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Film / Dunkirk

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Commander Bolton: You can practically see it from here.
Captain Winnant: What?
Commander Bolton: Home.

Dunkirk is a 2017 World War II film written and directed by Christopher Nolan about Operation Dynamo — the evacuation in late May 1940 of the British Expeditionary Force and remnants of the French First Army by sea with the help of just about any floating vessel that could be sent there, as these armies were completely surrounded by German forces in the eponymous coastal city of Dunkirk ("Dunkerque" in French) after being completely outmaneuvered in Belgium following a surprise German offensive in Northern France.

The film is separated into three intertwining stories:

  • "The Mole," note  set on the beaches of Dunkirk over a period of one week, and focusing on three British soldiers (Tommy, Alex, and Gibson) and their attempts to get home.
  • "The Sea," set in the Channel over a period of one day, with pleasure boater Mr. Dawson, his teenage son, and assistant George taking to the seas to assist in the evacuation.
  • "The Air," set over a period of one hour, with RAF pilots Farrier and Collins flying a sortie over the channel to protect the evacuation.

The cast includes Fionn Whitehead as BEF soldier Tommy, Harry Styles (in his acting debut) as Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders BEF soldier Alex, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson, Tom Hardy as RAF pilot Farrier, Cillian Murphy as a BEF soldier, Kenneth Branagh as Royal Navy Commander Bolton, Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, Tom Glynn-Carney as Peter Dawson, and James D'Arcy as BEF Colonel Winnant. It was filmed on the actual location of the events, with some actual vessels that were used during the evacuation.

The announcement trailer can be viewed here and the official trailer here.

Compare the 1958 British film Dunkirk and the 1964 French film Weekend at Dunkirk.

Character tropes go on to the Characters Sheet.

Dunkirk provides examples of:

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  • 1-Dimensional Thinking: When under fire by the Germans in the opening scene, Tommy and his comrades panic and sprint along the street instead of immediately barging into the doors and windows of the buildings they were next to. Unsurprisingly, they are cut down in seconds with Tommy as the Sole Survivor due to the virtue of climbing over a wooden gate in time.
  • Abandon Ship: Not only does it happen more than once, but it also happens more than once to the same characters. Those who have survived the trauma of one sinking are not eager to go below decks on the next craft. (You can actually hear the scream "Abandon ship!" after the destroyer is torpedoed.)
  • Accidental Murder: The "shivering soldier" accidentally kills George via head trauma.
  • Action Prologue: The film starts with Tommy and his section being fired upon by German troops, and Tommy running to the beach.
  • Action Survivor: The BEF soldiers in the "Mole" storyline are simply young kids who want to stay alive with no heroics. Lampshaded by the Blind Man manning a soup line in Dorset at the end of the film:
    Blind Man: Well done.
    Alex: All we did was survive.
    Blind Man: That's enough.
  • All for Nothing: Gibson wanted to escape France by stealing an Englishman's identity. Despite his best efforts, he is drowned on the Dutch merchant vessel.
  • Anachronic Order: Each of the three scenarios (Mole, Sea, and Air) are told in straight chronological order, but since they have different time frames (one week, one day and one hour respectively), this effect is produced. One example: the shipwreck survivor played by Cillian Murphy's first scene in the movie is him being rescued by Mr. Dawson, but his first scene chronologically is as a soldier on the beach, manning a lifeboat in the scene when the destroyer is sunk. Likewise, the first time we see the blue Dutch trawler, seen by the RAF pilots, it's capsized and sinking in the middle of the channel. The film then shows how it got out there in the first place from Tommy's POV.
  • And Starring: An unusual case where three cast members get separate "With" credits before finishing off with the "And." As a result, the credits read as:
    With Kenneth Branagh
    With Cillian Murphy
    With Mark Rylance
    And Tom Hardy
  • Anyone Can Die: It starts with all the other soldiers in Tommy's platoon dying and just goes on from there. In the end, two main characters die — George (of head trauma gained when he tried to stop the Shivering Soldier from taking over their ship) and Gibson (got tangled in chains in the sinking Dutch boat and drowned).
  • Armor-Piercing Question: When the Shivering Soldier tries to dissuade Mr. Dawson from sailing to Dunkirk by pointing out that the Moonstone lacks weaponry to defend itself, the latter asks whether or not the former's bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle did any good against German planes or U-boats.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • This article outlines several, including the paucity of female characters, downplaying the role of the naval destroyers in the evacuation (and conversely overstating the importance of the civilian crafts), the limited scale of the film owing to Nolan's preference for Practical Effects over CGI, and a perceived over-dramatization of the historical record (including a quote from a veteran who was at Dunkirk in 1940: "You had the impression of people standing waiting for a bus. There was no pushing or shoving.").
    • The weather was famously calm and still during the evacuation, unlike the overcast and drizzly weather as depicted in the film (a device to increase the dramatic tension for the pleasure boats and other small craft, according to Nolan).
    • The Stukas had their noses painted yellow a month after the battle of Dunkirk, when gearing up for the Battle of Britain.
    • The destroyer that gets torpedoed carries designation D36. Since her silhouette conforms to a V-class destroyer, this should be HMS Vivacious, which was indeed involved in Operation Dynamo. While getting the correct V-class destroyer in the movie could count as Shown Their Work, as could a destroyer getting torpedoed, they were in fact different ships: a U-boat got HMS Grafton (hull number H39), while torpedo boats sank HMS Wakeful and FS Siroco.
    • In Churchill's speech near the end of the film, the line about "a victory inside this deliverance" is taken out of context so that it implicitly refers to the whole successful evacuation. In truth, the next sentence was, "It was gained by the Air Force," followed by three paragraphs defending the Air Force from those who "saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack" and presaging their importance in what would become the Battle of Britain. The RAF's role in the Dunkirk evacuation tends to be forgotten because the worst of the air combat took place much further inland, and significant parts of the record were classified until very recently.
    • Some 1980s buildings and beach pavilions of Dunkirk can be seen behind the dunes.
  • Artistic License – Military: A soldier is shown saluting without a hat on, something British soldiers never did.
  • Arc Words: "Home." For a damn good reason; the whole point of the movie is getting back there.
  • Aspect Ratio Switch: The film switches aspect ratios a few times, due to the film being partially shot in IMAX.
  • "Back to Camera" Pose: One poster features one of the soldiers gazing out at the destruction with his back turned.
  • Bait-and-Switch: When Collins asks Mr. Dawson how he knew what the German plane would do, Dawson says that he knew that his son, an Air Force pilot, would get them through. Collins turns to Peter Dawson, only a few years short of getting recruited, and is understandly confused. Peter clarifies that his brother, a Hurricane pilot for the RAF, was already killed in action. Dawson was speaking about his son's spirit.
  • Bang, Bang, BANG: Done as a stylistic sound design choice. Gunshots that go off hundreds of metres away sound like they're right next to the camera.
  • Big Damn Heroes:
    • Farrier manages to shoot down a Ju-87 Stuka while in glide mode due to his Spitfire running out of fuel. It was just about to drop a bomb right atop of Commander Bolton and the pier.
    • Needless to say, the Little Ships arriving at Dunkirk to pick up the lads are a sight for sore eyes for them. Everybody cheers upon seeing their evacuation coming.
  • Bilingual Bonus: All spoken French is unsubtitled, which actually has the effect of raising the tension in scenes where French speakers can be understood through context. Cases in point, the clearly upset soldiers who are barred from boarding a British evacuation ship, and Tommy persuading "Gibson" to confess his true nationality.
  • Bittersweet Ending:
