves a spotlight on his story. These men queuing and waiting under a hail of bullets? These are valiant men that struggled. Scrapped. And scrambled to survive.

And it is in the compelling story that England itself rallied to ferry 300,000 men back to England that we see the common man fighting on their country’s behalf. We see the true triumph of man in this act of survival and in its rallying of support for each man on that beach.

It took guts for Nolan to craft a war movie with near zero exposition to explain itself. It took serious cajones to craft a ware movie that was non-linear in fashion and left the jigsaw pieces for you to figure out. And it was a gorgeously crafted jigsaw puzzle at that. The acting was beyond top notch. The action beyond the pale. And as an added bonus it was done with all the usual Private Ryan gore and blood. I have decided that Dunkirk was one of Nolan’s greatest films. Not the greatest. But in the top 5 out of ten for sure. Maybe that’s a different post for another day.

What were your thoughts on the movie?

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12 Responses

  1. John

    Mole is not the name of the character – it is the nickname for the long jettys

  2. Elise Green

    The story is not told backwards….it is three separate time lines told at different speeds. The Mole (the beach) takes place over a week; the Sea (the small boat from England) takes place over one day; The Air (the pilots) takes place over one hour. There were subtitles at the beginning to clarify this.

  3. Taylor Holmes

    Oh I’m sorry if I didn’t explain it well enough. There are three different timelines, and some of them move forwards and backwards simultaneously.

    So yes, 1. beach… 2. planes… 3. boats. But you are incorrect to say they don’t move backwards. For example, we first meet “shivering soldier” getting picked up on the boat. But then later, we see him, at night, commanding a small boat, and telling the men in the water to swim to shore. This is backwards from when we initially meet him. Correct?

    Nolan has decidedly given us a story that is out of order. Some threads work front to back. But others go forwards, then backwards, then forwards again.

  4. Victoria R

    Hey, I just wanna say that the evacuation of dunkirk wasn’t boring, nor straightforward! It’s an incredibly complex peice of history, who’s influence resounds even today. Saying anything less is to forget the horrific tragedy and loss of life. The war continues after the movie ends. Tom Harry’s character, and all others who were unable to evacuate, were marched to forced labour camps, and often beaten or killed.

    • Taylor Holmes

      I think I failed at explaining my point. For a Christopher Nolan movie, the plot was the single simplest storyline he’s ever attempted. That was all I was saying. Think about Inception – dreams within dreams. Memento, a story about a brain damaged individual who only experienced time in snippets… and backwards to boot. Interstellar, relative time causes one individual to age half the time another ages. The Prestige is a story told from the perspective of two competing diaries, written falsely for an audience of one. Dunkirk, a retreat from the European mainland facilitated by hundreds and hundreds of civilian owned boats.

      It’s just a much more simple narrative timeline. So that made this movie an intriguing choice for him to film. And yes, I love the history in and around all of this period. Most specifically Churchill’s efforts to get an asleep ally in America to the table.

  5. Casanova

    For people who don’t often watch movies or read up on history, Dunkirk’s story probably wouldn’t be familiar to them. In the grand scheme of historical events taught in school and war movies made about them, it’s not often covered. Billions of people don’t know about the story of Dunkirk, which is just ever so slightly more than “12.” Many people probably don’t know the events that led to the fall of the Soviet Union, which is undeniably more recent and more relevant to today’s world.

    • Taylor Holmes

      Well yeah,
      I’m sure I would be unbelievably shocked at just how little the average person knows about history. So yes. In that regard, you are 100% right. I’m certain that anyone that watches this movie with little in the way of knowledge about the war would be enlightened. But seriously? If you don’t know much about history, what are the odds you spend your Friday evening watching this particular movie as opposed to Angry Birds 2? Ok. That was a low blow. I shouldn’t have added Angry Birds on top of my already derisive comment. heheh.


  6. Akay1999

    Ok, I can’t help myself. You still aren’t getting it. I’ll expand on what Elise said since she’s 100% correct:
    “The story is not told backwards‚Ķ.it is three separate time lines told at different speeds. The Mole (the beach) takes place over a week; the Sea (the small boat from England) takes place over one day; The Air (the pilots) takes place over one hour. There were subtitles at the beginning to clarify this”.

    YOU then say “Some threads work front to back. But others go forwards, then backwards, then forwards again”.

    But that is incorrect. Each “thread” or timeline, is moving forward. They are just moving at different speeds, so that separate timelines may intersect at different points. The longest storyline is the 1 week “The Mole” which is from the viewpoint of the English soldier, the Frenchman, and Harry Styles. “The Sea”/civilian boat with old man and kids, occurs over a 24 hour period which starts toward the end of the week. And of course “The Air” is the shortest and latest in the overall 1 week timeline. All 3 stories basically catch up with one another when we see the old man’s civilian boat rescue the soldiers, including Harry styles and the Englishman.

    So we see Cillian Murphy’s character in “the mole” storyline when he rescues the englishman /Frenchman /Harry styles after their ship is torpedoed, which happens obviously before he is rescued by the old man’s civilian boat in “the sea”. But since “the sea” had already started, we had already seen his character, since “the sea” occurs later chronologically. His character is in 2 different threads. At no point does a single thread move backwards. Each moves forward linearly before all intersecting at the same point in time.

    The same happens when one of the fighter pilots looks down and sees the blue boat sinking. In terms of the movie, this is before we even see the englishman /Frenchman /Harry styles get on the blue boat, but since the fighterpilot story is happening at the last hour of the week long interval, he sees the boat sinking before we do. Since the story with the 3 soldiers was maybe only midway.

    Honestly, it’s not that confusing or even important to the overall story, so I find it annoying that so much focus is placed on this. It’s just that by giving equal screentime to each aspect of the evacuation, it shows how integral each was, even though the fighterpilots, for example, may have only been involved over a one hour time frame.

  7. J. Blaylock

    The recent Dunkirk movie fails in so many ways to give a true picture of the evacuation of so huge a number of men. In many ways a D-Day in reverse.
    The problem stems from employing only a worm’s eye view of what happened. The ranking naval officer on the beaches was Captain Tennant who did a first rate job and who is portrayed in so wishy-washy a way that it is almost an insult to his memory. Remember, though the efforts of the small boats was superb, two thirds of the men were taken from the mole and piers by ships, many of them Royal and French navy vessels.
    The Royal Navy does not do chaos.
    Though every kind of human behaviour was displayed on the beaches by tired and desperate men the overall behaviour was good enough to enable most of them to be returned home.

  8. Ramesh

    Definitely won’t come in Nolan’s top 5 films..this film didn’t have nolan mark except for those timeline thing.. memento.. inception prestige interstellar dark knight my top 5 nolan films


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