Theme: Miraculous Deliverance
Critics and audiences alike are praising Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, with some going so far as to call it the best war movie ever made. It is the true story of four hundred thousand soldiers trapped on the beach of Dunkirk France in June 1940. With the Channel before them and Nazi’s surrounding them, it was impossible for the soldiers to get home . . . until home came to them and worked a miraculous deliverance.
Dunkirk is divided between three arenas and three time periods:
1. The Mole . . . one week
2. The Sea . . . one day
3. The Air . . . one hour1
While this information is clearly enumerated in the early scenes, the film can be confusing, for the storyline is not sequential. Events of the hour (air) are interspersed with events of the day (sea), and both hour and day are inserted into events of the week (mole/land). Although this swirling of events may puzzle the audience, Nolan is using it in a profound way and capturing two concepts of time.
The ancient Greeks had two words for time. Chronos refers to chronological or sequential time; time which is always spinning around in hours, days, weeks, and years. Kairos on the other hand refers to the ripe time, the opportune time, and the time for action. Kairos is the fulcrum which Chronos revolves around. In Biblical terms, Kairos is the appointed time for God to act.
Chronos in Dunkirk is the events of an hour, a day, and a week in June 1940. It spirals around with an increasing intensity, captured by the Hans Zimmer musical score, and culminates in a Kairos moment, a time of miraculous deliverance.
The movie begins in Dunkirk and death. The streets are devoid of life with only a small group of weary soldiers wandering through the empty town looking for food and water. Nazi leaflets drop from the sky pronouncing a death sentence upon the men. The little papers look like fragments of a world shattered by war. Shots ring out in a piercing staccato and all the men save one fall dead.
Tommy (who exemplifies those being saved from death) manages to climb over the Allies’ barricade to find himself on the beach of Dunkirk. There with four hundred thousand other soldiers he is trapped by sea and enemy in the vise of death.
To capture the heart of the battle, Nolan focuses on three stories; one from each arena. Each story has a threesome who work tirelessly and sacrificially to save the soldiers. On the sea, Mr. Dawson and his son Peter set out from Dorset with their young deck hand George. Mr. Dawson is the compassionate father who leaves the safety of home and heads into battle. He does not turn back even when George is severely hurt, knowing already by the loss of his eldest son that sacrifice is part of deliverance.
In the air, three "angel "pilots set their Spitfires on course for Dunkirk. The leader is lost early, another shot down and eventually rescued, but it is Farrier who spends his all to save a ship and ends up giving himself into the hands of the enemy as a ransom for many.
On the Mole, the Colonel, Rear Admiral and Commander Bolton, plot and strategize on how to load the men on the few ships they have. It is Commander Bolton, however, who tirelessly looks toward home and it is he who remains behind at the end to continue the work.
Self-giving, sacrificial love is what wins the battle at Dunkirk. By the eighth day 338,226 souls have been saved.
There is nothing the soldiers themselves can do to get home. This is made painfully evident through various scenes of men desperately trying to launch little boats from the shore. If the chaos of the sea isn’t enough, the continued bombardment from the air and pot shots from the enemy on land make it clear there is no way for them to escape death.
Undoubtedly the most moving and tear-inducing scene in Dunkirk is when Commander Bolton sees the armada of small boats coming to the rescue; "Home" has come to and for them. The reason this scene is so heart moving deserves an explanation.
Dunkirk in the film is the realm of death from which there is no escape. Home represents the realm of life;it must cross the sea of chaos, enter into death itself to save those who are being lost. This is an Exodus story, a Biblical story, and a Salvation story.
It touches every heart because it is the human story. All humans are under the sentence of death, held captive by its power. They want to live; they want the life of "Home". The beautiful truth hidden in Dunkirkis the Gospel; at one point in time, a Kairos moment, God the Father came down to earth in God the Son, entered the realm of death and broke its power at the Cross. The triune God’s victory is implemented in Chronos time by little communities filled with His life-giving Spirit coming for those who are being held captive.
The concluding scenes of the movie show the soldiers arriving home. On the train Tommy read excerpts from Winston Churchill’s speech:
"We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender . . . until in God’s good time the New World with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."
Amen and so may it be. The Revolution which began at six o’clock on Good Friday 33AD continues until the New Creation, with all its power and might and glory, steps forth to the completed rescue and total liberation of the Old Creation.
1. Mole - a massive work formed of masonry and large stones or earth laid in the sea as a pier or breakwater. Merriam-Webster Dictionary