top of page

Dunkirk - What You May Have Missed

Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film, which stars an unknown actor as one of the leading roles, completely divided opinion. Fans of war films thought there wasn’t enough fighting, and lovers of period drama thought the violence was too dominating. Despite this feedback, critics saw through the genre-specific critiques and recognised a well-directed film about a desperate escape across the channel and an enemy which although unseen, was continually advancing.

Finally on DVD and available for home watching, what is it that made Dunkirk so special and what do we need to bear in mind during our second watch?

The story is split into land, air, and sea, and the first character that we meet is Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead, an actor of relative obscurity. While Interstellar was centred around Matthew McConaughey’s acting and Inception around Leonardo Di Caprio, Christopher Nolan wanted his young actor arriving on the beach to be as inexperienced as the soldiers trapped on the beach. In a quote about Whitehead, the director said:

“One of the key things you came across reading first-hand accounts of Dunkirk was how young and inexperienced these soldiers were. It felt very important to me, especially for Fionn’s part, to find somebody very new.”

The Director Himself

Also, on their debut to the Hollywood scene is Harry Styles. Now at this point, after watching Game of Thrones’ episode Dragonstone, where Ed Sheeran plays the role of a Lannister bannerman, you’d be right to feel apprehensive about shoe-horning a musical star into any anticipated film. I was incredibly relieved to see Styles commit to a controversial role, one that comes across as selfish and self-deprecating. Not at all heroic. About the One Direction star’s casting, Nolan recognises the unglamorous role:

“He's not an exotic villain, there's nothing obvious that he gets to do — you're playing human frailty.”

Whitehead and Styles

The director shot the entire film on large format film (70mm) and on two types of cameras: the IMAX MSM 908 and the Panavision 65 HR. While this is isn't particularly significant, it's the range of shots used that are more interesting. There is a scene where the group of British soldiers on the mole duck in a sort of Mexican wave to avoid the strafing fire coming from German dive-bombers and to view this we see the scene from an overhead, removed position. This viewpoint is chosen perhaps to gain the visual effect of the helmets ducking down a row at a time as well as the stark realisation that these packed-together soldiers were a huge, unprotected target. The shooting of this scene is compared to that on the boat which Tommy and Alex find themselves on board. We are shown the safety of the rescue ship from eye height to demonstrate how trapping this felt when the ship is sunk. Tommy’s eyes see that the door is locked and we see what he sees. Equally when his eyes find no alternative escape, we as viewers, thanks to Nolan's given viewpoint, also have this sudden epiphany.


Despite the use of over 6,500 extras to translate the scale of the evacuation onto film, Christopher Nolan decided not to use CGI, instead opting to enhance the scale with cardboard cut outs which stood next to the extras in large open shots.

When talking about the different methods which are used in a film like Dunkirk, it would be absurd to not mention Hans Zimmer: surely the king of movie soundtracks. To continue the suspense from one scene to another viewers will notice the seemingly unending ticking which accompanies each scene. This ticking noise is the director’s pocket watch which has been run through a synthesiser to make the audio subtler or dynamically stronger. It is down to this minute detail that Nolan is involved with his films. He makes them conceptually a part of himself.


Upon first watch you might have missed these few tricks that Nolan pulled out from under his director’s sleeve but next time you watch, be sure to look out for the extras, blowing in the wind.

bottom of page