According to Sir Kenneth Branagh, roughly thirty Dunkirk survivors, who were in their mid 90s, attended the premiere in London, England. When asked about the movie, they felt that it accurately captured the event, but that the soundtrack was louder than the actual bombardment, a comment that greatly amused Writer and Director Christopher Nolan.
After first-hand accounts of the Dunkirk evacuation revealed to Writer and Director Christopher Nolan how young and inexperienced the soldiers were, he decided to cast young and unknown actors for the beach setting.
In the sequence where the Spitfire ditches into the English Channel, an IMAX camera was strapped into the cockpit to film Collins (Jack Lowden) trying to get out. However, during filming, the plane with the camera still inside sank quicker than predicted. It took so long to retrieve the plane, that the IMAX camera housing filled with water, potentially ruining both the very expensive camera and the film inside. Director Christopher Nolan used an old movie technique of keeping the film wet, and shipped it back to Los Angeles, getting it processed before it dried out. The take from that scene is in the movie.
Writer and Director Christopher Nolan, along with his wife Emma Thomas and a friend, made the crossing from England to Dunkirk on a boat, the way the civilians would have done during the original evacuation. Nolan said it took nineteen hours because of sea conditions.
Told from three points of view: on the beach with the infantry (including Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles), the evacuation by the Navy (featuring Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance, showing how civilians came to the rescue) and then in the air (with Tom Hardy engaging in plane combat). Speaking about the narrative structure in Premiere Magazine, Writer and Director Christopher Nolan stated: "For the soldiers who embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British Spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; even if the story is very simple. Do not repeat it to the studio: it will be my most experimental film."
The ticking sounds that serve as a crucial theme in the score were recorded by Composer Hans Zimmer from one of Writer and Director Christopher Nolan's own pocket watches. He then put the sounds into synthesizers and altered them in different ways for the soundtrack.
Writer and Director Christopher Nolan focused on the "realism" of every aspect. For many of the cockpit shots, he had a two-seat plane rigged so that the front canopy and cockpit looked like a real Spitfire, but with non-functioning flying controls, and with the actual pilot flying the plane from the rear cockpit so that the actor could play the pilot as the plane actually flew. He also mounted front- and rear-facing cameras on a reconditioned Spitfire. In addition, he had cameramen floating in the water with the actors.
In regards to the Battle of Dunkirk's importance, Christopher Nolan stated, "This is an essential moment in the history of World War II. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate, and the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate. The Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the U.S. would not have returned to war. It is a true point of rupture in war and in history of the world. A decisive moment. And the success of the evacuation allowed (Sir Winston Churchill) to impose the idea of a moral victory, which allowed him to galvanize his troops like civilians and to impose a spirit of resistance while the logic of this sequence should have been that of surrender. Militarily, it is a defeat. On the human plane, it is a colossal victory."
In this movie, many soldiers cursed the Royal Air Force for not protecting them from the Luftwaffe bombers. What is not mentioned at all is that the Royal Air Force was already out, attacking the bombers sent to bomb the soldiers on the beaches, and the bombers that did attack, were only the ones that got past the fighters. These dogfights occurred more inland from Dunkirk, which is why the soldiers on the beaches didn't see many fighters during the evacuation, and why they thought the Royal Air Force had abandoned them.
Despite the fact that the Germans are shooting at and bombing the allied forces throughout the movie, no German troops are actually visible until one of the last shots in the movie, and even then, they're out of focus and in shadow.
Continuing his advocacy for film over digital formats, Christopher Nolan chose to shoot the movie in a combination of 65/70mm IMAX film and Super Panavision 65mm film in order to achieve the maximum possible image quality. Following The Master (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015), this was the third major movie of the 2010s to be primarily shot and shown theatrically in 70mm.
"The Hollywood Reporter" stated that Christopher Nolan received a twenty million dollar salary against twenty percent of the box-office gross, the biggest deal for any director along with Peter Jackson, who received the same amount with King Kong (2005). However, "Vanity Fair" reported that Nolan agreed to receive a low up-front salary in exchange for a large back-end percentage.
For the sound design of the movie, Christopher Nolan used a Shepard tone, in which ascending notes are subtly cycled to give the impression of a never-ending rise in pitch. Also, he wanted to write the script by obeying this principle so that the audience could braid together three storylines, and they continually rise in anxiety and tensity. So, as one storyline is peaking, the other one is still to be built, and the third is entering the last phase.
The city of Dunkirk wanted parts of the movie to be filmed in the original setting. The city government created a cinema department to promote and organize filming in the city. They got two hundred seven days of filming in the first eighteen months from different projects.
