Dunkirk: History Re-created for the Big Screen

14 minutes to read
Fernanda Delgado

In his movie Dunkirk, Chirstopher Nolan uses multiple resources to portray historical reality. His use of fictional elements is crucial in bringing the audience closer to experiencing reality in his representation of the historical event.

Conception of Dunkirk as a Film

Dunkirk is a film written, produced and directed by Christopher Nolan, which tells the story of the evacuation of the British army from the beaches of Dunkirk during the Second World War. Nolan (2017) wrote that “as for a lot of British people, Dunkirk is a story I grew up with in its mythic, almost fairy-tale form.” This explains his desire to tell it and in a way which would immerse everyone in it. In this way, Dunkirk is far from being the traditional “war movie” and puts all of its efforts in creating an immersive experience for the viewers. The audience’s experience during the film and their involvement with it are crucial for its depiction of reality.

There are multiple strategies used to achieve this. Some of these are including fictional elements in a real story, including elements of documentary filmmaking, and overall use of strategies and elements for a ‘Reality Effect’, a term which Roland Barthes used with regards to literary studies that can also be applied to film. Some of these include dialogue, camera-work and editing. These are some of the most important elements included to produce a movie with the objective to convey a sense of historical reality. In turn, it becomes the experiencing of a story rather than the mere telling of one.

From the very beginning, Nolan and his team indicated that his objective was to make Dunkirk an experience for the audience and to “make a film about the evacuation that really would place the audience in the action.” (Thomas in Lewis, 2018) This is why it’s different than other war movies, starting with the fact that it leaves behind the scenes of war commanders in rooms making decisions and exchanges them for scenes of the actual battle and rescue on the beach. Nolan (2017) explains:

“What that ruled out for me immediately was getting bogged down in the politics of the situation. We don’t have generals in rooms pushing things around on maps. We don’t see Churchill. We barely glimpse the enemy. It’s a survival story. I wanted to go through the experience with the characters.”

Fictional Elements in a Real Story

Galen Wilson stated that there are times in which fictional elements included in real stories reveal even more truth than the story by itself. On the one hand, Nolan and his team did a lot of research for the movie. This included hiring history advisors, reading the material available on the event and conducting interviews with war veterans who had lived through the evacuation of Dunkirk. Some of the real stories that he heard from veterans were included in the script, as Nolan (2017) states:

“One of these stories that stuck with me and worked its way into the film was a veteran telling me about watching people walk into the sea, just as if they were going to swim home. I asked him ‘Were they literally trying to swim back to England or swim out to a ship; were they killing themselves?’ He didn’t know but he knew they were going to die.”

Although the script is a work of fiction, there are various elements and strategies used to portray the historical events and to convey a sense of reality in the film. All this with the goal in mind to immerse the audience as deeply and thoroughly as possible in the events of Dunkirk. Another of these is the use of the exact place where the evacuation took place, filming at the same time of year (May) and reconstructing The Mole from the original blueprints, which is vital to the story and its portrayal.

On the other hand, there is a duality between fiction and non-fiction present in the film. Although the events depicted in the film are historically accurate, including its location and the time of filming is the same as the actual historical event (Dunkirk beach during May), the characters, who carry out the story (with the exception of Commander Bolton), are fictional:

“Werner Herzog talks about ‘ecstatic truth’ in fiction… It’s the idea that fiction can communicate something more truthful to audiences about actual events than documentary. By using fiction, I was able to explain various aspects of what happened in Dunkirk more efficiently and with more emotional clarity than by just following strict facts.” (Nolan, 2017)

One of the most important creative liberties Nolan took was with the characters and casting. Because the characters are the ones the audience can relate to, and carry the story forward through their actions, they are a crucial part of conveying the realism in the story. Although they are fictional, it is the very fact that there is little information provided about them that makes them extremely easy to relate to. They could be any 18-year-old at that time, or any person struggling to get home and survive. Instead of relating to them through their stories, we can relate to their desperation to get off that beach and get home.

There is no ‘hero’, who has to overcome a challenge, in the film. Instead, it is about the collective feeling of all of those struggling to survive and those helping them achieve this. In turn, they have no back story and some don’t even have names. Nolan cast about 1,400 extras who were 18- and 19-year-old actors to portray the soldiers stuck on Dunkirk beach: “I wanted 18- and 19-year-olds because that’s the truth of how we fight our wars.” (Nolan in Lewis, 2018). The lack of detail promotes the audience’s empathy for the characters' struggle to survive. It's one of the ways to achieve the audience’s immersion in the story, by appealing to the empathy they feel for the characters’ struggle on that beach.

