Dunkirk – A Defense of Tommy

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Dunkirk – A Defense of Tommy

By Philip Shin

“WE SURROUND YOU. SURRENDER. SURVIVE”. Just from the first scene out of Dunkirk, we see that this film is unconventional in that it focuses on the historical event revolving around the disaster of Great Britain’s war effort just months into World War II. There is no pomp and circumstance for the fleeing soldiers, and we see in the film Tommy, the last surviving member of his platoon, may be short on the heroism that we may be accustomed to seeing out of war films. According to Christopher Vogler, he describes the purpose of heroes as giving “the audience a window into the story.” Heroes become mediums for the audience to identify or recognize qualities within ourselves so that we too can be a part of the story. But with Tommy, one of the central characters in the movie, he becomes a character we ourselves don’t want to be acquainted with.

Throughout the film we see Tommy does not fit the ideal of a heroic soldier, a foil to the heroic pilot Farrier and the responsible Mr. Dawson and his son Peter, who responded to the call for civilians to help ferry the soldiers across the British Channel. In comparison Tommy, does not reflect any of the heroic traits the other men have. He is meek in stature, his entire story arc revolves around him using every opportunity to cut in line of the other soldiers also waiting to leave the Dunkirk coast, and ends up getting two men killed over the course of the film. In essence, this is not what we are used to or what we want to see out of our hero that takes up the most screen time in the film.

But it’s not until the end of the film where we see something interesting from Tommy. Churchills famous speech, “We will fight on the beaches” was recited by Tommy and the camera does a close up of Tommy’s face, showing conflict and contemplation. And to me, I think this was the turning point of the film, albeit it was the end. Churchill’s use of “We” stirred something inside of Tommy; through his eyes, his escape was one of greed, fear, and failure. Yet on a global scale, the “Miracle of Dunkirk” allowed the British forces to survive and fight for another five years. This victory was only accomplished through the collective heroics of all the central characters in the film. It was the call to arms by normal civilians that sailed to Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers, it was pilots of the Royal Air Force that fought off the German bombers plaguing British ships, it was the commandeering officer that organized the evacuation and ultimately stayed behind to help the French with their own evacuation, but ultimately, it was the survival of the soldiers that became heroic itself.

Survival was demonized throughout the film, yet it finds redemption at the end. Of course, the same goes for Tommy as well. The evacuation of Dunkirk was at the beginning of World War II and if the surviving soldiers had been captured at the beaches of Dunkirk, the war would have been lost. So, for Tommy, we see a boy that is characterized by defeat in war, running away to save himself, yet we also see in that brief moment at the end of the possibility that Tommy was going to continue the fight. As the blind old man at the docks said to the soldiers, surviving was enough. By surviving, Tommy becomes the success of an entire nation in what was a doomed operation. He becomes part of the collective heroism of the evacuation, his survival a product of the successful rescue mission. In the grand scope of things, his unseemly survival becomes palatable in the backdrop of war.

But does the shared heroics justify Tommy in the eyes of the audience? His character is controversial, and his character growth is stagnant throughout of the film, yet director Chris Nolan decides to start and end the film with Tommy. And it is the end where I mentioned that Tommy has a visible reaction to the words of Churchill and the jubilation from the crowd, welcoming back the soldiers as if they’d won the war.  He retreated from battle, fought to cut in line during the evacuation, and inadvertently got the injured man he put on the ship and also fellow evacuee, Gibson, killed. But it is only because of Tommy’s faults that the movie works so well, filming three intersecting stories to come to this conclusion. With all the surrounding heroics of the other two storylines and Churchill’s speech, the conflict in Tommy’s heart to take up arms once more after fighting so hard to get away from it, becomes the reward for the audience that there is redemption in sight for the unlikely hero.