Charles Lightoller, the most senior surviving officer of the R.M.S. Titanic, participated in the Dunkirk evacuation with his private motor yacht, "The Sundowner". The craft has been preserved by the Ramsgate Maritime Museum in England.
Sir Winston Churchill had only been British Prime Minister for sixteen days when the evacuation began. On May 26, 1940, after Lord Halifax suggested using the still-neutral Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to broker a negotiated end to the war, Churchill replied, "I would be grateful to get out of our present difficulties on such terms, provided we retained the essentials and the elements of our vital strength, even at the cost of some territory." He said that "if we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies, he would jump at it. But the only safe way was to convince Hitler that he couldn't beat us."
When Farrier (Tom Hardy) lands his Spitfire on the Dunkirk shore, the plane is actually being piloted by American billionaire Dan Friedkin, who loaned planes from his personal collection to this movie.
The planes that were bombing the beach were Junkers Ju-87 Sturzkampfflugzeug "Stuka" dive bombers, and the distinctive sound they made did not come from its engine nor its propeller, but from sirens mounted upon the leading edges of its faired main gear legs, the so-called Jericho Trompete ("Jericho trumpet") which terrorized ground troops and became a propaganda tool to trumpet German air power during World War II. Though the Stukas were the only aircraft equipped with such a siren system, it has became a characteristic sound of planes diving down and attacking.
If you look up the location on Google Maps (Street View), on Dunkirk beach you can see them building the initial alleyway through which Tommy runs to get to the beach. Barriers with "film" signs attached can be seen. Zooming in, you can see that much of the background detail is identical to this movie. Only road signs have been removed; the 1920s-style light with glass ball shade was there originally. 15 Digue de Mer 59240 Dunkerque France.
The scene in which Farrier's (Tom Hardy's) Spitfire lands on Dunkirk beach was real, done on-location with an actual Spitfire in flight, and was the first time a plane landed on that beach since 1940. After the scene was completed, however, the Spitfire became stuck in the sand. There was subsequently a frantic rush to get the valuable Spitfire out off the beach before the incoming tide could damage it.
Most of this movie focuses on survival, rather than heroism, but in the last minute or so, Composer Hans Zimmer quotes the main melody from "Nimrod", the 9th variation from Sir Edward Elgar's popular "Enigma Variations". "Nimrod" is an orchestral/band piece frequently associated with British patriotism. The same piece of music was featured alongside Sir Kenneth Branagh in the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony as he delivered lines from William Shakespeare's "The Tempest".
Sir Kenneth Branagh played Commander Bolton, Royal Navy, the Pier Master at Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan explained that Bolton's character was a composite of several officers who performed heroically during the evacuation, but mostly Commander James Campbell Clouston. Clouston was born in Montreal, Québec on August 31, 1900, and joined the Royal Navy in the midst of World War I. The Royal Canadian Navy was a fledgling service at the time, and it was not unusual for young Canadians who wanted to serve at sea to join the Royal Navy. Clouston did well as he advanced through the service, qualifying as a gunnery specialist, considered the cream of the Navy. In 1937, he became Captain of the destroyer H.M.S. Isis, which was undergoing refit when Dunkirk broke in late May 1940. He immediately volunteered to help, and was appointed pier master in the beleaguered port. From all accounts, he gave extraordinary service, working around the clock under the most demanding circumstances to evacuate as many soldiers as possible. He stayed until no more could be evacuated, but was killed in the English Channel on his way back to England when the vessel he was on was attacked by German aircraft. In July 1940, he was awarded a Mention in Despatches, the highest posthumous award for valor after the Victoria Cross.
This movie marked the sixth collaboration between Christopher Nolan and Composer Hans Zimmer. They previously worked together on The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012), Inception (2010), and Interstellar (2014). Zimmer received an Oscar nomination for Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014). Zimmer received another Oscar nomination for the score to this movie.
This movie had the widest release in the 70mm widescreen format in twenty-five years since Ron Howard's Far and Away (1992). The 70mm prints were screened at one hundred twenty-five 70mm theaters, surpassing the previous record of one hundred theaters by Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight (2015).
Mr. Dawson's boat is flying a blue ensign flag (because he was a member of a yacht club and/or was retired Royal Navy); most of the other boats are flying the red ensign, which designates a merchant ship.
The hospital ship seen prominently at the beginning was played by M/S Rogaland, a 1929-built Norwegian passenger ship that saw service in World War II and was sunk in 1944. She was later raised and rebuilt, and still functions regularly as a cruise ship based in Stavanger, Norway.
