Dunkirk – To live or to survive?

Updated: May 12

Article By Gilad Sommer


"Those men who, in war, seek to preserve their lives at any rate commonly die with shame and ignominy, while those who look upon death as common to all, and unavoidable, and are only solicitous to die with honour, oftener arrive at old age and, while they live, live happier.” (from Xenophon’s Anabasis)

As production values go up, both in TV and cinema, it almost seems that content is getting shallower. Many movies and TV programs are about nothing, technically excellent, but forgettable.

This is not the case with Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s 2017 historical film, which makes you think about the human condition. Its minimalist approach, almost perfect in its technique, gives every sound, every word, every gesture meaning, just as in darkness every small light makes a change.

The film retells the dramatic story of the WWII Dunkirk evacuation, where a large part of the British army, together with free French and Belgian soldiers got trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, north of France, after German armies surprisingly and swiftly conquered most of France.

The situation is dire. The British and French forces are trapped on a tightly perimetered piece of beach. There’s no way out but seawards. The helpless soldiers are trapped by circumstances, just waiting to be bombarded from the air at any moment.

In this type of situations, the instinct of survival comes into play. Without external order, men become like animals, fighting each other for survival. This is where the strong instinct for life, for self-preservation, takes control and pushes us towards extreme feats on one hand, but stifles our morality and conscience on the other. Fear takes control, like with an animal trapped in a corner.

Yet, this is not the only possible way of action. Side by side with these examples of brutal selfishness, the film shows us examples of altruism, self-sacrifice and leadership. It shows us that in this kind of situations, we don’t have to survive. We can choose to live. In reality, the movie is presented in such an abstract fashion, that it could symbolize every situation of peril, any fight for survival.

That is, for me, the essential dilemma of the film: In a situation of despair, of no way out – how do we choose to react? Will we do anything to avoid our demise and to survive, or will we choose a path of altruism and dignity that comes with the risk of losing our lives?

There’s something very telling in the fact that in Dunkirk we never see a glimpse of the enemy’s face. Even in the opening titles, the names of the fighting countries are not mentioned, just the enemy.

One way to interpret this is that the enemy is not outside, but within us. It is the part of ourselves that wants to survive at all costs in contrast to a more noble and heroic part of ourselves, that wishes to transcend the instinct of survival in order to live without fear.

It may seem strange that I contrast surviving with living. But survival at all costs is not the avoidance of death, it is the avoidance of life, it is running away from the opportunity to live fully. We may continue living on a biological level, but something inside of us dies. On the other hand we may put our lives to risk, and yet, we are allowing something higher to live within us.

These two forces pulling into opposite directions are personified throughout the entire film, ultimately portrayed by two groups of characters – a group of privates, among which is Tommy, who would do anything to escape the horrific battlefield, and the other group formed by separate storylines – a private citizen, a fighter pilot, and a pier master, who share their willingness to do everything to fulfill their duty, putting their own lives in danger.

Warning: Spoilers ahead! (if you haven’t seen the movie skip to the last paragraph)

One powerful scene in the movie brings this inner tension, this fight between survival at all costs and humanity, to the spotlight. In this scene, Tommy and his two mates join a group of British soldiers who hide in the hull of a boat, waiting to float with the tide. When they realize they need to drop weight and that they’re surrounded, they all focus on one of Tommy’s mates who is revealed to be a French soldier. They want to throw him off the boat.

At this point the dilemma is expressed most explicitly in the film: Does survival justify everything? Is the murder of a compatriot justified in the name of survival? Is survival at all costs ethical? “Survival is fear, and is greed. It is fate pushed through the bowels of man”, one of the soldiers says.

Tommy, who so far did anything he could to survive, suddenly realizes that perhaps there is a limit to what the instinct of survival allows, and that there is a very thin line between self-preservation and losing our humanity.

At this point he stops running. Just for a moment, in the darkness, he gathers the courage to stand in his place, protect his comrade, face instinct and defend what is right.

Another mate of his actually justifies this “sacrifice” by pointing out the foreignness of the other, by presenting him as part of a different group.

But this is nothing more than self-preservation in disguise, which may seem very familiar to those who can see beyond so-called displays of patriotism, which are no more than xenophobia.

In contrast, in one of the end scenes, Commander Bolton, played by Kenneth Branagh, the pier master during evacuation, is offered a chance to leave with the British ships, but he calmly refuses so he can stay and help the French. A fighter pilot, played by Tom Hardy, chooses to continue to fight, even though he is out of fuel, and knows he will not be able to return, only so he can save a few more soldiers. And while those on the beach struggle to get off the beach and get back to England, a private citizen, who volunteers to take his boat to Dunkirk to help with the evacuations, chooses to risk himself and his son to go towards danger instead of away from it. These examples manifest the Platonic idea that to lead others one must first lead oneself. Only those who can overcome their fear and survival instinct can be an example for mankind and a hope for the future.

Spoilers end here.

None of us know how would we react in a similar situation. This kind of situations brings the best and the worst out of people.

Nevertheless, today, in a time of global crisis, where traditional structures are falling apart, and every person tends to fend for him or herself, each one of us can ask ourselves who do we choose to be? Who will be our guide? The voice of self-preservation, or the call to Life?

This is a good opportunity to practice our morality, which can be practiced like any other value.

Image Credits: By Alan Wilson | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0

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