Dunkirk: The Endlessly Gliding Spitfire


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.