Revisiting Dunkirk: A Call to Action

Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017, United Kingdom)

Reviewed by Sanaa Hyder, MSc. Health Psychology

Dunkirk opens with these words: “The enemy has driven the British and French armies to the sea. Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate. Hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.” This succinctly captures the sentiment of a beautifully-rendered war film portraying the historical evacuation of Dunkirk in World War 2. Combining a clever mix of fiction and historical facts, the film follows three parallel plots with a central theme of human beings desperately trying to cope with their inevitable ill fate, an immediate consequence of war.

From the film’s powerful first scene, the very real crisis of survival becomes apparent as we see a soldier, Tommy, trying to reach a safe haven. Soon, he pairs with another man, Gibson, and the two help a wounded man get to a makeshift hospital in a ship. Their motivations are challenged as they are forced to care more about their own survival than saving the wounded man. The hospital ship holds the promise of escape in a time when ships are scarce. Like thousands of other soldiers around them, Tommy and Gibson have unequivocally accepted the fact that not everyone is going to survive; they are constantly under attack, crossing shaky grounds and bridges towards the ambushed hospital ship. The soundtrack, by the brilliant Hans Zimmer, renders the peril palpable as their anxiety grows. During a sequence of parallel scenes showing escape and drowning, the music quickens, poignantly conveying the sense of fleeing and defeat. Not surprisingly, Dunkirk won Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing at the Oscars.

Attacking hospital ships as a war strategy can arguably be considered a war crime. Soldiers are shown jumping out of the sinking hospital ship as their instinct to survive is more overwhelming than the immoral act of leaving the wounded behind. In several parts of the world today, medical aid is restricted if not completely cut off to civilians and fighters alike. Reports from charitable organizations like Doctors Without Borders continue to confirm these unfortunate truths. Yet, like decades ago, we still retreat to merely watching in horror, in a paralyzed state of desensitized silence.

Empathy and compassion come across as strong themes in the film; two qualities that are vital for healthcare professionals. In the second storyline, a civilian sailor, Dawson, his son Peter, and his son’s friend George are sailing towards the war zone to bring soldiers back from the warfront. On their journey, they intercept a survivor from a floating shipwreck. The rescued man displays several signs of post-traumatic stress, and demands that the three men return back to safety. “There’s no turning back from this, son,” Dawson tells him. In a fit of anger, the shell-shocked soldier tries to take control of the ship and while doing so hurts George. When the soldier calms down later, he asks Peter about George’s condition. It is a strikingly bittersweet exchange, the kind that frequently occurs in various healthcare premises where empathy and compassion are the unspoken language of communication.

The presence of innumerable casualties and its cinematographic effect reminded me of Titanic (James Cameron, 1997), but in Dunkirk the tragedy of human loss is overwhelmingly high; several thousands are dying in a fleet of ships resulting in a much more powerful impact on the viewer.

Dunkirk uses minimal dialogue but plays heavily with metaphors. In the third storyline, two fighter pilots, Colin and Farrier, are facing attacks as part of the air force. When Collins reaches safety at the end, he is accusingly asked by another soldier, “Where were you?” Farrier showed immense bravery early on having saved his countrymen during the majority of the film, but is ultimately seen defenseless and alone facing detainment. This sequence acts like a metaphor for those unsung heroes of medicine who save lives without asking for credit.

Decades have gone by since the events depicted in Dunkirk, and since WWII, yet there is still very little medical aid for those in war-torn zones. Doctors and allied health professionals, equipped with varying levels of physical and mental health expertise, are an important but finite resource in crisis settings. Dunkirk reminds us of championing those selfless individuals who become the saviors of the helpless and war-worn.

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