Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk opened to rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, earning special accolades for its dramatic yet accurate representation of the evacuation at Dunkirk. But just how historically accurate was Dunkirk? It’s been many years since the 1940 operation that saw 338,226 people evacuated across the English Channel in just nine days. The story of Dunkirk is extraordinarily well-documented, and Nolan seemed determined to tell that story as accurately as possible. That makes Dunkirk the film an honest portrayal of Dunkirk the event, and one of the most precise World War II movies ever.
That’s not to say that Nolan’s Dunkirk was historically flawless. When creating a movie, certain artistic licenses need to be taken in order to make the story work on screen, and Dunkirk is no different. Despite Nolan’s insistence on historical accuracy, there are plenty of minor tweaks, exaggerations, and thematic choices that might leave a history professor tutting with disapproval.
First and foremost, none of the personal stories seen in Dunkirk are real because all of the characters in the film are fictional. Although the characters are meant to be accurate portrayals of the Dunkirk experience, none of them are based on any one person specifically. Because of this, none of the soldiers, officers, pilots, or civilians seen in Dunkirk would be found in any history book. Christopher Nolan chose to do this because he wanted to tell the entire story of Dunkirk, as opposed to one individual’s journey.
The only character in Dunkirk who has direct historical influences is Commander Bolton, portrayed by Kenneth Branagh. Bolton is a composite character based on people like Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, who was in charge of the overall evacuation, and James Campbell Clouston, an officer who oversaw the actual loading of evacuees into ships. Some others have argued that Bolton more closely resembles the story of Captain William Tennant. Either way, Bolton was clearly meant as a representation of the heroism shown by the officer class during Dunkirk.
The imagery present in Dunkirk is accurate, with Christopher Nolan and his team going to great efforts to make everything look just right. However, some deliberate creative choices were made to help the audience follow the action. While the German Luftwaffe would eventually adopt a yellow color scheme for their fighters, they had yet to do so when the Dunkirk evacuation occurred. Nolan decided to speed up the recoloring so that Dunkirk audiences would have an easier time following the dogfighting action.
The team behind Dunkirk used as much authentic material as possible when creating the film, but real leftovers from WWII are not the easiest thing to come by. Although the British Navy was loaded with destroyers at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation, there aren’t that many floating around anymore. Christopher Nolan and his crew were forced to use a French destroyer instead, although they dressed it up to appear British. Only the most dedicated of naval historians would have been able to spot the difference, but there are probably a lot of naval historians who went to this movie, so somebody was probably offended.