Dunkirk: The Endlessly Gliding Spitfire

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In an interview in Time magazine about his new film, Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan said there were very few “God shots” in the production. That may be true, but the one that will get pilots to sit up straight in their multiplex seats has a fuel-exhausted Spitfire gliding along the real Dunkirk beach, its prop lazily bumping against the Merlin’s six-to-one compression ratio.

It’s unclear to me if the shot is of a real Spit, a model or a CGI confection or some combination. Nolan used all three in a film that retells a story that American audiences know little of and one which depicts Britain’s original finest hour, before the next finest hour during the Battle of Britain. That American audiences are ignorant of Dunkirk is of no surprise, since in this country, some people think World War II started at Pearl Harbor, if they even know that much. (Readers of this blog are entirely excepted.) I doubt if Americans can really grasp how the events of Dunkirk are seared into the British psyche.

The flying sequences in Nolan’s Dunkirk are a critical part of the story because although the RAF was criticized for being little in evidence during the beach evacuation, it was very much on the scene. Outnumbered five or more to one, Fighter Command did heroic duty in chasing German bombers away from ships and the shrinking beachhead. It just couldn’t chase them all at least partially because Air Chief Marshal Dowding was conserving fighter strength for what he knew was coming.

I’m always curious to see how contemporary movie makers, with access to technology unheard of even a decade ago, will treat a revisitation of World War II air battles. The last mediocre example of this was Red Tails, a George Lucas-produced epic that appeared in 2012 with a heavy dose of the sort of CGI explosions that made the Star Wars series a hit.

Nolan eschewed this in favor of spare aerial combat scenes with real aircraft—he had three Spitfires and a single Bf 109 to work with. Actually, it was a Spanish-built Bf 109 Buchon-Hispano. If you know the profile of the Messerschmitt version, you’ll immediately spot the difference. The Buchon has a fatter nose and sort of a Jay Leno chin. It’s of little consequence to the quality of the scenes, however, but a mere curiosity for those of us with desperate and hollow lives.

The Spitfires make their first appearance slashing across the screen in what will be missed by casual viewers. They’re flying in the classic “Vic” formation that was the RAF’s tactical standard before the Luftwaffe schooled them up to speed. In his Life as a Battle of Britain Pilot, Jonathan Falconer explained that German pilots called the Vic “rows of idiots.” Thanks to combat experience in the Spanish civil war, the Luftwaffe adopted the Rotte two-ship and Schwarm four-ship. As the Battle of Britain progressed, the RAF soon learned similar more flexible formations.

One thing Dunkirk rightly focuses on is how range-limited the RAF fighters were, something Nolan conveyed by having the pilots constantly worrying their fuel state, scribbling remaining endurance on the panel with chalk. The early Mark Spitfires had 85 gallons of gasoline for an endurance of about 90 minutes. Drop tanks weren’t in regular use yet. The BF 109 was little better, but the Germans were operating closer to their bases in France. Barely three years later, a P-51 could have loitered over the beach all day, such was the pace of aeronautical progress.

Nolan favored a camera mounted over the shoulder of the pilot sighting down the fuselage and some of the gunnery shots are stunningly realistic. IMAX cameras were used with an Aerostar camera ship, supplemented by a Yak-52 for dogfighting scenes. Several crashes or ditchings in the water were similarly realistic and these were clearly large-scale models. The Heinkel 111, the Luftwaffe’s mainstay medium bomber, is also shown prominently and was similarly a model. The director favored long shots of these and that contributes to the realism.

Reviews of Dunkirk have been positive but mixed, with some questioning Nolan’s decision to construct the film as a series of discrete, but related, vignettes simply cut together. Character development is minimal and there’s little dialog. My wife, Val, said she found this confusing because the film has a shifting, overlapping timeline that requires the viewer to take the evolving action on faith as fitting into some kind of whole. It helps to know the underlying story of a successful evacuation of an entire army against impossible odds. Accepting that, the jump-cut scenes are merely glimpses into what it must have been like trying to escape that storied beach.

That’s what leads to the God shot of the Spitfire I mentioned. The pilot has run out of gas, can’t make it home and is gliding along the beach at 500 feet. Soldiers on the beach awaiting a boat ride home—a lot of them—are watching in silence. Some reviewers suggest that even in the glide, the Spit pilot chases and shoots down another enemy aircraft and the beach erupts in cheers. I’m not sure I saw that in the film, to be honest, as a consequence of the shifting timeline. With his devotion to historical fidelity, I can't imagine Nolan would have suggested it. Either way, in one of the final scenes, the pilot is frantically pumping the Spitfire’s gear down to land it on a beach wet with tidal pools. As the last rescue boat recedes over the horizon, the pilot lights off the airplane with a Very pistol shot, his German captors illuminated by the Spitfire’s pyre.