According to Writer and Director Christopher Nolan, the original ending was supposed to be the shot of the burning Spitfire on the beach. Nolan changed his mind after watching dailies of Fionn Whitehead (Tommy). In an interview with his brother Jonathan, he said, "At the end, (Fionn) did this thing where he just, I don't even know what he's doing, but you want to end with this quiet moment with him, where no one's paying attention to him and Alex is eating and drinking stuff the girls are handing through the window. It brings you back to this personal moment. He's trying to process the words he's just read from this very eloquent politician and trying to reconcile that with his experience. Hopefully, the audience is trying to do the same thing, through his eyes. So it comes back to a very small thing."
In several shots, dock cranes are clearly visible, as well as houses that don't look very old. This is actually historically accurate. There were dock cranes in Dunkirk at the time, and the houses on the beachfront did look more like "modernized" three- or four-story apartment blocks.
The parallels between the experiences of Mark Rylance's small boat and that of "Sundowner" (taken to Dunkirk by Commander C.H. Lightoller, DSC, RNR (Retired)) can be read on pages 201-3 of "Dunkirk" by A.D. Divine (published in 1945). Lightoller (previously second officer and most senior surviving crew member of R.M.S. Titanic) took as crew his son and a sea scout. He picked up survivors from a returning motor cruiser and took them back to Dunkirk, "giving them the additional pleasure of again facing the hell they had only just left". His youngest son Brian (lost flying his Blenheim in the first air raid on Wilhelmshaven) had previously given him advice on evasive tactics and he used them to evade a German fighter that made three unsuccessful attempts to sink the boat, then gave up and flew away. The stoker P.O. assisting disembarkation of one hundred thirty men did ask where he had put them. One surprise is that several equally dramatic incidents in this account were not used in this movie, so perhaps they were working from a different version of Lightoller's story.
American billionaire Dan Friedkin, an avid vintage military aviation collector, allowed the production to use two Mk1 Spitfires from his collection for this movie. The planes are valued at five million dollars each, and his collection is so large, that the only person who owns more Spitfires than him is the Queen.
The Halt Order was agreed by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A, and General Günther von Kluge, commander of the Fourth Army, at the request of the tank unit commander General Paul von Kleist, who had lost fifty percent of his armored forces and needed time to regroup. After the war, von Runstedt tried to blame the Halt Order on Adolf Hitler. Von Rundstedt's biographer conceded that this "does not represent the whole truth", because the original impetus for a pause came from Kleist and von Rundstedt.
Extensive handheld IMAX camera work was accomplished by Director of Photography Hoyte Van Hoytema, who often had to man a rig weighing as much as sixty pounds (twenty-seven kilograms) fully loaded. Because of its top-heaviness, Key Grip Ryan Monro would stabilize the unit by physically holding it during complex takes.
Two historic fishing boats were used as a background decor, the UK 12 and the UK 114. However, "UK" does not stand for "United Kingdom". It is a Dutch harbor-code for Urk, where much of the filming was done.
Urk, a small fishing town in The Netherlands, was used as a base of operations for filming on the IJsselmeer (the first two letters of the name are capitalized because they are treated as a single letter). Urk is pronounced exactly the same as the second part of the movie name: dunkURK. When the movie came out, everyone in the town wanted to see it, but Urk does not have its own cinema, so to make sure that some people in the town could see the movie in their neighborhood, a cinema-truck (a type of moving cinema with a few seats) was set up.
The warships used in this movie include: French T-47-class destroyer Maillé-Brézé (D627) portraying British V-class destroyers H.M.S. Vivacious (D36) and H.M.S. Vanquisher (D54). Dutch Dokkum-class minesweepers H.N.L.M.S. Naaldwijk (M/PW809) and H.N.L.M.S. Sittard (M830), with the Naaldwijk portraying British minesweeper H.M.S. Britomart (J22) and the Sittard as, simultaneously, British H-class destroyer H.M.S. Havant (H32) and British J-class destroyer H.M.S. Jaguar (F34). British Harbor Defence Motor Launch H.M.S. Medusa (ML1387). U.S. Navy Rhine River Patrol boat U.S.N. P22. Dutch Multipurpose ship M.L.V. Castor (A810) as British destroyer H.M.S. Basilisk (H11). British Motor Torpedo Boat MTB102 (which was present at the actual Dunkirk evacuation and became the smallest vessel to become a flagship in the Royal Navy when Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker transferred to her after his previous flagship, destroyer H.M.S. Keith (D06), was disabled).
