'Dunkirk' Rethinks the War Movie: Historian Joshua Levine Shares His Experiences Working With Director Christopher Nolan


Dunkirk is an awesome movie experience, one that ignores all the rules of historical drama to focus on the perspectives of the men who lived through the British and French evacuations from Dunkirk beach in 1940. Director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar) figures you can get your history elsewhere; he's more interested in what it felt like to survive an onslaught from a faceless enemy.

There's no setup, there's no backstory, there's just gunfire and bombs and imminent danger from the first scene to the last. Nolan also neglects to announce that he's shuffling time as he cuts between scenes, letting viewers put together the timeline as the movie ends after 114 relentless minutes.

Dunkirk was shot on 70MM film and Warner Bros. has made a special effort to provide the best viewing options possible. 31 theaters around the country are showing the movie in 70MM IMAX and that's almost certainly the way to go if you live near one of those theaters (full list here). If you can't make it to one of those screenings the film is also showing in regular IMAX and in non-IMAX 70MM prints in many more theaters. The advance screening I saw was none of the above and it was still spectacular. This is one of those rare films that almost requires a trip to the movie house. No matter how good your home theater may be, you won't be able to replicate the full experience if you wait for the Blu-ray.


British historian Joshua Levine wrote the oral history that inspired the film and worked with director Christopher Nolan as the historical advisor on Dunkirk. He's also written Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture, a fascinating new book that both details the production of the movie and fills in a lot of the historical context that Nolan so purposefully avoids in his film. If you really love the movie and don't already know a lot about World War II, it's worth reading the book before you see the film a second time. Levine writes in a straightforward, almost informal manner and the book opens with a revealing conversation between Levine and Nolan.

Joshua Levine spoke to Military.com about what makes the movie unique, what it was like working with Christopher Nolan and why the evacuation at Dunkirk is one of the most important events of World War II.

Joshua Levine at the Dunkirk Memorial in France

What makes Dunkirk different from other war movies?

Maybe the most interesting thing is that in some ways it's not really a war movie at all. It's more of a sort of psychological thriller, really. The movie rings true to the actual event in that once the soldiers were inside the perimeter they were trapped in a bubble. They're desperate to get out. They didn’t have contact with the enemy except on the perimeter.

But inside Dunkirk itself, they saw the airplanes, the shells. Once they were in the water, they saw the torpedoes and mines, but they didn’t have any contact at all with the enemy themselves. It was kind of a faceless, featureless enemy. That’s exactly what is represented in the film. You have these people inside the perimeter and you don’t see the Germans at all. For a war movie, this is incredibly unusual.

I think of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Grimm 101, which contain the worst thing of the world, along with every person's individual worst fear. The faceless enemy is your worst fear.

HARRY STYLES as Alex, ANEURIN BARNARD as Gibson and FIONN WHITEHEAD as Tommy in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "DUNKIRK," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The standard World War II movie setup is a bunch of old guys smoking pipes standing around the map, talking about what they're going do to men who are out in the field.

There's actually none of that. Another thing that sets the movie apart is that there's a sort of element of virtual reality to it. Everything is very much from the perspective of the people experiencing it.

The movie takes place in three different arenas: in the air, on land, at sea. In each of those arenas, the audience is there in the first person. I think it's very thrilling and quite unusual. I think the film would be best watched on IMAX.

You don’t get to see, as you say, the old men pointing at maps and saying we're gonna move here, we're gonna move there. You don’t see any of that and you don’t see it because the people within the perimeter wouldn’t have seen it themselves. You're not given that back story. You're experiencing it as though you're there.

A scene from the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "DUNKIRK," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

How did you get involved with the movie and what was your role was on the production?

Originally I got an email from the producer, Emma Thomas, asking if I would be interested in coming onboard. They found me because I compiled an oral history a few years ago called Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk. That book was taken mainly from the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London.

The Imperial War Museum is a magnificent place and it has an extraordinary oral archive of interviews done over the last 45 years with veterans of wars from the Boer War onward. It's a real treasure trove with good, long, thorough interviews.

I compiled this book and it was meant to be a narrative history, but through voices. Emma Thomas had given it to Chris Nolan and he'd read it. Sometimes you publish a book and never know if anyone reads them. They asked me to come on board and it was very flattering.

Chris Nolan came to my house with the script. I read it and we started talking about the event. We went on a trip together where we went to meet veterans. There are just over a dozen veterans that we know about. If you think of the huge numbers of people who came back from Dunkirk, there are probably quite a few still alive that we don’t know about.

We spoke to them, we visited them, and we interviewed them, got their impressions. And you know I'd been invited on set and I had a fascinating time on set and how the movie business works. I was treated very well. I got to stand behind Christopher Nolan as he was directing and I got to see the rushes.

The film doesn’t give a history lesson. When someone is present at a great event, they don’t see the whole picture. They're involved with it in a particular way and that’s exactly how it is with the movie’s characters. They're involved in the Dunkirk evacuation, but they only see their own little corner of it, their own little section of it.

I’ve written the book in an effort to paint the bigger picture but not necessarily the obvious bigger picture. I begin by talking about youth culture in Britain and Germany and the United States, then moving into the background of the soldiers in France before Blitzkreig. I examine Dunkirk spirit, which has become such an interesting trope in Britain in the years since Dunkirk, stripped of its meaning.

I was writing for a British audience, but I was very, very aware I was also writing for others as well. This book is on sale in the States and other places where people know considerably less about Dunkirk, like Japan and South America. I was trying to write on different levels. First, I wrote for people who know absolutely nothing about Dunkirk, but I was also writing for the people who think they know about it, trying to get them to think again about it in a new way.

