The History Behind Dunkirk: A Reading List
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Christopher Nolan’s newly released Dunkirk has gripped and captivated audiences around the world. Interweaving several perspectives of the evacuation, Nolan crafts a horrendously personal experience embedded within a large scale historical event. Whether in the compact cockpits of Spitfires, the crowded decks of ships against the empty horizon, or the endless troops in lines on the beach, Nolan mercilessly jolts his audience from sequences of unbearable claustrophobia to those of hauntingly sparse isolation. Described as a survival film, rather than a war movie, Nolan hones in on the horror experienced by the individual participants, and highlights the triumph of the human spirit under such dire circumstances, making Dunkirk utterly enthralling, from beginning to end.
In 1940, the evacuation of Dunkirk became an important cultural image almost immediately, and it has remained an iconic symbol for the British spirit ever since. It has appeared in many films, from the war propaganda films made directly following the events, to the iconic five-minute tracking shot of the beach in 2007’s Atonement, and even becoming self-referential in the recent biopic Their Finest which portrayed the people behind the creation of the original Dunkirk propaganda.
Even among such important depictions however, Nolan’s film stands out. There’s something intensely immediate about his portrayal, which draws you right into this historical moment.
With such an immediate and personal experience watching the film, it can often leave the audience feeling as though they were really there. This leaves us with the question, was what we saw a fair representation of what actually happened? There have been plenty of discussions about this already, weighing out the various pros and cons of Nolan’s historical accuracy. The lack of diversity has been called into question, as has the overly-emphasised importance of the small boats, however there have also been many commendations, praising its use of real historical artefacts and the way it eschews CGI, as well as its depictions of the bedraggled and despairing soldiers. Perhaps most moving is the reaction of Ken Sturdy, a survivor of Dunkirk, who said “It was just like I was there again.”
With our interest piqued to find out more about the history behind the movie, it’s a great time to dive into some books and uncover the story for ourselves. Here are our picks for the best books to learn about Dunkirk and the history surrounding that iconic evacuation.