The entire movie was made to encompass the snowball effect that had only been used in the third acts of Christopher Nolan's previous movies. According to him, by applying the snowball effect, he stripped this movie of conventional theatrics to make it more than the sum of its parts.
This movie was criticized for not showing Indian soldiers. Four companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, unarmed mule handlers, were present at Dunkirk during the evacuation. These numbered less than a thousand out of nearly half a million men. Three were evacuated, and one taken prisoner by the Germans. In September 1939, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had urged all Indian people not to support the British war effort.
Actual Battle of Dunkirk veterans Robert Halliday (spent six days on the beach, saved many lives), Arthur Taylor (survived Dunkirk and ended up storming Normandy beach on D-Day), and Vic Viner (spent six days on a Naval vessel, evacuating soldiers) were consulted during the writing and production of this movie.
In the beginning, it is explained that the German tanks have stopped because "why waste precious tanks when they can pick us off from the air." In reality, the tanks were in desperate need of maintenance and fuel, as well as to wait for the slower-moving German infantry and other reinforcements that were miles, sometimes dozens of miles, behind them.
Of the forty thousand plus British soldiers captured, who fought the rear guard, ten thousand plus were Scottish. However, there is only one notable inclusion in this adaptation of the 51st Highlanders.
To mimic the effect of a military uniform being visibly worn and used, costume designers put water on the wool outfits, immediately dried it with a blow torch, and then scrubbed with a brush. This was done over and over to achieve the desired effect.
Production was given twelve weeks to rebuild "The Mole" (the white walkway out into the ocean on which all of the soldiers stand, exposed), they built it on top of the actual monument on the Dunkirk battlefield, and built from the original blueprints for the original "Mole". It was also built up to code with the local Port Authority.
Of the many destroyers present in Operation Dynamo, the last remaining one is the Polish ORP "Blyskawica", a Grom-class destroyer. During Dynamo, the ship was under Royal Navy control, although her crew was Polish. Blyskawica served with distinction well into the post-war era and was decommissioned in 1976, after almost forty years in service. She also holds the distinction of being the oldest preserved destroyer in the world, and is now berthed in Gdynia, Poland.
Some of the aircraft seen in this movie are actually large (two-meter-long) radio-controlled scale models. The production manufactured and used forty accurate scale models of Junkers Ju-87 "StuKa" and Messerschmitt 109s, mainly for low-flying and strafing scenes.
The British government had already decided to continue the war when the British Expeditionary Force was felt lost. On May 26, 1940 the War Cabinet had discussed the still-neutral Benito Mussolini's offer to broker a negotiated end to the war. Two days later, Sir Winston Churchill convinced all of the members of the cabinet to continue fighting, no matter what the cost. However, the overall importance of returning at least two hundred thousand British fighting men cannot be downplayed, as this was at least seventy-five percent of the entire British Expeditionary Force in northern France.
During his acceptance speech for "Best Achievement in Sound Mixing" at the BAFTA Awards for his collective work on this movie, Gregg Landaker mentioned that this was his two hundred seventh and last movie, as he was officially retiring in 2018 (Royal Albert Hall London/February 18, 2018).
One of the most difficult shoots for Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, due to the constant use of IMAX cameras ranging from forty-six pounds (twenty-one kilograms) to two hundred fifty pounds (one hundred thirteen kilograms).
Toward the end of this movie, Composer Hans Zimmer wrote a drawn out, extended version of Edward Elgar's "Nimrod" of the "Enigma Variations." Elgar is an English composer who had composed the well know "Pomp and Circumstance" theme song that is used during graduation ceremonies. The Nimrod is meant to musically express a tremendous victory over an unspeakable tragedy, which is fitting for this movie, since Dunkirk was a disaster, and yet its strategic retreat would turn the tide of World War II. Elgar's piece was also chosen by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra shortly after the September 11 attacks.
When the soldiers are seen arriving at Woking railway station at the end of the movie, the station in question is actually Swanage railway station in Dorset. The station was extensively re-dressed for filming in July 2016, including all of its signage. Consistent with Christopher Nolan telling as much of the story as possible from the characters' point of view, however, the station is only ever glimpsed through the train windows, so nearly all of the re-dressing work done by the crew isn't actually seen in the final cut.
The British military was just under three million strong in 1940, and only three hundred thirty thousand were rescued from Dunkirk. Of that three hundred thirty thousand, about twenty percent were French troops. Britain needed to train and arm new recruits at the time of Dunkirk, but she was not without any troops. Even if Germany had captured the troops at Dunkirk, they were not ready to invade England. The British Navy still controlled the Channel.