TOM HARDY as Farrier in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "DUNKIRK," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

Another thing that’s really delightful about the book is your engagement with and enthusiasm for the mechanics of how they made the movie. There's a lot about Christopher Nolan in this book.

That’s deliberate on my part because he's a very, very interesting man. The whole concept, the whole conceit for a movie about Dunkirk was his and it's very brave. There are no Americans involved, so from the movie point of view it's a risk. But also Dunkirk is a defeat; it's not a victory. You can see why the moviemakers in the past focused on D-Day onwards because it's victory and victory is easier to celebrate.

In some ways, Dunkirk is a lot more interesting because it's a defeat, but it's exactly as Churchill spoke about it on the 4th of June. It really is a miracle of deliverance because so many factors came together to make this evacuation possible. And it's even more of a miracle in terms of what happened next. If it hadn't been for this evacuation, the British would almost certainly have had to come to terms with Hitler.

I’m Jewish. If the British had come to terms with Hitler, well, you know I wouldn’t be here today. You had basically, effectively, the whole of Europe would have been Nazified. All the freedoms, all the liberties, everything that we take for granted in this country would have been bled away.

Dunkirk absolutely held the torch for freedom before America was involved in the war. And if Britain had fallen, it's difficult to see how America could have begun a second front.

KENNETH BRANAGH as Commander Bolton in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "DUNKIRK," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

If Dunkirk had fallen, Charles Lindbergh would have been elected president in 1944. We would have made our peace with Germany and the United States would have been much different.

I made the point in the book that it's not just Britain that would have been different. It was the war that would have been different. Can you imagine the world we'd be living in today? I dread to think.

Dunkirk’s importance can't be overstated. It really is massively, massively important and it's unusual that an event that so many people have never heard of is that important.

There's a real sense of inevitability in how history is taught in American schools. We seem to have less of an idea of how close things were to being different.

One thing that really is important to stress as an historical writer, whether you're writing facts or historical fiction, something that’s really key and so obvious: at the time events are happening, nobody knows how things are going to turn out.

In 1940, nobody knew what the future held. We look at it now and to us it all seems predestined. It wasn’t that way then. Once people begin to realize that it could have gone another way, in fact it looked like it was going another way, and we’re bloody lucky that it didn’t go that way.

Suddenly, you get the sense of vicariousness, the sense of constantly teetering on an edge and we've really got to watch out. You know we've got to be very, very careful all the time for what's happening around us. 1940 is kind of a lesson. If things have gone differently, my God we'd be living in a different and far, far darker world today.

(Standing) CILLIAN MURPHY as Shivering Soldier in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "DUNKIRK," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

Are you a big movie fan?

I enjoy movies, but I'm not in any way an expert or a movie buff. I don’t understand how they really work, which is why, actually, being involved was so interesting for me. You know if I was a real movie person, I'd have gone along and I'd been looking at the camera saying, “Oh, this is whatever millimeters.” I don’t have a clue. I was utterly fascinated.

There’s so much detail about the making of the film intertwined with the historical background in your book.

That’s exactly what it's intended to be. It just seemed to me that I actually had a real chance here to speak to an audience I would never normally reach. You know I've written books that I'm really, really proud of. You know, for example, my last one is a social history of the Blitz in Britain. I'm really delighted with it.

I have an audience for my other books. Suddenly, I'm going to have a big audience for this and people who I normally wouldn’t reach. Harry Styles fans, music fans, movie fans, younger people. It would be almost a crime not to take this seriously and reach out to these people and actually try to engage with them about something that I'm passionate about.

It's an opportunity for me to reach people who I simply wouldn’t normally reach and who I think would benefit from getting a real understanding of the background of the movie they're watching.

This book is virtually all new research. I don’t write for an academic audience particularly; I write the book that I would want to read on a subject that I don’t necessarily know everything about. I'm writing for intelligent people who will get fairly difficult points, but I'm writing for them in a way that I want to be successful as possible.

Joshua Levine on the beach at Dunkirk

Making a movie is an incredibly, brutally difficult task. So many people who write about film for a living or cover it online love to offer opinions and seem to have no understanding that a group of people made this unbelievable effort. Your enthusiasm for the process is something we’re not going to read on most movie blogs.

Something that I found quite moving was arriving in Dunkirk and just walking the perimeter, walking onto the beach and there are thousands of people in battle dress. They are off-shore, there's a destroyer on set, there's a hospital ship tied up to the mole, there's smoke billowing in the distance. My God, it's moving. It's properly moving.

Of course the movie people are having an experience anything at all like what the soldiers went through there 77 years ago. But there’s the assistant director and the AD’s job is to organize everything. He has to know what time the tides are, he has to know how many extras there are, when to move them here, when to move them there. He has to know what the weather is going to be like, he has to know what the conditions are, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

In his own way, he is coming closer than anyone has ever come and as anyone ever will come to actually organizing the evacuation at Dunkirk. Of course, he is only scratching the surface of what it was to be an organizer of the real thing.

And yet, the way he was doing it was impressive and moving. The people who worked on the film made an effort to be true to the spirit of it and I found it moving. Christopher Nolan's genuine passion for the subject made it easy to write passionately about the film.

A scene from the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "DUNKIRK," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

The book is remarkably open about how things got done on the set.

It's often said that there's a lot of secrecy around Christopher Nolan and there is.He doesn’t like to reveal much. But I have to say that I've been treated incredibly well. I've been allowed to write pretty much what I wanted in the book. They barely took anything out at all.

I was grateful for that. They could have sat all over the book and said, “No, no, we don’t want this, we don’t want this, this doesn’t show us in a good light.” But they’ve let me say what I want to say, they let me make the points I want to make, they’ve let me comment on the filmmaking process in the way I want. I'll come away from this whole thing with only good memories and a very good impression of the film business.

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