    • The evacuation is successful — and is significantly more successful than high command initially believed that it would be — but not without cost, as several of the characters we've met died along the way or are otherwise traumatized by the war. Even though the evacuation is technically a Heroic Sacrifice (as Winston Churchill points out in his address), anyone with a basic knowledge of history knows going into the movie that the Allies ultimately won the war, so the sacrifices made were worth it. A specific version to the movie's narrative happens after the evacuation itself is finished — Farrier manages to safely land his plane on the beach, after running out of fuel, but with nowhere left to go, he's forced to surrender to the Germans, where he'll spend the remainder of the war in a POW camp presuming that he survives.
    • As lampshaded by a Navy officer early on and with Churchill's speech quoted at the end, there's a lot more war to come. While we know the expected invasion won't materialise, there's still the Battle of Britain and Blitz to endure, and beyond that, the invasion of Europe.
  • Bling of War: Almost all of the characters who are military officers wear neckties, which was mandated by regulation then. This includes Collins, Colonel Winnant, and the Shivering Soldier. The two exceptions are Commander Bolton and Farrier, who wear more practical turtleneck sweaters underneath their uniforms instead.
  • Bloodless Carnage: Unlike that other film this was frequently compared to, there is surprisingly little blood in accordance with its PG-13 rating, despite numerous characters getting shot or blown up. Of course, it doesn't make the deaths any less horrifying, especially the nightmare-inducing deaths at sea including drowning, being burned alive, getting torpedoed, etc. The only time blood actually is shown onscreen is when George sustains a head injury. This stylistic choice received a mixed critical response. Nolan personally challenged himself to see how nail-bitingly intense he could make the movie without an R-rating. In one scene a bomb lands directly on a soldier on the beach; he simply disappears.
  • Break Out the Museum Piece: In a meta sense; many of the "little ships" used in the film had been used in the real evacuation.
  • Brits Love Tea: When rescued soldiers are taken aboard "official" ships they're given tea. When they're pulled from the sea by the Little Ships, they're given tea. When a rescued soldier with PTSD is dangerously close to becoming violent he's given... tea. Of course, this is the British we're talking about. And tea is good for warming up a soldier who's gotten soaked in the ocean.
  • Call-Back: To the first conversation that Bolton had with Winnant when the Little Ships arrive:
    Winnant: What do you see?
    Bolton: [with tears welling in his eyes] Home.
  • The Cameo:
    • Michael Caine has a faceless one as Fortis Leader (the leader of Farrier's fighter squadron), alluding to his role in Battle of Britain.
    • John Nolan (Christopher's uncle) plays the blind old man who welcomes and congratulates evacuated soldiers once they make it home.
  • Cast Full of Pretty Boys: Anyone who appreciates men who are beautiful and British is in for a treat, as not even the horrors of war can tarnish the appeal of a cast that includes Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Jack Lowden, Tom Glynn-Carney, Tom Hardy and of course, Harry Styles.
  • Casting Gag: Nolan regular Michael Caine is heard giving orders on the radio early on, in reference to his role in Battle of Britain.
  • The Cavalry: The arrival of the fleet of Little Ships spurs the exhausted and demoralized British troops stranded at Dunkirk into cheers of applause.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys:
    • Averted. French soldiers are not given much screen time, but the fact that they're holding ground against German soldiers and tanks in and around the city is brought up by Commander Bolton. Several are seen defending a barricade that blocks a street that leads directly to the beach. There is a squad of French soldiers that are seen trying to evacuate with the British, being yelled at by a British soldier, but it's implied they came from an overrun position.
    • Subverted with "Gibson," the French soldier impersonating a British one. Save for Tommy, the British soldiers inside the Dutch trawler consider him a coward for taking the clothes and identity of a dead soldier, but the truth is, he's just as desperate to leave the beach as they are, and British soldiers are embarked in priority over French ones. "Gibson" also heroically saved the group's life the night before when the ship they embarked on was sunk by a torpedo, opening the door as they were trapped inside.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Tommy's ability to speak a little French saves him from friendly fire in the beginning and Gibson's — to a point anyway — in the film's last act.
  • Chromosome Casting: Only two female characters in the movie, both quite minor: a nurse on a destroyer, and a woman on one of the Little Ships.
  • Cold Equation:
    • When the trawler doesn't appear to be floating off with the high tide, the soldiers try to force off Gibson at gunpoint, then when Tommy objects says he can go next if Gibson isn't enough to get them floated.
    • With the need to preserve Britain's fighting force in order to continue the war, the decision is made to leave badly wounded behind (because stretcher cases take up more space), restrict the level of air and naval support, and prioritize the evacuation of British troops over their French allies. There's even a literal equation used — seven able bodied soldiers can stand in the space taken up by one stretcher carrying a wounded man.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: German Bf-109 fighter aircraft are portrayed as having their iconic yellow-painted noses, whereas in Real Life the paint scheme was only implemented a month after the events of the film. Word of God confirms that this error was intentional as to allow audiences to better distinguish the opposing sides' aircraft from one another during the hectic dogfight sequences.
  • Coming in Hot: Farrier's fuel gauge is broken in the first dogfight, but he sticks around, burning through his entire reserve while providing air cover to the evacuation. He's finally forced to glide to a landing on a beach, and without power he has to hand-pump his landing gear down to avoid a belly landing.
  • Composite Character:
    • Commander Bolton seems to be one for Real Life Royal Navy officers Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsey and Captain William Tennant, who both oversaw Operation Dynamo's naval aspect. Bolton's final scene, staying behind for the French on the abandoned pier, even seems to be based off of the exploits of Tennant, who stayed on French ground right up until the last evacuation ships left on 2 June, patrolling the beaches with a megaphone searching for British troops.