This movie features the most footage shot on 65mm IMAX film stock to date, with one hour and nineteen minutes of the final cut being footage that was shot on the IMAX film stock. This beats out a previous Christopher Nolan movie, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which had one hour and twelve minutes of its final cut being footage that was shot on IMAX film stock.
The Guardian U.K. and Warner Brothers U.K. reports that this movie scored 1.33 million pounds sterling of its gross in the U.K.'s IMAX venues, and also did well in venues offering projection in 35mm and 70mm. Picturehouse, for example, achieved greater seat occupancy for its celluloid presentations. Internationally, on two hundred thirty-two IMAX screens, this movie grossed almost seven million pounds sterling, with a strong per-screen average of almost thirty thousand pounds sterling, and ranks as the third-highest-grossing IMAX opening weekend ever in July, both internationally and globally. The movie opened in forty-six international markets, and was on IMAX in forty-two of those markets, with a handful of 70mm engagements on its overall ten thousand seven hundred seventy-five screens.
The Royal Air Force had been bombing German cities for sixteen days when the evacuation began. The first raid was against Dortmund on May 10, 1940, while Mönchengladbach was bombed on the following night.
The third World War II movie based on true events starring Cillian Murphy. The previous ones were The Edge of Love (2008) where he played Captain William Killick, who sees action in Greece, and Anthropoid (2016) where he played Josef Gabcík, the man tasked to assassinate S.S. General Reinhard Heydrich in Prague.
Composer Hans Zimmer originally wrote the score for the movie as one one hour and forty-minute piece, which was never done before. It was later split in several different tracks, due to practical reasons, but the clock-ticking theme is the element that connects all of the tracks in one piece.
Tom Hardy is the only Spitfire pilot wearing a pair of goggles with a flip-down tinted lense. These are the same type of goggles worn by Bruce Spence, who played The Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Jedediah the Pilot in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Hardy played "Mad" Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
Early in the movie, a trio of Spitfires overflies the yacht that is the center of one of the three stories. The owner, Mr. Dawson, says something to the effect of, "The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The best sound you can hear out there." The Spitfires were powered by the Merlin. The German Bf 109s of that era would have had Daimler-Benz engines. However, the Messerschmitts used in this movie were not 1940-era aircraft, but were Hispanos, Bf 109s built in Spain for the Spanish Air Force under contract in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Rather than the sleek nose profile of the original Bf 109s, these planes have "chin", to accommodate their new engines, which were Rolls-Royce Merlins. The inside joke? Therefore, regardless of which fighters flew by, the actual actors, not the characters they played, would have heard the sound of Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.
This is the first Christopher Nolan movie since Insomnia (2002), and third movie overall, in addition to his debut Following (1998), that doesn't have any American characters who are played by non-American actors.
All of the Supermarine Spitfires seen on-screen have their left wings painted almost-completely black as part of a friend-or-foe recognition scheme employed early in the war, but which had mostly been dropped by the time of the Battle of Britain.
Third movie in Christopher Nolan's repertoire not to be in IMDb Top 250 films. The Following (1998), his directorial debut; Insomnia (2002), the only movie he didn't write; and this, his first movie about war.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In researching the Dunkirk story, "History vs. Hollywood" discovered that while the character Farrier is not directly based on an actual person, his experience most closely resembles that of Alan Christopher "Al" Deere, a New Zealand Spitfire pilot. Farrier's fictional experience is similar. After shooting down several German planes, he was forced to crash-land east of Dunkirk, likely on a Belgian beach. Unlike Deere, Farrier is captured in the closing shots. Deere famously got back to England after punching a Naval officer in the face when he refused to let him on board. During his combat career, Al was shot down nine times, surviving all incidents, and chronicled his experiences in his autobiography, "Nine Lives".
Dawson (Mark Rylance) is closely based on Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of R.M.S. Titanic, who took his yacht "Sundowner" to Dunkirk at the age of sixty-six. Like Lightoller, Dawson refuses to let the Navy crew his boat, "If anyone takes her, it will be me", and takes one of his sons with him. Like Lightoller, Dawson had lost a son in the Royal Air Force (Brian, shot down in a Wellington bomber on the second day of the war) who taught him how to evade air attack. Also like Lightoller, he packs the boat so full (four stood in the bathtub) that the disembarkation officer couldn't believe over fifty-five men were aboard it.
Near the end of the movie, a Spitfire without fuel is seen shooting down a Stuka dive-bomber. This is historically correct.. The Stukas were notoriously easy targets for fighter planes (especially when preparing to dive) and, in the following Battle of Britain, a significant number were shot down.