11th August 2017
There is something about living in this area that brings history home. Dunkerque is not just an historical event for some people it is a place where they live or visit. For me it is a couple of hours up the road and I have sailed out of its port on DFDS a few times in the summer — when the sun is out and the wind guaranteed to be minimal, for I do not do boats.
The arrival of the new Christopher Nolan film “Dunkirk” created quite a stir in France because so much of it had been shot on the beach at Dunkerque. The sea front had been partially covered up and the locals invited to take part as extras — standing for long hours of the day as queues of British soldiers waiting to get away to safety.
I went up to Calais to see the film (in French) pretty much as soon as it came out at the end of July and was impressed enough to go again the following week. Like all Nolan’s films, it’s complicated ( just wait until TeneT comes out ).
If you haven’t seen it, you should, and if you didn’t follow the three-threaded story, then you haven’t seen it often enough. The threads can be considered separately but it has to be understood that they are moving at different speeds and all converging on one moment. I suppose a parallel could be a story about a family reunion where people are arriving by car, train and flight where the journey times are radically different but the film time devoted to each actor is the same.
I’m not sure that I would consider Dunkirk to be a war film and there is very little bloodshed. Although it has a wartime setting there is no attempt to explain history or what is going on. The entire duration of the film simply poses the question : will the soldier get off the beach ?
The film is shot from very narrow perspectives. Apart from one barricade you don’t get to see the Divisions of French soldiers holding back the oncoming Germans — who remain unseen outside of the Luftwaffe. You don’t get to see the multi-national nature of those waiting on the beach. It doesn’t bother me at all. Nolan isn’t trying to tell us the story of the evacuation, he’s telling the story of a teenager caught up in the turmoil of war — who just happens to be in uniform and on the beach.
There is almost zero character development, you are left very little the wiser at the end as to who these people are, where they come from or if they have families. For me it didn’t matter at all. By telling us the story of one soldier, of whom all we know is that he introduces himself as Tommy, made him Private Everyman. The rest for me was more a suspense film than a war one. Just as our hero escapes one life threatening situation he finds himself thrown into the next.
The story of the flotilla of little boats is well known but it is often forgotten just how many were sunk alongside much bigger vessels.
One memory remains in my head of the film : French viewers on the edge of their seats as the Luftwaffe, in one form or another, came in for another run.
Having seen the film twice and found a bit of spare time and a sunny day to make the trip I set the GPS up and set off up the autoroute. I have visited before but only fleetingly on the way through to elsewhere. By chance Google’s street cams had been in the area when the film was being shot so some of the street views I had seen pointed in me in the right direction.
Like all clever film making you shoot one way and then turn the camera around and get a totally different view. Much of the street shots are taken in a very confined area and that is great because they are easily visited from the beach.
Having parked the car at the Musée Dunkerque 1940 I set off across the footbridge in search of the film locations, most of which (as is the famous beach) are actually in Malo les Bains if you want to be really picky. This was greatly aided by the fact that on the wall of the Kursaal was a display of photos from the tournage as it is called in French. The building itself features in the film, heavily disguised as a factory.
Not much further along you turn up a side road Rue Belle Rade and head to the junction with the Rue des fusillés.
Up the street is the easily identified house where the French soldiers had their barricade whilst a little further along at the junction you have the wall over which Tommy will jump to escape the German bullets. He then runs back down the bottom end of Rue Belle Rade onto the beach. You would think he had covered half the town and not just a few hundred metres, such is the glory of make-belief.
Coming back out onto the beach I noted that towards the môle itself were a number of wooden posts in lines. From a distance they could easily have been soldiers and having the scenes from the film in my mind from the week before helped make it all come alive. There are a number of panels around the area explaining the history.
I circled the end of the beach where the Operation Dynamo Memorial is situated. It doesn’t commemorate the evacuation as such, but rather those French and Allied airmen, sailors and soldiers who sacrificed themselves in order to make the evacuation possible. From here it is quite a dander out to the eastern môle itself.
A môle is a massive rock/stone structure created to act as a breakwater. You can tell by the circumflex that it is a French word, which explains why in French we now use the word jetée (in fact it is signed as the Jetée des Alliés or further up, simply the Jetée est. It sometimes has a wooden structure on top (a pier) but the essential difference being that water cannot flow under it. In this instance the structure was built about 1893 and was not intended for docking boats. In 1940 with the port having been bombed out of action the môle was adapted and this was how the majority of the troops were lifted off the beach.
It is a long walk out, much further than you realise because it extends almost a kilometre. You can only get so far along the pier but Nolan had the remainder rebuilt to serve the film’s purposes. Out the far end are layers of tetrapodes which look like something you would expect to use against tanks but are in fact from the fifties and often used in this sort of structure.
Coming back towards the beach you can see a German blockhaus built to guard the entrance to the port and further around was the FRAC which was housing a temporary exhibition of some of the items used in the film. Better yet, it was free. I’m always fascinated by how films are made. Knowing how it has been created doesn’t remove the magic for me. Quite the opposite it makes me appreciate the work that has gone into the realisation of the story.
Nolan is famous for trying to do things for real if he can and notably brought in two real Spitfires and a French destroyer for the film. When the story needed a boat to sink, well, he sank it and the structure used to create that was on display. For the long shots 3-D paintings of lorries were created as well as lines of soldiers.
What I found amazing was the fact that all the metal surfaces were wooden — just painted to look like metal. All the rusted metal front of the Kursaal was wood, as was the funnel of the boat. There were the facades of the hotel and café as Tommy comes out onto the beach. It is all so clever.
What else is clever ? Well this is cinema so locations are not always as close as you might think. Tom Hardy lands his Spitfire on the St Malo beach (or rather the owner, Texan billionaire Dan Friedkin, did) and then sets fire to it near to where the three soldiers had sat for a chat. That location was on the far side of the port and required a circuitous drive right the way around the town and then kilometres off to the west just to be able to reach the Digue de Braek. Behind it are the cranes from the industrial zone that are clearly visible in the screenshots.
It had been a good day and my next meeting with the film was a few days later. Having read lots of reviews that said, that, to fully appreciate the film you needed to see it on an IMAX screen, I set out for Paris and finally got to see the English version.
Posted : 11 August 2017