    • Colonel Winnant seems to be one for General Lord Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, and Major General Harold Alexander, who initially led its 1st Infantry Division but became responsible for an entire corps by the time of Operation Dynamo. Like his Royal Navy counterpart, Bolton, Winnant’s final appearance in the film alludes to one of the aforementioned Real Life figures, what with Alexander leaving Dunkirk on the last destroyer on 3 June only after ensuring that all British troops had been evacuated.
  • Conscience Makes You Go Back:
    • While Alex and Tommy go dutifully into the hold of the British destroyer, Gibson cannily stays outside. Soon the destroyer is torpedoed and starts heeling over rapidly. Gibson has one leg over the railing, about to jump for it, when he looks up at the cargo hatch for the compartment where Alex and Tommy are drowning. After a moment's hesitation, he clambers back up and opens the hatch, freeing them both.
    • Farrier has turned his Spitfire around because he must, in order to get back to England with what fuel he has left. He then sees a German plane bearing down on a British ship. He looks at the note on his instrument panel, about how much gas he had left. He sighs, takes a long Beat, and then turns around to engage the German plane.
  • Cool Plane: Several, most notably the British Supermarine Spitfire as well as the German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters (actually portrayed by the Hispano HA-1112), Junker JU 87 "Stuka" dive bombers, and Heinkel HE 111 bombers. An RAF Bristol Blenheim also flies by the Moonstone at one point.
  • Covers Always Lie: One poster prominently featuring the Moonstone shows the civilian yacht moving to save drowning soldiers from a burning warship. Although this event actually does happen in the film, George is incapacitated by that point and does not work alongside the other two crew members in manning the ship. Instead, his role is taken over by a downed RAF pilot named Collins and the Shivering Soldier.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Several times:
    • When the hospital ship in the beginning is sunk by an He-111, several soldiers trying to swim away are trapped between the ship and the mole. Their agonising screams make it clear it wasn't a quick and easy death.
    • When the first destroyer to break port is sunk in the middle of the channel, almost all of the passengers are trapped in the main hold while water pours in from a breach below the waterline. And then the generators go out, making the situation that much more nightmarish by throwing the hold into total darkness. The frantic screams of drowning soldiers go on for quite a while.
    • Towards the end, a destroyer crossing the Channel with survivors is sunk by a bomber, leaking oil over the sea. When the shot-down bomber crashes into the oil, it catches on fire, with unlucky survivors caught in the middle. The camera lingers on one poor man hiding under the water; when forced to surface for lack of oxygen he burns to death.
  • Darkest Hour: The Movie, pretty much. The film starts bad and gets worse. The Dunkirk evacuation is noted as being part of one of the darkest in modern history: Nazi Germany is days away from seizing near-total control of Western Europe. The British Expeditionary Force and the French First Army are in full retreat, trapped in a fishing city on the edge of the continent. Their capture or death would leave nothing to halt the invasion of Great Britain, and would signify the end of viable opposition to Adolf Hitler's plans. At the film's end, several of the characters are utterly convinced that the ground invasion of Britain is imminent, and that people will spit at them in the streets. The audience knows this isn't the case, but the characters don't.
  • Darkness Equals Death: Alex and Tommy carefully situate themselves near the hatch to the upper deck, but when the torpedo hits the cabin is simultaneously plunged into darkness and flooded with water, making it impossible to get their bearings until Gibson opens the hatch and they see a light shining through from the outside.
  • Dated History: The limited number of Spitfires is attributed in the film to the RAF saving its planes for the expected Battle of Britain (which would begin in July of the same year). In actual fact the RAF was heavily engaged fighting the Germans inland of the beaches, but this information was kept classified until about 2009 and it's unlikely any of the characters except perhaps the Spitfire pilots themselves would have been aware of this.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: "Gibson." He's revealed to be a French soldier who took the clothes and identity of a dead British soldier so he could embark with them, as British soldiers were prioritized for embarkation over French ones.
  • Death by Falling Over: A brief scuffle aboard Mr. Dawson's boat causes George to fall down some stairs and hit his head, resulting first in blindness and eventually his death.
  • Death from Above: The Luftwaffe's main role in the film, to destroy British ships, bombing the beaches, and keeping the surrounded British and French forces trapped and demoralized like fish in a barrel.
  • Dick Dastardly Stops to Cheat: A German He-111 bomber and its BF-109 fighter escorts successfully attack and sink a Royal Navy minesweeper. Despite observing their target capsizing in a span of fewer than five minutes, the bomber's pilots decide to turn around for an attack run on the hapless survivors in the water instead of returning to base. Ferrier sees them going after the survivors and decides to take them out, even though he knows he doesn't have enough fuel to make it back to base if he does.
  • Dive Under the Explosion: Deconstructed. Although several soldiers manage to evade being burned by a flaming oil slick by diving under the water, it is only a matter of seconds before they are forced to resurface for air. The less fortunate of them promptly burn to death while swimming in the sea.
  • Drone of Dread: Parts of the music use very long notes to build up dread in scenes where less action is happening. They also use Shepard tone to continuously sound like they're rising despite not actually being so, creating a feeling of the conflict being constantly escalating and waiting for the release.
  • Drowning Pit: A few.
    • Collins is trapped in the cockpit of his Spitfire as the plane sinks into the sea.
    • The Destroyer turns into one when a torpedo hits. What was a scene of celebration turns instantly into a chamber of desperate, drowning people. Only one makes it out alive.
    • The Dutch trawler when it takes on water.
  • Due to the Dead:
    • Tommy helps Gibson bury a fellow soldier who died on the beach after a Stuka bombing. Gibson's motives for the burial are actually questionable as he may have been simply trying to cover up his Dead Person Impersonation.
    • When the rescued soldiers are crowding onto the boat, Peter calls to them to be careful with the wounded George; when informed that George has died, he persists: "Then be bloody careful with him." The soldiers carefully move his body to the side and cover it with a blanket.

