DUNKIRK: The Gospel in Action
“When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them”
BY MICHAEL KANE
The tagline of the film Dunkirk articulates the Good News of Jesus Christ to near perfection. It first struck me at a stoplight driving past Warner Bros Studios Lot where they hang massive billboards of their latest fare. I had seen the movie and was blown away by the master craftsmanship of it (The Dark Knight is, and may forever be, my favorite movie despite plenty of valid marks against it, but this is a more well-made film by Nolan). But the depth of what this movie was struck me while I sat at that stoplight, staring at the poster bearing this tag line with the image of the nameless soldier looking beyond the frame, from the burning beach, expectant of something that he could not reach: Home.
Not only is Chris Nolan’s latest foray a vibrant, intelligent, mesmerizing contemplation of an extraordinary historical event, it is also perhaps the most perfect representation of the Christian Gospel I have ever seen in film.
It is common for war films to show sacrifice and loss and deep internal struggles akin to spiritual life which is “Christian” in many ways. How often do the epistles use language of warfare and combat? A lot. And justifiably so. But Dunkirk articulates the reality of the Christian warfare in several unique ways:
We cannot get Home on our own power.
“Home” by the Christian definition is full communion with God, “Heaven” in more loaded terms. The entirety of the Bible is the grand narrative of mankind expelled from that communal place, then struggling for many millennia to return to that place before, finally, “home” comes to them in the form of Jesus Christ who provides the bridge across the channel, back to Eden. Is that not the same narrative of this film?
Dunkirk articulates the reality of the Christian warfare in several unique ways
Despite all the soldiers efforts, English civilians must come to the soldiers aid for them to return home. This really is the anti-Hollywood movie. Routinely, Hollywood feeds us the notion of heroes and heroic deeds earning the freedom we all seek, overcoming obstacles by individual feats of strength, courage, and fortitude. In Dunkirk, every attempt falls short. Our “heroes” aren’t heroes in the end. They are survivors. They even roll into the train station in England expecting the be smeared cowards and losers.
From the very beginning, soldiers are scrounging for food, surrounded by German troops, waiting on a barren beach, firing meager rifles at incoming dive bombers. They make strides to get there on their own by attempting to sneak onto the hospital ship, seemingly benevolent as they carry a wounded soldier, but with selfish intent. Some try to wade the raging surf in a dilapidated trolley vessel, only to find themselves scuttling in the open ocean a few hours later. Some manage to make it on the destroyers or troop carrier vessels, but they are a paltry few compared the masse of humanity on the beach. It isn’t until the civilian vessels come en force that salvation is assured for the many.
The Army of the Everyman
It stands out to me that none of the soldiers have names. They are all faces, played by largely unknown actors. They are all the Everyman. Also, Hole is coming to save them all. Despite many individual attempts to save their own skin, or betray their comrades, or lie their way onto a hospital ship (which all have seemingly negative moral consequences) they are all sought by their saviors. The civilian saviors of Dunkirk did not discriminate based on rank or medals, but simply on the fact that England was home and home is where these men ought to be. Grace is offered in the same way. You don’t earn it or deserve it or “rank up” to it. It’s black and white. Yes or no. It’s is offered. You either receive it or deny it.
Continuing the parallels of spiritual warfare, there are also the angelic presence of the British Spitfire pilots. They battle the demons in the skies (the German fighters) above the trapped soldiers below. The sacrificial Christ figure of the pilot played by Tom Hardy stands out as well. Sure, plenty of other lesser films have a sacrificial hero, but more often than not those heros 1) have a narrative arc, a face, a name, etc. and 2) are typically defeated by the enemy to save their comrades. Neither are the case for this hero.
He is faceless apart from his eyes (funny how Tom Hardy has made a career off his eyes alone; see The Dark Knight Rises) and nameless apart from a callsign. It isn’t until AFTER he’s made his sacrifice that we see his face in full. Was it not till AFTER Christ had died on the cross that it was clear who He was?. And this pilot isn’t defeated by the demons. Yes he is captured, but importantly, he gives his all, literally shooting down the final Stuka bomber while gliding, his engine empty of his last remaining fuel. When he lands and surrenders, he does so on his own accord. Christ was never defeated by the Enemy. He threw himself into the breech but was not overwhelmed. Death did nothing to Christ that Christ did not first allow to be done.
Victory is Survival
The Gospel comes to fruition in the final moments when the soldiers arrive in the green field of home. Upon arrival, the soldiers are ashamed, expecting to be called cowards, hated by their countrymen. Justifiably so, in their eyes, as the Enemy drove them back into the sea. They feel the same thing the Prodigal Son did upon his return home covered in pig slop. But Home does not shame them as losers. They embrace them! The soldiers are celebrated at the train station! The words of Churchill’s speech read in the closing moments are words of “victory” despite the “colossal military disaster”. Is it not victory for the Christian when they return home to Christ, regardless of the condition of their return? In Christendom, the “victory is survival” (as another tagline for the movie exclaims), the war is over when you arrive home. Then, though our lives may continue, we live on as Victors (1 Corinth 15:57).
