In May, 1940 France was invaded by Germany. Reminiscent of World War I Great Britain sent an expeditionary force to defend its ally, but in contrast to the earlier war the German tanks and their revolutionary version of modern warfare, Blitzkrieg quickly overwhelmed the Belgian, French, and English armies. Much of the British fought their way to the north of France and the town of Dunkirk to make a last stand and pray for an unlikely rescue to arrive from home, only 24 miles across the English Channel. But while Hitler reorganized his forces and waited for the Luftwaffe to eradicate the English forces on the beach, the English had a secret; its people. This is the tale that is told in the latest war movie, Dunkirk. The movie, directed by Christopher Nolan is unlike your typical warrior-driven movies of the past. It is carried on three differing landscapes and motivations, the beach, where desperation is rampant. The air, where three RAF pilots attempt to drive German ME 109’s and slow flying bombers away from soldiers and sailors, and the sea where ships are sunk at the dock by Stuka dive bombers and ships at sea are prey to submarines and aircraft. There is little dialogue as our narrator, a private driven from the streets of Dunkirk to the beach, marches from place to place inserting himself into scenarios that provide only narrow escapes. He says little and never revealed his name throughout. The air war follows three pilots, whose primary communication is through nasally sounding radios. They are the voices of direction, command, and fatality. Only at sea is the viewer presented with a diminutive amount of character development as seen through the Vice Admiral in charge of the docks played by the notable English actor Kenneth Branagh and through a man and his son that heeded the Royal Navy’s call for all vessels capable of crossing the channel to immediately set off. These are the heroes of the movie, for while the army could no longer fight, the English Navy incapable of rescuing more than a tenth of their stranded countrymen, and the Royal Air Force holding back the bulk of its planes in anticipation of an invasion, it was the English people themselves that saved the army and perhaps the island itself. Hundreds of craft from ferries to yachts, to small motor boats, and fishing vessels left England in certain knowledge that they could be torpedoed at sea or strafed by German aircraft. Only they had the ability to come close enough to the beach to save their countrymen and bring them home. And they did. More than 330,000 soldiers came home, many in the vessels of their fellow civilian countrymen. Home; safely home. This is (I believe) is the message of the movie. There are no German faces or voices to villainize, only desperation and heroism from the most unlikely of sources. I asked myself after the movie if there is an American equivalent. Are we capable of galvanizing ourselves outside of the professionals we hire to protect us? Certainly during World War II the nation appeared almost incapable of backing down from any national peril or strife, but since then when have We the People heeded the call to aid our neighbors in trouble like those simple fishermen and boat owners at Dunkirk? My son and daughter presented to me the answer, the 9-11 rescue, when hundreds of craft of all size and description obeyed the call from the Coast Guard and took half a million scared and desperate people from lower Manhattan. Each one knew that another attack could have happened at any time and they might be victims as well. But they went, and in many ways this was one of America’s “finest hour.” If there were a similar event today that required civilians, not only soldiers, policemen, or firemen to sacrifice for his neighbor, would we. Do we as Americans still have that unifying spirit? I am not sure. What do you think?
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