Uncommon heroes celebrated in Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK

There are angels all around us—some we recognize, some not.

(The late) Robert Toney

In the new film, DUNKIRK, directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight, Insomnia), for Warner Bros, is based on the British conflict of World War II and the heroic civilian rescuers who risked their lives to save the imperiled enlisted.

Their account of bravery in the face of insurmountable odds is the substance upon which epic storytelling relies.

The story is told from three points-of view: by air, land and sea, starring Kenneth Branagh (Valkyrie), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight), Tom Hardy (Inception), Fionn Whitehead—making his feature film debut and recording artist, Harry Styles, making his acting debut–among others.

Battle of Dunkirk (according to history.com)
On May 10, 1940, the Germans launched their attack against the West, storming into Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg with lightning speed. Faced with vastly superior airpower, a more unified command and highly mobile armored forces, the Allied defenders were a poor match for the German Wehrmacht.

By May 12, the Germans had entered France, out-flanking the northwest corners of the Maginot Line, alleged by French military commanders to be an impregnable defense of their border. On May 15, the Dutch surrendered—Belgium would surrender unconditionally two weeks later.

The Germans continued their advance in an arc westward from the Ardennes in Belgium, along France’s Somme River, and toward the English Channel, cutting off all communication and transport between the Allies’ northern and southern forces.

The Allied armies in the north, trapped by the sea near Dunkirk, were quickly being encircled on all sides. By May 19, Lord John Gort, the British commander, was already considering the withdrawal of the entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF) by sea.

Reluctant to retreat so soon, the Allies fought on and launched a desperate counterattack on May 21. But by May 24, Walther von Brauchitsch, the German army commander-in-chief, was poised to take Dunkirk, the last port available for the withdrawal of the BEF from Europe.

Scene from the DUNKIRK evacuation

Fortunately for the Allies, Nazi leaders halted the German advance. Hitler had been assured that his aircraft could destroy the Allied forces trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, so the forces besieging Dunkirk pulled back.

Nolan shared his views on DUNKIRK during a press conference in Barker Hangar at the Santa Monica Airport, a fitting setting, replete with vintage aircraft and ambient sounds from planes in flight.


The importance of this story–

Nolan: Like most British people Dunkirk is a story that I’ve grown up with. I don’t remember the first time I was told about the events at Dunkirk–as kids, we were told a very simplified, mythic, fairy-tale version of what happened.

However, about 20 years ago Emma (Thomas, Nolan’s producing producer) and I made the crossing with a friend of ours who owned a small boat. We went to Dunkirk; the crossing was extremely difficult, the channel was very rough; difficult and dangerous.

Imagine what that was like for people who crossed it during war times with bombs dropping on them?

I came away from that experience with respect and fascination for the people who had taken part in the evacuation of soldiers at Dunkirk–it’s just something I’ve never quite understood why a film hasn’t been made about this history. In this film, those are the kinds of gaps that you’re looking to fill.


Describe your process and approach to this film—

Nolan: I mean for me it’s always been about the story, it’s always been about finding a story that hooks me, that I feel I can have an emotional connection with that will sustain me through the years of making a film; I’m very simple minded, I only do one thing at a time, I’m not very good at planning what I’m going to do next so I dive in and I concentrate on one film for two or three years usually so it has to be a story that I feel is going to hook me emotionally for that period of time, keep me enthusiastic about it.


On casting–

Nolan: My job as a director is to see the potential in the people responsible for casting, whether you’re talking about somebody who has never done a film before or somebody or is very experienced, you have to see the potential. You try to see if they are up to the challenge or if not, they won’t get anything out of the experience. If we all have done our jobs correctly, I think the audience will be invested in what we’ve created and take it on its own terms.


The IMAX factor—

Nolan: I’ve been working with IMAX nearly 10 years and with each film I make, I’m leaning more in the direction of IMAX. This film, more than any other I’ve made, was the opportunity to immerse the audience into the story and create what I call a cinema experience. I want to really take ‘them there’ and IMAX is the best format to do that.

Of course, there were production challenges but, I think the finished product is well worth it.

We watched a number of suspense films and drew from them–we really wanted the film to be driven primarily through the mechanism of suspense which I think is one of the most cinematic, purest forms of cinema. So we drew from Hitchcock and other influences.

The battle at DUNKIRK

This film review is dedicated to an amazing selfless, public servant, (the late) Rear Admiral Robert Toney, whose impact was felt by air, land and sea.

Robert Lee Toney (b. 1934 – d. 2016), 82, Rear Admiral (“RADM”) U.S. Navy (retired), enjoyed a full and well-lived life including a distinguished naval career, a loving marriage of 43 years to Flora (Wallace) Toney, a lifelong dedication to his large family and numerous friends around the world, and a passion for travel, history, and his community.

RADM Toney will be remembered for his sense of purpose and service, his strong moral compass, his faith in God; his wife, his family, his friends and his country.

RADM Toney attended Youngstown University in Ohio from 1952-1954 and graduated from Chico State University in 1957 with a Bachelor degree in Social Science (Pre-Law). He was also a graduate, of the National and International Security Course, Harvard University; Cambridge, MA.

RADM Toney had a distinguished naval career of 34 years, which included assignments as: Commander, Logistics Group One and Maritime Defense Command, and Commander, Navy Base San Francisco. His service began in 1957, when he entered Officer’s Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island.

One of RADM Toney’s many significant achievements in life came during the late 1960s, when he was on a tour of duty in Washington, D.C., and spearheaded a program to place more minorities into the commissioned officers ranks. In 1977, he had the distinction of being selected to attend the international military college for North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries (NATO) in Rome, Italy.

RADM Toney was the commanding officer of two naval vessels during his career; the USS Kiska (AE-35); an ammunition ship and part of the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force from November 1975 to December 1976, and the USS Roanoke (AOR-7); a Wichita-class replenishment oiler for the Western Pacific from August 1983 to July of 1984.

During his stint as a Rear Admiral he was the Commander, Navy Base San Francisco, where he managed more than 60,000 people from Monterey to the Northern California border, with a payroll at the time of $2.6 billion.

RADM Toney’s last command was as Director for Logistics and Security Assistance, U.S. Pacific Command, Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii. He advised the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command on all matters dealing with the defense of the United States through bilateral logistics agreements, cooperatives funds, logistics planning, transportation, civil engineering and security assistance.

He was responsible for all U.S. military facilities resources in the 100-million-square-mile Pacific Area from the West Coast of the United States to the East Coast of Africa. He was decorated for his service, including the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Meritorious Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Vietnam Service Medal.

(The late) Robert Toney

RADM Toney retired from the navy in 1991; following retirement, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. His business and community affiliations included: Past Interim President, Bay Area Urban League; Director, Bank of the West; Director, Levine-Fricke-Recon Advisory Board; Director, Junior Achievement of the San Francisco Bay Area; and Member, President’s Advisory Board, Chico State University.

RADM Toney held strong beliefs regarding giving back to his community and did so in various ways including: serving as director on several boards, including United Way, World Affairs Council, Commonwealth Club, Volunteers of America and the Oakland Boys and Girls Club.

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