  • Earn Your Happy Ending: In order to be evacuated, Tommy & co have to survive Dunkirk until they can be rescued — no easy feat with Germans surrounding them, Stukas dive-bombing them, and rescue ships (even hospital ships) being targeted by bombers.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: Deconstructed. The only named British Army formations in the entire film are two infantry regiments: the Grenadier Guards and the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. However, they actually serve to impede the efforts of Tommy and Gibson — who are not of those two regiments — to be evacuated as they have priority above all other units. As a result, the two masquerade as Highlanders for the duration of the film. This becomes a point of contention in the climax when Alex, an actual Highlander, evokes this trope as the reason why Tommy and Gibson should do as he says.
  • Epilogue Letter: The film ends with Tommy reading out a newspaper article quoting Churchill's "we shall fight on the beaches" speech, wrapping up the events of the story.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Two of the three narratives, "The Sea" and "The Air," taking place over a day and an hour respectively. Averted with "The Mole," which takes place over a full week.
  • Eye Scream: An unfortunate soldier gets a round in his eye when he peeks through a bullet hole.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Tommy and Alex bond over their shared experience to the extent that, even after they make it back to England, they stick together and share a train compartment.
  • Flat Character: Hardly any of the characters get much in the way of characterisation or backstory, mainly as a consequence of the minimal dialogue. Nolan said this was intentional to avoid typical war film tropes.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Par to the course with being a historical film, more than 300,000 men of the British Expeditionary Corps and the French First Army were evacuated off Dunkirk beach (about 2/3 British).
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The French soldiers trying and failing to get evacuated at the beginning, and unofficial orders to prioritize British soldiers upon embarking. "Gibson" is revealed to be a French soldier disguised as a Brit, trying to be evacuated quickly.
    • Mr Dawson seems to know a lot about warplanes. It's later revealed that he lost his eldest son, an RAF Hurricane pilot, in the first weeks of the German invasion of France.
  • Friend or Foe?: Tommy is briefly shot at by French soldiers defending a barricade as he tries to reach the beach after escaping fire from the Germans. He has to shout that he's English, and they let him in.
    "English! I'm English! Anglais!"
  • From Bad to Worse: Oh boy. Tommy begins the film losing his squad, and things just keep snowballing from there.
  • Futureshadowing: When the Shivering Soldier tells Alex to "stay calm" as they flail around in the water next to his boat, the latter responds with "Calm?! Wait until you get torpedoed, then tell us to be calm!" Sure enough, earlier in the film we saw the Shivering Soldier suffering PTSD on top of a torpedoed evacuation boat.
  • Genre Mashup: While it's still a war film, it's very different from most other entries in the genre, especially compared to other WWII movies. Namely in that only one of the other major characters is in a position to fight the Germans, everyone else is just trying the escape from an unseen powerful enemy. Between the constant atmosphere of fear and the absence of many standard war movie tropes, it's fair to say that the movie is as much a horror film as it a war film. Nolan himself described the film as a "survival" or "suspense" film more than a war film.
  • The Ghost: We never do get to see Winston Churchill, but we do see Tommy read out his famous "We shall fight on the beaches" address.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Adolf Hitler and the German high command. Bolton and Winnant spend one crucial scene discussing why the German forces have stopped advancing upon the Dunkirk perimeter for seemingly no apparent reason.
  • Guy in Back: Although "The Air" is centered on a flight section of single-seat RAF Spitfires, the German Heinkel He-111 and Junkers Ju-87 bombers they encounter have tail gunners that make shooting them down uniquely more difficult than single-seat Bf-109 fighters. In fact, the tail gunner of the He-111 attacking the British minesweeper comes closer to killing Farrier than any other German personnel in the film.
  • Hell Is That Noise:
    • Faint but anxiety-inducing ambient noise can be heard from the first second the movie starts (a very faint vibrating noise can be heard all the way in the first scene).
    • The infamous Stuka dive scream approaching the evacuees.
    • The ticking clock sound used as the basis of the soundtrack. It just grows more intense each time it shows up.
  • Helmets Are Hardly Heroic: All of the characters who are infantrymen such as Tommy, Alex, Gibson, and the Shivering Soldier discard their protective headgear, while the Highlanders uniquely go without helmets altogether in favor of their iconic berets. High-ranking officers such as Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant also wear peaked caps that offer no practical protection.
  • Heroic Bystanders: Civilians manning the Little Ships. Without their help in the evacuation, a lot more men would've been lost to the Germans. Mr. Dawson and the Dutch trawler captain represent them in the film. The latter not only returns to his vessel after it is beached behind enemy lines but braves German gunfire to start its engine and guide it into the sea with British troops sheltering inside.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Farrier very much performs one, staying much longer over Dunkirk and its coast than his Spitfire's fuel reserve allows in order to protect the embarking army and the boats coming for them, not expecting to come home.
    • George, who dies on the Moonstone after a fatal head injury. Homage is paid to him in a newspaper at the end, since he died manning one of the Little Ships.
    • Any civilian, nurse, and Royal Navy sailor who came to Dunkirk and died trying to save trapped soldiers.
    • The French rearguard, who had to stay behind to defend access to the beach, is not given any screentime past the barricade at the beginning of the film, but it's still mentioned.
  • Hypocrite: The British soldiers accuse Gibson of being a coward because he's French, and fled the frond lines. This ignores that they're also trying to escape, and are happy to let the French forces die to protect their retreat.
  • I Choose to Stay: Downplayed since it's only temporary, but Admiral Bolton chooses to remain behind after the British are evacuated in order to see to the evacuation of the Allied rearguard.
  • Interservice Rivalry:
    • Even in the midst of their bleak situation, Commander Bolton can't help but poke fun at Colonel Winnant over the Navy knowing the timing of the tides better than the Army.
    • On a more serious note, the two argue over the differing strategic priorities of their respective services: Winnant and the British Army want to evacuate their forces from France as fast as possible and demand more substantial naval and air support, while Bolton and the Royal Navy (with the RAF too, for the matter) are more concerned with conserving the bulk of their remaining forces for a coming German invasion of Britain. Winnant is especially appalled when Bolton declares to him that only one evacuation ship would be allowed to dock at a time due to heavy losses of ships from Luftwaffe airstrikes.
  • Improvised Platform: After the main evacuation pier is bombed, British troops resort to driving lorries onto the beaches and parking them in a line facing the sea at low tide. After the tide rises, these improvised piers allow the beach-stricken troops and the Little Ships to reach one another.
  • Irony: Continuing the film's conception as an "anti-War Movie," out of the named characters with dialogue who die in the film, none of them are actually directly killed by the Germans onscreen. George falls downstairs and hits his head and Gibson gets trapped in a sinking ship and drowned.
  • Jerkass: Alex and his fellow Highlanders become this when they try to force "Gibson" out of the trawler at gunpoint to lighten the weight, despite one person not making any difference, and then threaten that Tommy will be second because he defends Gibson and isn't a Highlander like them.
  • Jitter Cam: Used quite often as a POV cam for panic-stricken Tommy as he's running around the beach trying not to get killed.
  • Jump Scare: The opening scene starts with a group of British soldiers walking silently through the empty Dunkirk, looking around the place aimlessly. Then extremely loud gun cracks coming from offscreen and the soldiers start dropping down one by one.

