I found Dunkirk deeply moving from the start, with the young soldiers trudging up the street towards the beach, then fleeing for cover as an unseen enemy picks them off, one by one; only one of them making it all the way over the French defences and onto the Dunkirk sand. Then the heartbreaking spectacle of lines and lines and lines of weary men, snaking towards the sea, hoping, longing, desperate for home, the soundtrack counting off the endless, tortuous seconds of waiting. The extreme vulnerability of those brave, stranded soldiers, such obvious targets for the screaming enemy aircraft, spitting bullets as they pour from the sky. Time and again I found myself moved at the moments of courage and sacrifice and terrible loss. Sometimes death came so close and so sudden I flinched in my seat, other times it seemed oddly distant and remote, as we watched the sinking and burning and strafing from a distance. In one instance an entire ship load of men, having clambered to safety, find themselves suddenly tipped into an oily burning sea after an enemy plane has bombed the boat then crashed into the waves. Too often the men boarded one boat only to have to jump off and find another. If they survived.
Then help arrives in the shape of so, so many small, civilian boats, manned by so, so many unknown heroes. The rescuers in this retelling are played by a host of unknown actors, some of them most likely not actors at all – which only adds to the power of the story. So many unnamed folks risking their lives, not only bringing transport, but also food, drink and blankets. And hope. So much hope. Not all will make it back alive, but many more than could have been expected. They hoped they might bring back 40,000, but in reality saved 300,000. The film closes out with the voice of one of the rescued young soldiers reading one of Churchill’s speeches, printed in a paper he has been recently handed. Meanwhile we see one of the spitfire pilots land on Dunkirk beach and set fire to his plane, not wishing the fuel-less craft to fall into enemy hands. Not a closing scene of victory, but one of reality. The evacuation has been far more successful then expected, but it is still a retreat from the oncoming enemy. The fight must go on.
History is littered with unknown heroes, people of courage and invention, doing what they can to make a difference. Matthew And Luke both have extensive lists of folks who played their part in changing the world, part of the lineage of Jesus. Some we know, some we don’t. Rob Bell, in his book, What Is the Bible, points out that it’s a reminder that no one is forgotten. Not by God. He sees the good things we do, the small and large acts of sacrifice and kindness. ‘Never get tired of doing good,’ Paul encourages us in one of his letters (2 Thessalonians 3 v 13). Jesus promises, ‘Your heavenly father sees the secret things you do,’ (Matthew 6 v 18) when encouraging us to keep doing the faithful things and serving God. In this media savvy age of cool and political correctness, the Bible urges us to keep caring. Because to God it really counts. ‘Get ready,’ activist Shane Claiborne wrote, ‘because God is preparing you for something very, very… small. Because it’s small things that change the world.’