In turn, it is not the emotional connection to a character’s history that makes the viewer empathize with the characters and wanting everything to succeed in the end. Instead, this feeling is generated through the portrayal of the uncertainty the characters experience; that is only possible because of the high degree of realism the film offers: “The audience can care about a character simply by virtue of what it is they’re trying to achieve onscreen in a physical sense, a task they’re trying to achieve… we find ourselves in their shoes very quickly, and I wanted to make a film that really snuck up on the emotions.” (Nolan in Greene, 2017)

The story might very well be set in a completely different time, but the experience would be the same, because the degree to which the audience gets involves is achieved through the basic human feelings to which the audience relates: “I think it’s a universal story —about the individual drive for survival. And the fundamental concept of a desperation to get home.”  (Nolan, 2017)

Another one of the strategies used with the script is the fact that the film contains very little dialogue. This gets the audience centered in the action of the film. In this way, the film becomes a first-hand experience rather than the narration of a story: “I wanted to address the story in the language of suspense. It’s the most visual language of film there is. It leads you towards an approach stripped down of dialogue, really looking to the visual.” (Film 4, 2017)

Elements for the ‘Reality Effect’

Regarding elements used to approach the ‘Reality Effect’ we can mention: the use of real footage, camera-work, and editing. One important strategy was that the film was made using as little computer generated images (CGI) as possible. Perhaps this is what makes this film so special: the fact that its creation constituted of the actual recreation and reenactment of the evacuation of Dunkirk.

“We were very clear that rather than using CG recreations, we were going to try to find real ships and planes that matched those from the time as closely as possible. We would find the actual planes, and fly them in dogfights against each other, and get the camera and the actor up in the plane. We were going to do this for real to the extent that we could.” (Nolan, 2017)

The use of real historical objects in their context allows the objects to acquire a different meaning. It is very different to see a boat or weapon in a museum, merely exposed, rather than it being used as part of its own context. Moreover, the actors emphasized the reality of filming this way, stating that many times they were thrown into the action and the situation felt so real that little acting was required (Styles, 2017).

Another element used to convey a sense of reality and realize the immersion of the audience in the film is the camerawork. This movie was made using IMAX cameras, which is the largest format for filming there is. This would allow the audience to see the movie in the largest scale possible, therefore, bringing them even closer to the action on the screen.

Lastly, the third element constitutes editing strategies for this film, especially regarding its rhythm. The rhythm of the movie is another one of the characteristics that adds to the audience’s involvement. The film’s narrative is different from most movies'. It is divided into three different perspectives: land, sea and air, that are interwoven to form the main storyline. This concept allows the audience to experience all that was going on during that time and get all three perspectives from the point of view of the soldiers and civilians involved. These parts all have different timelines. The land part of the story happens over the course of a week; the sea part over the course of a day; and the air part only took place during an hour. Nolan expressed that:

“What I wound up doing is fragmenting the story into three different story lines that braid together, and broadly speaking that’s land, sea and air… the idea is that as the stories cross cut, we’re building up a bigger picture of the events for the audience who doesn’t understand or doesn’t know the story.” (Nolan, 2017).

As Robert Rosenstone expressed in his work, history is made up of multiple parts that are often studied by themselves and categorized for this purpose. Unlike the written word, film allows us to get a multi-dimensional experience that can convey reality by the combined use of images and sounds, therefore bringing the audience a little bit closer to the historical events. Film not only combines image and sound, but it is able to include different perspectives, like literature. Even though this could be more easily done through the written word, film can furthermore portray an event through different senses (image and sound) as well as portray various takes on the same historical event, allowing its viewers to experience a more complete historical event than traditional history books and essays are able to present their readers with.

“Film is possibly a more appropriate medium for history than the written word. “Traditional written history” is too linear and too narrow in focus to render the fullness of the complex, multi-dimensional world in which humans live. Only film, with its ability to juxtapose images and sounds, with its “quick cuts to new sequences, dissolves, fades, speed-ups, and slow motion” can ever hope to approximate real life, the daily experience of “ideas, words, images, preoccupations, distractions, sensory depictions, conscious and unconscious motives and emotions.” (Raack in Rosenstone, 1998).

This is clearly done in Dunkirk, by threading together the story from three different perspectives. This strategy allows the audience to see what was going on at different times and places during the evacuation.

The editing strategies also relate to the documentary-like style of the movie, that often makes the audience feel like they are watching a real story and not a fictional one. As Bill Nichols states that “continuity editing, for example, which works to make the cuts between shots in a typical fiction film scene invisible, has a lower priority. We can assume that what is achieved by continuity editing in fiction is achieved by history in documentary film: things share relationships in time and space not because of the editing but because of their actual, historical linkages. Editing in documentary often seeks to demonstrate these linkages.” (Nichols, 2001).

In the case of Dunkirk, both modes of editing can be appreciated. While there is a fair amount of cuts which belong to the continuity editing style they are mostly in scenes belonging to the same fragment (land, sea or, air). Nonetheless, the braiding of the storylines and the cuts between each of the fragments (land to sea, sea to air, air to land, etc.) resembles the editing in a documentary fashion, where there are actual historical linkages between the scenes and they are demonstrated by these cuts.

Documentary Elements

The last strategy used in this movie is the intersection of documentary strategies and elements with the cinematic fictional ones. To begin with, this film deals with war, which is one of the topics that we commonly identify with documentary (Nichols, 2001). However, there are also other similarities with the genre that add to the historical reality of the film.