  • Land, Sea, Sky: Perfectly encapsulated in the three sections of the movie: "The Mole" with the soldiers on the beach desperate to get off, "The Sea" with the Little Ships and the Royal Navy evacuating the BEF, and "The Air" with the RAF and the Luftwaffe dogfighting over the Channel.
  • Last Request: As he lays dying from his head wound, George mentions that he'd always wanted to be featured in the paper for something. The morning after the Moonstone gets back, his friend Peter goes to the town newspaper and tells them about the local boy who died helping the men get home from Dunkirk, after which they publish a story calling him a hero.
  • Lecture as Exposition: Fortis Leader instructs Farrier and Collins, and thus explains to the audience, that they have to watch their fuel gages and they have only 40 minutes fighting time over Dunkirk before they must turn around if they are to get back to England.
  • Lying to Protect Your Feelings: When the Moonstone heads back to Dorset, the shell-shocked soldier asks Peter if George is going to be alright. George is already dead of his head injury, but Peter lies, having taken pity on the man's situation.
  • MacGyvering:
    • When combat damage to his aircraft's instrument panel disables his fuel gauge, Farrier improvises by using a piece of chalk to write down on the metal surface how many gallons Collins (who he asks via radio) has at the moment, and checking his watch from time to time. After his remaining wingman is forced to ditch in the Channel, he can't even do that, but it's clear he knows he's going to run out when he chooses to continue combat.
    • The Army engineers improvise a pair of makeshift extra moles/piers by putting lines of trucks on the beach down to the waters' edge during the low tide, attaching boards and panels on the tops to serve as walking planks, and waiting for the high tide to come. When the rescue boats arrive, these prove vital for smaller boats to approach in the shallows and make it easier for soldiers to board.
  • Manly Tears: Commander Bolton's eyes brim with tears when he looks through his binoculars and sees an armada of civilian craft coming to rescue the BEF.
  • Mistaken for Spies: Gibson is mistaken for a German spy because he never speaks. It turns out he's a French soldier who impersonated a dead British soldier so he could be sure to board an evacuation ship — the British were giving their own men boarding priority.
  • The Mole: A double-entendre version, with "the mole" being the name of the long stone pier used to evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk beach, and a hint to the later storyline where "Gibson" comes under suspicion of being a German spy.
  • Monochrome Casting: The film was criticised for this, although one or two French soldiers of African descent do briefly appear onscreen.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • After over an hour of groaning tension and anxiety, the sudden appearance of Elgar's "Nimrod" when Bolton spots the incoming fleet of civilian ships comes as a surprise and relief... but the threat of the planes return almost immediately.
    • Tommy runs away from a shoot-out between German and French troops, only to find himself on a beach with soldiers calmly lined up awaiting evacuation. This was Truth in Television; survivors stated it was almost like everyone was queuing up for a bus.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The soldier picked up by Mr. Dawson has this reaction when he causes George to suffer a serious and ultimately fatal head-wound during a struggle. It hits AGAIN when, after being lied to that George is fine, sees his corpse being taken away at the end of the movie
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • Farrier shoots down a He-111 bomber as it's about to finish off a foundering British destroyer... Only for it to crash into the oil slick where dozens of stricken sailors are treading water, igniting it.
    • Tommy and Gibson carry a wounded soldier onto a hospital ship. Shortly afterwards, the ship is bombed, and the stretcher-bound man can only writhe helplessly as it rapidly slips beneath the surf, with all able-bodied passengers abandoning ship in blind panic.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Mr. Dawson, Peter and his friend George rescue a shell-shocked soldier from the sea. The soldier later panics when he learns that they're heading towards Dunkirk, and attempts to forcibly take control of the ship. In the struggle, he injures George, who later dies.
  • No Name Given:
    • Cillian Murphy's character's name is never heard. He's simply credited as the "Shivering Soldier."
    • "Gibson," the French soldier in British disguise. His true name is never heard.
  • Nothing Is Scarier:
    • The beaches are practically silent and motionless before the Stukas begin their air strike.
    • We never see the faces of the German soldiers, making them seem more like an inhuman threat than just an opposing army. The only time that we come close to seeing the Nazis is when they capture Farrier at the end, and even then, their faces are deliberately kept out of focus.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: When Gibson is revealed to be a French soldier who disguised himself as an Englishman to be evacuated, he is accused of being a Dirty Coward by the British — except by Tommy, who points out that he's only trying to survive, like the rest of them.
  • Not Worth Killing:
    • Colonel Winnant invokes this, pointing out to Commander Bolton that the German Army aren't bothering to advance their tanks any further towards Dunkirk because it's easier to let the Luftwaffe just pick off the soldiers on the beach, in the colonel's words, like fish in a barrel.
    • After the Moonstone successfully evades a German planes strafing run, the plane flies off; Mr. Dawson points out that it has bigger fish to fry, implying that it isn't worth expending the time to sink a small vessel with only a couple dozen soldier on board.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • A barge full of soldiers are at sea, and then one of them hears the unmistakable whine of a Stuka dive bomber above them as it grows louder and louder and they all duck for cover.
