Long before the film, Dunkirk, was even released my son said we should go see it, so a day was set, once the release date was advertised.
Then weeks went by as family obligations, his client obligations, kept the plans about the movie being delayed.
Then it was his annual father and his sons’ week camping in the mountains. I knew he and my grandsons would be back late on a Friday evening, so did not expect we would see the film for some time yet, as no doubt he would be rather worn out after the trip.
Well, bless him, my son phoned on his cell once they were far enough down from the mountains for the call to get through and set things for Saturday after a brunch together.
Dunkirk is called a film but it should rightly be called an epic.
In one of the closing scenes in the film THE QUEEN, we hear the Queen say: “Duty first, self second. That is the way I was brought up. That is all I have ever known.”
Following Jesus’ teaching for we Christians there is more than duty, there is choice: God first, my brothers-my sisters second, I am third.
Jesus tells us: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” [Jn.15:13].
We all love dramatic hero stories, starting with Christ Himself, where the one who makes the self-gift to other pays the ultimate price, as have done through the centuries the martyrs, such as St. Maxmilian Kolbe, and then, representing the whole spectrum of humanity, those on the front line: the military, the police, the firefighters who often within the daily laying down of their lives also pay the ultimate price for us.
This self-gift is not shown the way we might expect in this ‘war’ film.
While this is a film rooted in an event in a war, it is much more a film about human beings trapped in time and place, in unrelenting uncertainty, where some do lay down their lives to the death, yet most are simply trying to get out of the trap they are in, to survive.
Because my son not only treated me to the movie but to a nice brunch beforehand, followed by a stroll and a chat, when we got to the theater neither of us wanted the usual popcorn and drinks or candy.
It was only a few minutes into the film when I realized what a distraction from taking in any film munching away is.
Granted given the low calibre of 99% of films, munching is almost a necessity, when taking in an epic best not to be distracted.
There are two verses from John Dryden’s poem: Wounded But Not Slain, that kept coming to mind after taking in the film.
I use deliberately the expression ‘taking in’ because while we might view/watch most films, this Dunkirk epic must be taken in because it is a lesson our so angry, hate filled, violent, at enmity with one another human family needs to learn.
I’m wounded now, but I’m not slain
I’m bruised and faint they say
Just let me lie and bleed awhile;
I’ll not be long this way……………
………..I’ll bind these wounds; I’ll dry these tears;
I’ll close this bleeding vein;
I’ll not lie here and weep and die;
I’ll rise and fight again.
The exhausted thousands shown on the beach, are more than just background for the few characters who are fleshed out somewhat – not with long minutes of dialogue, for any of the characters zeroed in on to reveal the terror of the unfolding evacuation use words sparingly, as if each word were one of a few remaining cartridges for weapons no longer of much use.
The thousands are, in many ways than just from the bleeding holes in their bodies, ‘wounded but not slain’.
They, like those manning the small boats, are ordinary human beings.
Like most of us a mixture of strength and weakness, courage and fear, generosity and selfishness.
Which of those dominates has as much to do with our early life formation as the immediate situation which confronts us and, unless we are alone like deep in the bush confronted by a wolf, how we choose to act, with courage or cowardice, is often determined by the mood and choices, the behaviour of those around us.
True courage is not the absence of fear.
Fear is a type of life preserver.
True courage is acting selflessly, laying down our lives, frightened as we may be, for the other.
Cowardice is not so much a lack of character as it is being overwhelmed by the interior tsunami of fear.
We see all of that, have the chance to take in all of that and more when focused on the unfolding of Dunkirk.
In his poem SONG OF THE INEXHAUSTIBLE SUN, St. John Paul states: Can I ever repay my gratitude to the sea whose quiet waves come out to seek me as I am led astray, day after day?
Once you view the film the power of the Saint’s words will penetrate.
Since discussing the film after we had viewed it, and reflecting on what my son said flowing from the film, a few final points about how it is a teachable film for the current situation[s] the human family is confronting, for today in many ways we are surrounded by an unseen enemy, trapped between what was and cannot be returned to, and the far shore of where we yearn to be.
In a real sense, like the enemy beyond the dunes of Dunkirk, North Korea and its ever more dangerous nuclear-war threat, ISIS and assorted Islamic terrorists, or wildfires smoldering deep in the forest, hurricanes forming thousands of kilometers away, what threatens us often is experienced before being seen.
What we do see in the first instance is the violent hatred of Islamists when ordinary, innocent people, men, women, children are slaughtered in the streets; suddenly what was smouldering has become a conflagration consuming homes, businesses or destructive winds are raging, waters rising, devouring everything in their paths.
This is when, in far greater numbers than soldiers on a Dunkirk beach, or first responders in our communities, are surpassed in number by the ordinary, yet extra-ordinary, choice of courage and selflessness of human beings who choose to lay down their lives and rescue, shelter, tend to the needs of others.
“Action speaks louder than words” is a truism precisely because it is true.
North Korea and Islamists spew hate and no amount of chatter will overcome such diabolical hatred.
Love is stronger – not ‘love’ words, as important as they may be – love is stronger when it is active.
Most of our heroes are hidden love actors: moms and dads caring for their children, the men and women who keep the lights on, the water drinkable, the grocery stores stocked, the streets clean, keeping vigil with the alone throughout a hospice night and countless others who only become visible when the bombs go off or vans are driven into a crowd, or flames lick at the door or the waters rise, or the call goes out for little boats to venture forth towards a far away beach.
When stressed by wars and rumors of wars, by anything that is moving towards us as a threat, we have a choice to make: we can turn towards the dunes, behind which the enemy is advancing, unseen save for the dead and wounded around us, give into inaction, despair, or we can look towards the horizon, trusting our neighbours, our brothers and sisters are on their way to rescue us.
More, the critical choice for each of us to make, who are not among the wounded on whatever beach it is: will we be love in action, go forth even to laying down our lives or will we sit on our own version of Dover cliffs and just watch?