The Miracle of Dunkirk
“There were giants in the earth in those days” (Genesis 6:4, KJV)The word “hope” and “miracle” appear white against black in the opening credits of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. A moment’s context before we see how over 300,000 British and Allied troops, defeated and surrounded by a rampant enemy, were rescued from captivity or destruction.
It’s a film which tells the story through individuals without becoming individualistic and transmits the horror of war whilst remaining humane. By combining non-linear storylines, and switching between moments of claustrophobic immersion and panoramic landscapes, Nolan gives a sense of the dislocation and chaos that was experienced by those involved. Repeated narrow escapes and last-minute interventions maintain the theme of deliverance - but which of these will be short-lived and which will last is never signposted, leaving the viewer in constant apprehension. This sensation is heightened by Hans Zimmer’s insistent score, which echoes the howling of dive bombers, the groaning and clanking of assaulted machinery, and the ticking of a pitiless clock. Zimmer doesn’t so much suggested mood as command it, which may seem overwhelming at times but sets up a relieving resolution involving Edward Elgar’s "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations which confirms Dunkirk is an emotional tribute as much as anything else.
There are several remarkable absences in the film. Barely any Germans are seen. Despite the constant threat or presence of death there is hardly any blood. Character backstories are nearly non-existent: although Mark Rylance wears his on his brow throughout, the usual pauses in action in which stories from the past are told, or flashbacks, or cutaways to loved ones at home don’t feature. Something else isn’t featured, though it is briefly alluded to: the hand of God.
As the disastrous nature of the 1940 British Expeditionary Force campaign became apparent, with the vast majority of the nation's armed forces trapped between the enemy and the sea, and with Britain realising that it stood alone against Hitler on tottering legs, King George VI made a speech in which he called for a national day of prayer. Millions responded, as glimpsed in the photograph above, filling the nation’s churches and calling on God. Miracles followed.
The Reverend David E. Gardner, who served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, attributes three miracles to divine providence: Firstly, Hitler’s decision not to press ahead with the destruction of the British and Allied Forces by his superior ground forces, a decision which "remains a mystery" (Roy Jenkins, Churchill) . Secondly, the sudden mighty storm over Flanders which incapacitated the German air force as they harried their retreating opponents. Thirdly, the calm that settled over the Channel as hundreds of little ships and pleasure boats joined warships in ferrying the troops out of France and into safety.
The assessment of Lt General Sir Frederick Morgan, head of the British and American Planning Staff in World War Two, was as follows:
“Miracles still happen. How many of them have we not seen enacted before our eyes in these past few years? There was Dunkirk and its flat calm sea. Who planned that? We saw no way out barring a miracle. Then came the miracle.”If these events had not happened, “England would have been appallingly vulnerable to any German invasion force” (Jenkins) – due to both the scale of the military loss and the psychological impact of such a rout. No wonder the government was soon referring to the Miracle of Dunkirk.
God’s name has been taken in vain in many a conflict but that does not mean that He is never involved. Considering the Dunkirk evacuation from a Christian viewpoint immediately brings to mind startling Old Testament narratives when kings turn their armies around for no good reason, or winds blow in such a way to mark a route to freedom for God’s people. Seen in this way, Dunkirk offers an (unintended) insight into the nature of miracles. They can be messy and chaotic, often only becoming clear in hindsight. They create many more questions in the minds of some – why were these saved but those were not? They fall, like the rain, on both the righteous and the unrighteous - not every British soldier was a hero. They are not meant to exclude men and women but rather involve them, requiring acts of faith before (prayer), during (the little boats, the many moments of self-sacrifice), and after (a Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed the following week, and there were many weary years of war to follow).
Just as God’s favour has been co-opted by many sides in many conflicts, so His promises to the Old Testament nation of Israel have often misappropriated. Nevertheless, the heart of God is unchanging and the Miracle of Dunkirk can stir us to consider His words to Solomon with fresh faith for our own troubled days:
“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)