Dunkirk is the story of men fighting for home. None make it across the Channel, despite it being “so close you can almost see it” (is that not how our hearts feel about Heaven? Is that not also why we often think we can get there ourselves?). None of these pursuits work, just as no power of our own doing can get us there. It requires the reaching out of God himself, of Homecoming to us, that brings about a real homecoming.
Is it not victory for the Christian when they return home to Christ, regardless of the condition of their return?
It is a strange paradox that in reality we who are in Christ are already Victors, yet the Enemy persists in a pestering guerilla war against us, trying to deceive us into losing hope that the war is indeed won, then “picking us off like fish in a barrel” (as the British Army Commander describes the German tactics to halt tanks and use Stuka bombers on the beaches). But for the Christian, the Lord’s promise persists (“Take heart! I have overcome the world” John 16:33). In a sense, we are returning across the channel. We have not yet made it to the shores of England. The Stukas still scream down from the sky, the U-Boats still hunt beneath the surface of the sea. It does not feel like traditional combat, and that makes it seem so agonizing.
It is a strange paradox that in reality we who are in Christ are already Victors, yet the Enemy persists in a pestering guerrilla war against us,
Like the soldiers at Dunkirk, a full on assault would have been easier to bear. The waiting forced many to take matters into their own hands. But Dunkirk overtly describes what our fate when taken in our own hands. On our own, we succumb to the Enemy bombers or the raging sea. Meanwhile in His Hands, we return Home.
There are the doubters. There is the lone, faceless man, who strides into the ocean with not but his own willpower and capacity to swim to carry him across the channel. We never witness this man’s fate, but the implication is as strong as the surf.
There is the Cillian Murphy character, who has managed salvation by the saviors but has faced such trauma to do so that he dare not go back to save others. How many of us are likewise unwilling to turn back to the fight to lend a hand in our own spiritual lives?
There are those who, even as they arrive safely at home, shout criticisms at the Air Force pilot, “where the hell were you?” Despite the fact that this pilot was shot down doing the very thing this man is wishing had been done. These folks too shall be saved if they have accepted Him. As tough as it sometime is to swallow, the Gospel is not merit-based.
The Invisible Enemy
There is a critical reality that this is all about us and God. The Enemy, in a large sense, is powerless. The Enemy in the film is invisible, save a brief silhouette emerging over a hill in the final moments. The Stuka bombers dive in dropping bombs, but doing so with their shrieking whistles, and at such irregularity that their real purpose seems more to strike fear and destroy hope than any real physical damage. The only real combat that occurs in the film is between the fighter planes, which is a bit like spiritual warfare between God’s agents and those of the Enemy (anybody think of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters?). The gunfight in the opening scenes is lacking any image of the Enemy despite them firing on the soldiers running for their lives. In fact, the Enemy are never seen substantially at any point in the film. This parallels an often misinterpreted reality in Christendom which suggests Satan and his demons stands between us and God. That is not true, despite the Devil’s desire for it to be so. What stands between us and God is a natural barrier too grand for us to cross in our nature. Despite all the Enemy’s attacks, the biggest struggle is internal to the soldiers, in their own will to survive and hope for rescue.
Despite all the Enemy’s attacks, the biggest struggle is internal to the soldiers, in their own will to survive and hope for rescue.
A Week. A Day. An Hour.
A final comment on the the 3-Part narrative structure. This effectively portrays a potentially hard theological concept that can easily trap our expectations for God’s Grace and Salvation: that of temporal differences between God and Man. For the soldiers, salvation took a week, for the sailors it was a day, for the airmen it was an hour. All these efforts are intertwined in the film, perceived by the audience in a two-hour span. Is this not similar to the functions of God’s plans? Who is one man to know where his place is woven into the grand narrative of Salvation?
For the soldiers, salvation took a week, for the sailors it was a day, for the airmen it was an hour.
To a Man, the effort may seem a lifetime, but the same effort to an angel may merely be a moment of a day. The burden of linear, uniform, time-based reality is that we assume God and his agents operate in that same framework. Dunkirk beautifully illustrates how dependent our perspective is from His.
I applaud the filmmakers for making what, in many ways, is the most Christian movie of 2017, if not the most Christian movie I’ve ever seen. They did so without anything even remotely related to faith-based elements/characters/plot points. It is a war film, uniquely told, that captures a grand moment in human history, in which each soldier in their own struggle for Home, became a witness to the Gospel in action.