    • Following a dogfight, Farrier notices his fuel gauge is broken. He says not to worry. Later, his engine goes out while in midair. His face says it all.
    • The reaction from the soldiers on the stranded Dutch trawler when the Germans start using their ship as target practice, shooting it full of holes just as the tide comes in.
  • Old-School Dogfight: Most of "The Air" storyline, where RAF Spitfire pilots cover the evacuation by engaging and shooting down attacking German fighters and bombers, and ensuring that the ships and men can make it back to England.
  • Once More, with Clarity: From Farrier's point of view, we see Collins make his sea landing safely and wave at Farrier as he flies away. Later we see the landing from Collins's point of view, revealing that his cockpit windshield is stuck and his plane has become a Drowning Pit. He's only able to stick his hand out and desperately wave it around as he struggles to escape.
  • The Place: The movie is titled after the coastal town Dunkirk where the evacuation of Allied soldiers took place.
  • P.O.V. Cam: Played With. While no scene was actually explicitly filmed from the perspective of a character, many of the land scenes placed the cameras in positions where an average soldier can be to immerse the audience into the scene, often in the form of an over-the-shoulder cam. For example, the camera is in the middle of the crowd when Tommy and Gibson carry a stretcher across the mole, the camera follows along with the crowd when people are being moved into the Destroyer's cabin, and the camera is floating in the water alongside other survivors when ships are sunk and people have to escape by swimming.
  • Practical Effects:
    • Very little of the movie is in CGI. While it is normal for Nolan to pull out the big boats to shoot the naval and land scenes, shooting in the air requires some creative filming tricks. Some cockpit shots are done in a simulated cockpit, while others are actually done midair by converting old training planes to have double cockpits, one for piloting, one for acting. In other shots where the camera is stuck to the side of the Spitfire when flying, some other planes were converted to look like Spitfires (because old Spitfires can't handle the camera) and IMAX cameras were mounted to them.
    • Cardboard cutouts and dressed mannequins were used to make it look like there are more people on the beach.
  • Precision F-Strike: From Alex, in a tense situation.
    Alex: He's a fucking Jerry!
  • Press-Ganged: Subverted; although the Royal Navy requisitions civilian vessels such as the Moonstone as part of its desperate gambit to evacuate the trapped Allied forces at Dunkirk, Mr. Dawson's party — along with presumably all the other civilian boaters present in the climax — actually volunteers to sail to the frontlines of their own accord.
  • Propaganda Piece: The film opens on a group of soldiers walking through a shower of propaganda leaflets intended to demoralize the French and British troops, telling them that they are completely surrounded and urging them to surrender. In this case, the propaganda is actually truthful and an accurate portrayal of the situation.
  • Properly Paranoid: When Tommy, Gibson and Alex manage to board a destroyer, Gibson stays on deck while Tommy and Alex position themselves near the door, in case the destroyer is hit and starts sinking. These minor actions are instrumental in saving their lives when the destroyer is in fact hit and sunk by a torpedo.
  • Race Against the Clock:
    • Operation Dynamo is basically this, with German armies closing in on Dunkirk and hundreds of thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach, desperately waiting for a way to cross the sea, while the French army and the RAF do their best to slow down the enemy. Best illustrated with the ticking clock sound in the soundtrack.
    • During one of the film's most suspenseful sequences, Farrier knows he's low on fuel and has to choose between maybe making it back to England if he breaks off and leaves, or going after a German bomber that has already sunk a British minesweeper and is turning to attack the survivors in the water.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: In the end, Nazi Germany has completely defeated France, but more than 300,000 allied soldiers were evacuated at Dunkirk, and Great Britain is still standing. Cue "We shall fight on the beaches."
  • Real Is Brown: The majority of the film uses a dull, desaturated palette.
  • Red Shirt: Farrier and Collins' flight leader, whom we never even see and is the first to go down when they have their first engagement with the German planes.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: When the soldiers get back to England, they're given blankets by a man who keeps his head down and doesn't look at them. Alex thinks it's because he considers them cowards for fleeing France and is disgusted by them. It's actually because he's blind and can't see their faces.
  • Rousing Speech: Played with. A different movie—like say Darkest Hour, released the same year as Dunkirk and telling the same history from the other end of the command hierarchy—might have featured Winston Churchill's "we shall fight on the beaches" speech as a big ringing setpiece to close the film. Instead, we get Tommy reading Churchill's immortal peroration from a newspaper, in a subdued tone of voice, underscoring not just Britain's determination to hold out but also the daunting nature of the dangers ahead.
  • Rule of Three: The film has three interlocking plotlines, and each one has three main characters at some point.
    • Before being shot down/captured the Spitfire flight we see onscreen consisted of the flight leader, Collins, and Farrier.
    • On the German side, the Stukas were usually seen dive-bombing in groups of three, and every time a lone He-111 bomber was seen, it was being escorted by only two Me-109s. Justified, because RAF standard tactical formation at this stage of war was the three plane 'vic', while the Luftwaffe standard fighter formation was the four plane Schwarm of two Rotten. The He 111 was escorted by a Rotte. The bombers used the three plane Kette formation.