As period films treating World War II flying scenes go, Dunkirk compares favorably with what I consider the gold standard: Guy Hamilton’s 1969 Battle of Britain. Hamilton had half the Spanish air force in his film, plus many more flying Spitfires and Hurricanes. But he didn’t have IMAX cameras nor CGI to trim up the shots. For what it’s worth, famed director Ridley Scott has signed on to shoot a remake of the Battle of Britain. Wonder what he’s gonna do for airplanes. Hamilton's film, despite its flaws and dated look, will be difficult to best but easy to worsen. I eagerly await its appearance.


Comments (9)

Great article and perspective!

Posted by: Dean Brock | August 24, 2017 5:16 PM    Report this comment

I loved the movie and especially the incredibly beautiful, noisy, rattling Spitfire shots, all except the scene where he burns his plane. My suspended sense of disbelief vanished when you could see that the propellor was not attached to an engine but to a pole, so (alas) it was obviously a model. On the other hand, it's better than burning the real deal.

Posted by: DOUG KELLY | August 24, 2017 5:52 PM    Report this comment

The Spitfire scenes were overall excellent (yeah, a few technical glitches, but no worries - be happy there is even a film with Spitfires in it), with sweeping views from on high of the Channel and beach, and the director's approach to filming the dogfights demonstrated just how hard it was to shoot down another plane. The fuel state situation gave the film makers a way to convey to the audience what would normally be just in the pilot's mind (often poorly done in other films via all sorts of unrealistic, unnecessary and overly-excited jabbering on the radio and breaking the rules of radio silence). When the vic first appears, we only hear the fighter leader a few times, we never see that character, and I leaned over to my wife and joked that it must be a homage to the Battle of Britain film that a British fighter leader always sounds like Michael Caine (just like the radio voice of NASA in Gravity is Ed Harris). Well, if you stick out the end credits you will find that the voice is Sir Caine indeed! Apparently they used short lines lifted directly from that film. Also, many of the rescue boats seen prominently are actual veterans of the evacuation, you can see the TLC that went into these boats for the same reason it goes into warbirds. Many location shots are the actual Dunkirk beaches. The makers could have cheaped out and done none of those things and thus would have made an inferior product that would be rightly panned, that they didnt shows their appreciation for the event (which hopefully Ridley Scott will embrace). Soon we will be able to watch Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain back to back.

Posted by: Harold Moritz | August 25, 2017 7:43 AM    Report this comment

Paul: Nicely done review. Thanks also for the suggestions of other movies to watch (and not). I'm one American who has some knowledge of what that very successful "strategic withdrawl" meant to the eventual outcome of WW2. Perhaps Goering should be awarded a posthumous medal for his colossal hubris. Lessons from that awesomely successful evacuation, which enabled Britain to eventually recover, then prevail are still unlearned by many who have (recently) formed US military strategy in contemporary conflicts.

Posted by: John Townsley | August 25, 2017 8:46 AM    Report this comment

I was looking for another interview on the BoB and came across this. Guess I'd never seen it. It's hilarious, as only Monty Python can be.


Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 25, 2017 9:34 AM    Report this comment

As an American that spent much of his youth in Canada, I was quite familiar with Dunkirk. But, it was still nice to see how the director portrayed the frustration and desperation of those trapped on the beach. The Germans outfoxed themselves thinking they had the British trapped and could take their time closing the noose - a mistake they would live to regret. My favorite part about the fuel issue for the pilots was their frustration that they could either head home and let the German planes wreak havoc or stay and fight knowing they would probably end up on the beach themselves. The gliding scene did seem overly long, but probably for dramatic effect. Overall, a well done movie with good fidelity to the actual events.

Posted by: John McNamee | August 25, 2017 1:24 PM    Report this comment

Off to the movies tonight. Dunkirk!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 25, 2017 4:30 PM    Report this comment

Good movie. Kept reminding me of the Britisher's profound sense of patriotism. Loved it.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 26, 2017 11:44 AM    Report this comment

If it was out of gas, how did a pistol shot set it afire?

10 points for the right answer.....

Posted by: S. Lanchester | August 29, 2017 2:04 PM    Report this comment

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