The most important ones come from the Observational and Participatory Modes of documentary, as presented by Bill Nichols. Although this film’s objective is far from being the same as the ones that characterize documentaries, it shares a lot of elements with the documentary genre that add to its historical reality.

According to Nichols, the Observational Mode of documentary “emphasizes a direct engagement with the everyday life of subjects as observed by an unobtrusive camera.”  The story is told through the engagement of the audience with the soldiers on the beach as everyday soldiers, not necessarily important people or high ranking officers. On the other hand, Nichols states that the Participatory Mode “emphasizes the interaction between filmmaker and subject. Filming takes place by means of interviews or other forms of even more direct involvement. Often coupled with archival footage to examine historical issues.”

Dunkirk has elements from both modes of documentary. Even though most of the Participatory elements happen offscreen or are included in the film’s extras, these are present. There is no involvement of the filmmaker and the subject, but the film does use archival footage (re-creations) and many interviews were conducted to create it.

To begin with, Bill Nichols states that “documentaries represent the historical world by shaping its photographic record of some aspect of the world from a distinct perspective or point of view. The fact that documentaries are not a reproduction of reality gives them a voice of their own. They are a representation of the world, and this representation stands for a particular view of the world.” (Nichols, 2001) In other words, documentaries constitute a creation with intention towards a specific point of view given by the filmmaker. “Documentaries marshal evidence but then use it to construct their own perspective or argument about the world, their own poetic or rhetorical response to the world. We expect this transformation of evidence into something more than dry facts to take place.” (Nichols, 2001)

In this way Dunkirk, even though it doesn’t have the same objective as a documentary, shares its characteristics of representing the historical world from a specific point of view (the British) with the genre, and has a specific voice, given to it by the filmmaker. It constitutes a representation of the historical event through Nolan’s point of view. In the same way as documentaries, Nolan compiled historical data around this historical event to create an immersive experience for his audience.

Nevertheless, the film differs from documentaries that often provide a much more explicit perspective or argument about the world. Although there is emotion and connections with the events, especially through the characters, this doesn’t come from the transformation of evidence into something more than dry facts, but through the way of narrating the story and other resources, such as character development, and the suspense and basic human feelings transmitted by said characters in the film. Moreover, “documentaries seek to persuade or convince us: by the strength of their argument or point of view and the appeal, or power, of their voice” (Nichols, 2001), which differs greatly from a fiction film created to tell a story, entertain and even immerse the audience in the experience of a historical event.

Another similarity that the film holds with the documentary genre is the use of real elements to produce the film, as mentioned above. Documentaries use “interviews, location sound recording, cutaways from a given scene to provide images that illustrate or complicate a point made within the scene, and a reliance on social actors, or people in their everyday roles and activities, as the central characters of the film.” In the same way, Dunkirk focuses on the people with the lowest ranks, common soldiers and civilians, instead of the generals, presidents, or Prime Ministers. It also uses location filming and sound recording, going as far as re-constructing sounds from the vessels that are not available in historical records (Lewis, 2017), and re-building parts of history from original blue prints, such as the Mole, which is a fundamental piece in the Dunkirk story (Nolan, 2017).

The documentary genre is further included in the logic of the movie and its representation of the historical world. In documentary “a typical form of organization is that of problem solving. This structure can resemble a story: the film begins by establishing a problem or issue, then conveys something of the background to the issue, and follows this with an examination of its current severity or complexity. This presentation then leads to a concluding recommendation or solution that the viewer is encouraged to endorse or adopt personally.” (Nichols, 2001)

In the case of Dunkirk, the end is very closely related to the quote above. The feeling of finally getting home of the soldiers, mixed with their fear of having let down the country, versus the contrast with the British people’s actual feelings towards the troops (thankfulness, joy and pride), portray the feel of this historical event quite clearly. Through these final scenes, Nolan gives the audience a way to interpret the event as a victory for Britain and the world.

Lastly, the film applies elements of documentary in the way in which the story is told. Nichols states that

“documentary film often displays a wider array of disparate shots and scenes than fiction, an array yoked together less by a narrative organized around a central character than by a rhetoric organized around a controlling logic or argument. Characters, or social actors, may come and go, offering information, giving testimony, providing evidence. Places and things may appear and disappear as they are brought forward in support of the film’s point of view or perspective.”

As some documentaries, Dunkirk uses small characters that seem to come and go to offer information to the audience and move the story forward, which is the main focus of the film.


Multiple elements and strategies are used in this film to convey a sense of historical reality, but most importantly, to achieve the viewers’ complete immersion and experiencing of the event itself, through film. It becomes the experiencing of a story rather than the mere telling of one. The production of this film forces its audience to contend with the content and story, through a combination of techniques that together allow the viewer to understand and join the characters in this historical phenomenon. All this is done in a way that traditional “war movies” have not done before, using relatable everyday, common soldiers and civilians as main characters, straying away from the ‘hero’ narrative, using documentary genre techniques, and allowing creative liberties for the further enhancement of the story. The use of fictional elements in the story brings the audience even closer to the experience of the historical reality and further enhances the viewers' understanding.



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