  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Mr. Dawson doesn't surrender his boat to the Royal Navy to be sent to Dunkirk. He goes there himself with it instead. In Real Life, the Royal Navy indeed requisitioned as many ships as it could, not even bothering to contact the owners when they couldn't be found.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Tommy and Gibson find a wounded soldier on a stretcher left behind by others while a Red Cross ship is about to leave the mole. The two pick him up, struggle through the extremely packed mole and just barely made it onto the Red Cross ship. The two are then told to leave the ship and leave the wounded man on the ship. Just before the ship leaves the beach, a dive-bombing run sinks the ship, forcing everybody to abandon ship and push it off the mole to keep it from sinking in it, leaving the wounded man Tommy and Gibson spent minutes trying to save dead in the waters.
  • Show, Don't Tell: The script contains little dialogue in an effort to invoke this.
  • Shoot the Medic First: The first ship we see sunk by the Germans is a hospital ship ferrying away the wounded in a war crime. Even before that, Tommy realizes that the Stukas are targeting the wounded and the stretcher-bearers.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog:
    • Gibson steals a dead British soldier's uniform, sticks with Tommy throughout the beginning of the film and helps him get a wounded soldier to the ships, saves both Tommy and Alex's lives when they are trapped in a sinking ship, and survives attack after attack from the Germans in the hope of getting to England... Only for him to be tangled up in chains at the exact wrong moment and drown.
    • George heroically chooses to go help evacuate soldiers despite only being seventeen and perseveres, despite his friend's increasing panic at the fact they are risking their lives, but only really manages to rescue Cillian Murphy's character before dying rather anticlimactically soon after a fall in a struggle with the latter. His friend, at least, manages to get him remembered as a local hero in the newspapers.
    • Farrier makes the last-second decision to go back and stop the bomber from strafing the shipwreck survivors in the water, dooming himself to run out of fuel over the beaches... as a result of his actions, instead of a few swimmers being shot, ALL the men in the sea are burned to death by the crashing bomber igniting the oil on the water.
  • Silence Is Golden: The whole movie is very loud, be it from the battle going on or the ticking noise in the music. This makes it far more impactful when the noise finally stops at the end of the film when the evacuation succeeds. Every time something hopeful happens, the noise stops, such as when the little ships arrive at Dunkirk, or when Farrier shoots down the final German plane over Dunkirk and saving the people on the beaches from being bombed, or when Tommy falls asleep on the train after being saved. The movie is very serene in the ending segments, and everything falls completely silent in the last few seconds as the movie concludes.
  • Sliding Scale of Visuals Versus Dialogue: On the visual end. The film is very minimalist in terms of dialogue, and especially during the most intense moments. Combined with the deliberate use of Flat Character characterization, the movie tried to bring the audience into the mindset of the soldiers.
  • Spreading Disaster Map Graphic: Compared to the real leaflets, the leaflets dropped by the Germans are redesigned with stronger visuals to make it easier for the audience to quickly read and understand the approaching menace.
  • Steel Eardrums: Averted in the scene where a character dives underwater to avoid the explosion of the bombs aimed at the minesweeper, only to hold his ears from the concussion.
  • Stuka Scream: Heard whenever German bombers show up. Justified by them being actual Stukas, which really did make that noise. The effect was caused by a special siren (the Jericho Trumpet) mounted on the fixed landing gear, used for psychological warfare purposes.
  • Suicide by Sea: Actually it's ambiguous as to whether it's a soldier committing suicide or having a mental breakdown and trying desperately to swim the Channel. But in any case, Tommy sits and watches as a British soldier takes off his gear and walks into the ocean, almost certainly to his doom.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: A lot of the soldiers and civilians do not get along well with each other, but do their best to work together nonetheless.
  • Third Line, Some Waiting: The film follows three plot threads, "The Mole," "The Sea" and "The Air." Unlike many examples of this trope, the different events in the three plot threads do not take place concurrently, or even on the same timescale. The constant cutting between the different storylines led at least one critic to describe the film as "structureless."
  • Throw-Away Guns:
    • Tommy discards his rifle in a panic to better flee from German troops in the opening, while the Shivering Soldier grudgingly admits to Mr. Dawson that he also did so somewhere along the line.
    • The railing on the dock leading to the evacuation ships is lined with hundreds, if not thousands, of rifles that were left behind by the British evacuees. This was frankly the tip of the iceberg; pretty much any equipment remotely heavy, from trucks to artillery guns had to be left behind by the British.
  • Tick Tock Tune: Hans Zimmer's score features the ticking of a clock. He reportedly incorporated recordings of a pocket watch owned by director Christopher Nolan into the score.
  • Token Minority: When Tommy and Gibbson try to sneak onto the hospital ship, a few French-colonial soldiers brought from Africa, along with their French comrades, are seen being denied passage onto the dock, since at the time only British personnel were evacuated.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Tommy's infantry section in the opening carelessly wanders about an urban battlefield down the middle of a street instead of at least cautiously moving from house to house to minimize their exposure. When they are promptly spotted by the Germans and fired upon, they panic and sprint along the street instead of immediately barging into the doors and windows of the buildings they were next to. Unsurprisingly, they are cut down in seconds with Tommy as the sole survivor due to the virtue of climbing over a wooden gate in time.
    • Alex and the Highlanders stubbornly trying to plug the holes leaking water into the Dutch trawler when it becomes a target practice for Germans, even when the Germans are still firing. This causes one of the Highlanders to get shot in the process, and his painful scream could've alerted the Germans that there are people inside the trawler. When this fails, they try to force one of their own off the ship to lighten the weight, even when it's clear that there's too much water leaking into the ship for that to make any difference.
  • War Is Hell: One of the most brutal examples committed to film, to the point that it's less war film and more horror movie. The British and French are in a desperate situation, with soldiers having nothing to do but wait and hope they don't get picked off from the air and land. Whilst there are individual acts of heroism (the Little Ships flotilla) and glory (the RAF pilots), the film doesn't cherry-pick the suffering of young, inexperienced soldiers.
  • Weapons Understudies: Like the 1969 film Battle of Britain and the Czech Dark Blue World from 2001, extremely rare German Bf-109 fighter planes were substituted by Spanish HA-1112 aircraft. The latter can be distinguished from the former by its "smiley face" Rolls-Royce Merlin engine (which also ironically powers the Supermarine Spitfire); the production of Dunkirk cleverly avoids the display of the distinctive engines by never depicting the planes in close-up shots. Instead, viewers only prominently see the "German" aircraft from the rear from the perspective of Farrier's gunsights outside of a brief flyby from the perspective of the Moonstone at sea. Meanwhile, the lack of any airworthy Heinkel He-111 bombers forced the production to resort to remote-controlled replicas.
  • We ARE Struggling Together:
    • Zig-zagged. Some soldiers show camaraderie with Tommy, while others meet him with coldness, bickering, or indifference in their own justifiable struggle to get home. Shown best when the soldiers in the Dutch trawler are more concerned with the fact that Gibson stole a dead British soldier's uniform than Tommy pointing out that he not only saved lives but is also on their side.
    • The French soldiers jostling to get aboard a Royal Navy vessel only to be rudely rebuffed are indicative of how the Anglo-French alliance is crumbling in the face of defeat.note 
  • We Hardly Knew Ye:
    • The first scene of the film introduces Tommy's infantry section, who are massacred almost immediately.
    • Fortis Leader, the commander of Farrier and Collins' Spitfire flight, is shot down and killed off-screen just as unceremoniously in the first dogfight sequence. In fact, his wingmen don't notice anything wrong until he fails to respond over the radio after the dogfight has already ended.
  • Wham Line: "He's dead, mate." Spoken by a soldier when it turns out that George has died below deck.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The Dutch captain is last heard yelling “Abandon ship!” but isn’t seen after that. Due to him not being seen onboard the nearest vessel, it could be an Uncertain Doom.
  • You Are in Command Now: Fortis Leader, the Spitfire section's commander, is shot down and killed early in his unit's sortie to Dunkirk. Farrier, seemingly the next most experienced of the original trio, immediately replaces him thereafter.
  • You Are Too Late: Farrier and Collins race to intercept a German He-111 bomber and its fighter escorts before they are able to strike a hapless Royal Navy minesweeper. By the time the German aircraft enter their weapons' effective range, the minesweeper is struck by a bombing run and sinks in less than five minutes.


Video Example(s):



Used at multiple points in the film Dunkirk, crescendoing to a horrific screech and providing an excellent example of Hell Is That Noise. The very first teaser trailer relied entirely on it, featuring a pier jammed solid with Tommies... then you hear the rising Stuka scream and they all look up in fear. It's also Justified since the noise is being made by actual Stukas on bombing runs over the beach.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (23 votes)

Example of:

Main / StukaScream

Media sources: