When the “Dunkirk” promotional whirlwind brought Christopher Nolan to New York in late July, he was visibly jetlagged after flying in from France the night before: He’d just presented “Dunkirk” in the film’s titular city. In Nolan’s rapid-fire depiction of the rescue operation for some 400,000 Allied forces stranded on in the seaside region in 1940, the men fighting for survival on the beach, in the water, and in claustrophobic fighter planes come across as heroic figures. They embody a spirit of survival that transcends the loss they’ve suffered at the hands of the enemy.
But that’s not how the French see it.
“The events are viewed very differently in France,” Nolan said in an interview. “For them, it was this appalling defeat — that the victory of the British fight within it, how that was able to continue the war, is kind of lost in French culture. It was the beginning of Nazi occupation. So it’s just a source of shame for them.”
Nolan feels differently. “It wasn’t for me to up against their national assessment of this thing, but what’s lost in that is that French and British troops held the perimeter so that the British could escape,” he said. “They held the perimeter for 10 days, which changed the course of history. It’s a shame they can’t find more pride in it.”
Like many Britons of his generation, Nolan grew up with stories about Dunkirk in his household, where the specter of the war loomed large. “My grandfather was in the Air Force,” he said. “He did not participate in Dunkirk; he was a navigator in Lancaster and he died in the war.”
Nolan visited his grandfather’s grave, outside the French city of Lyon, while he wa in pre-production for “Dunkirk.” That connection was one of a few ways that the movie — his 10th feature, and his first British production since his 1998 debut “Following” — was his most personal to date.
“I try to only make films that I feel very connected with on some emotional level,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve taken on a real-life event, and there’s a huge responsibility that comes with that. But I suppose in some ways feel more personal.”
Much of that had to do with the family connection. “Growing up, I’d hear about my grandfather, and my father and my uncle were so affected by the war,” he said. “Certainly with the aerial sections of the film, it was very important to me to get those right. My dad used to be very scathing about movies you’d see with depictions of the Air Force if they weren’t right.”
But the event itself has stuck with him since childhood. “Dunkirk is something that you grow up with as a British person,” he said. “The telling of the story that you get is simplistic and mythical in a way, almost like a fairy tale. The interesting thing to me about doing this project is that the more I found out about it, the more extraordinary it actually seemed. Reality is messy, nothing is as simple as fishermen jumping in rowboats and picking up troops, but the reality of what actually happened on that beach and across the channel is one of the great stories.”
“Dunkirk” opens nationwide today.