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The untold story of the largest scale military evacuation in history.

Shortly after Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939, it was apparent to soon-to-become British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Hitler would roll over all of Europe, and ultimately the British Isles. The British government dispatched the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) to the continent to assist in the defence of France. But by May of 1940, France, along with Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France had been invaded by the Nazis. The BEF were quickly becoming encircled by the enemy. Along with their French, Belgian, Dutch and Canadian Allies, the total number of stranded were 330,000 men. They retreated to the small coastal French town of Dunkirk, from where it was decided they would be evacuated across the English Channrl to nearby England on British warships and a flotilla of English merchant ships, fishing vessels, pleasure craft, yachts, even lifeboats.

This entire week-long massive movement of troops is shown in three separate windows of time, from three different perspectives--the pier--the sea--the air--all seamless woven together in one contigous screenplay -- an hour-long sortie of RAF Spitfires providing air support over the Channel for the military and civilian sailing vessels, challenging Goering's Luftwaffe which was bent on picking off the BEF from the air--the one full day round trip of one yacht that heeded the call for all available boats to assist in the rescue of the BEF -- and the entire week long evacuation of 338,226 men, overseen by Royal Navy Commander Bolton, a composite of several senior naval officers present at Dunkirk (Kenneth Branagh) and JamesD'Arcy as the senior Army authority, Colonel Winnant.

I won't have any say in the presentation of awards for this work -- one of the finest examples of cinema produced in recent memory. But if I did, it would be awarded Best Achievement in Sound -- for never have you heard gunfire such as this. Best Achievement in Lighting, for the manner with which capsizing warships were illuminated ( the best such lighting since that which we saw when the freighter slipped beneath the waves in The Life of Pi, and the best aerial combat scenes since Memphis Belle.

The entire cast is a masterchoice, but Best Performance by an actor in a Leading Role would have to go to Mark Rylance, who, as Mr. Dawson, the captain of a small pleasure craft, steers with his sons from the safety of home port to embattled Dunkirk on the northern-most shore France, site of the longest sandy beach in Europe -- to help bring the boys home. This character is the narrator in essence, laying out, in the simplest of heroic philosophical remarks, all the reasons that this must be done, suffering deep personal loss even as he proceeds.

The score by Hans Zimmer is not music in the traditional sense; but it is more of a relentless atonal drone of the vast noise of war, as Earth and sea groans under the weight of the bombing, the torpedoes, the blood shed and the sheer waste of life in human conflict. After a dismal summer of unoriginal sequels to old box office storylines, I do not hesitate to tell you that Dunkirk is the best motion picture of this year, with Lion coming in as a strong second.

-- Thomas Ormsby

(see also my review of Lion)