Dunkirk Explained Simply (Plot Analysis And Ending)

Historical films are challenging to make. It will quickly become a documentary if it is just an objective representation. If adapted too much, it may be criticized for not respecting history. But Nolan has always been open-minded and has withstood the test again. Hitler, Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and even the German army don’t show their faces in the film. There are not many dialogues, and there is no grand battle scene. It doesn’t look like a war movie. Several strangers cross paths, and their lives overlap; some survive, and some don’t. The film focuses on the cruelty and impermanence of war, especially despair. Home, at the end of the sea, you can practically see it, but the soldiers are only left with endless waves, sand, corpses, and death looming over their heads. Here’s the plot and ending of Dunkirk explained; spoilers ahead.

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Oh, and if this article doesn’t answer all of your questions, drop me a comment or an FB chat message, and I’ll get you the answerYou can find other film explanations using the search option on top of the site.


Here are links to the key aspects of the movie:

Dunkirk: What was the evacuation all about?

In the early days of World War II, the German army had an overwhelming advantage on the European battlefield. Relying on its powerful armament, the German army conquered all the way on the European battlefield. Due to the passive resistance policy of the British and French forces in the early stage, the surrounding small countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, were successively occupied by the German army. Then the German’s bypassed the Maginot Line of the alliance and raided from around. The alliance was forced to Dunkirk, just a sea away from England.

If the allied forces wanted to preserve their strength and achieve a military retreat when surrounded by German troops, they had to rescue themselves from the only and closest beach. Churchill’s secret military order was only to retrieve 30,000 soldiers. The official warships dispatched to support them also faced the interference of German fighter planes over the strait. The movie is set in three slices of times at Dunkirk.

The film does not describe the cause and effect of the historical military event “Dunkirk Evacuation” at all. Instead, Nolan brings the audience directly into the beach, the strait, the sea, and the sky right in the middle of the chaos.

The war was brutal. Dunkirk evacuation was successfully made by the combined operations of the navy, army, air force, and common people; 300,000 soldiers were rescued. Today, countries are still protected by the military. You can express your appreciation to the soldiers who guard us with custom military challenge coins such as Navy challenge Coins, Army challenge coins, Airforce challenge coins, etc. See more on gs-jj.com.

The Reason For Dunkirk’s 3 Puzzling Timelines Explained

Dunkirk: Timeline Diagram
(click to enlarge)

The reason the three segments were shot over varying lengths of time and interspliced was to show us how the soldiers at war never have the whole story. They do what they have to do. The film’s non-linear Nolan Time narrative ensures that the audiences feel the same lack of knowledge soldiers feel.

Dunkirk movie’s biggest asset is the cross-editing, a montage of sorts, which intersperses and displays simultaneously events from different locations (and times) and, finally, combines them into a complete storyline. This is the film’s soul, giving the power to change the length of time for each segment. Three time-shifted storylines in Dunkirk come together – a week on landa day at sea, and an hour in the air. Among them, a week on land is compressed, focusing only on critical moments. A day at sea is relatively complete, and an hour of intense air combat is shown in more detail. While watching the movie, we believe that each of the movie segments happens one after the other, but that isn’t the case.

For example, in the sea timeline, the mentally disturbed officer is shell shock but is normal in the subsequent scene of the land timeline. This is actually a flashback. We first see him lose his mind and then see him at a time before that.

Now, let’s go through each of the segments in the film.

Dunkirk Plot Explained: Land . Sea . Air

1 Week On Land

Dunkirk Tommy 1 week on land

Main characters: Tommy, Gibson, and Alex, who are soldiers.
Sub-Plot: 400,000 soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk trying to grab a rescue ship and cross back to the British mainland.

Tommy flees from the inland to Dunkirk Beach and meets Gibson, who is French but has secretly taken on the identity of a dead British soldier to escape alive to Britain. Tommy and Gibson try to flee by transporting a wounded soldier to the ambulance boat, but the Germans bomb and sink it; Tommy saves another soldier, Alex.

The trio get on another British ship which is also sunk by a German torpedo, and the three need to return to the Dunkirk beach. Here, we meet a rescue officer (Cillian Murphy) – we’re not sure what exactly happens, but he’s left all alone, is shellshocked from the attacks, and just sits on the upturned ship.

Cillian Murphy: The Shivering Soldier

Back at the beach, the three men join the Highland Corps on the beach and find a grounded fishing boat. The soldiers hide in the cabin of the boat and wait for the tide to rise so they can escape. They are soon shot at by the enemy. Gibson is suspected of being a German spy but confesses that he’s French. The cabin is pierced, and the bullet holes cause the boat to sink as the tide rises. As the soldiers escape, Gibson drowns and dies.

The soldiers escape from the fishing boat and head to a nearby Minesweeper, which is bombed by a German dive bomber and oil leaks from the ship. The German jet gets shot and crashes into the sea, causing a sea fire in which many die. Tommy, Alex and a whole bunch of soldiers are finally rescued by Moonstone (a civilian yacht that has arrived to rescue soldiers).

1 Day At Sea: Moonstone

Dunkirk: Moonstone: 1 day at sea

Main characters: Mr Dawson, Peter (Dawson’s son), George (a helper boy)
Sub-Plot: A private boat, Moonstone, sails from England to Dunkirk to bring stranded soldiers back.

The trio is one of the many civilians who respond to Churchill’s call to go retrieve soldiers from Dunkirk. They first rescue a wounded and trembling soldier on a sunken ship. This is the same rescue officer who tells Tommy to stay in the water for another boat.

The soldier gets agitated when he realizes the boat is going to Dunkirk. He forces Dawson to turn back, and in the struggle, he accidentally pushes George down the stairs. George hits his head badly and loses his vision. George succumbs to his wound and eventually dies.

Next, Moonstone rescues Collins, a pilot who lands his jet in the water but is unable to exit the aircraft. He is part of the “Air” segment of the Dunkirk movie.

Moonstone then witnesses the Minesweeper get bombed but rescues the soldiers in the waters. Tommy and Alex, from the “Land” segment, happen to be swimming from the fishing boat and are saved too.

1 Hour In The Air

Dunkirk: 1 hour in the air

Main characters: Farrier, Collins, and their squad leader, who are fighter pilots.
Sub-Plot: British Air Force fighter pilots flying to Dunkirk to gun down the German dive bombers.

Right in the beginning, the Fortis leader’s plane is shot down.

In the second strike, Collins’s plane is hit, and he decides to land at sea instead of parachuting. His exit door jams, and he begins to drown. Moonstone arrives and rescues him. The shell-shocked soldier is already on-board.

In the air, Farrier guns down the bomber that destroys the Minesweeper, and he sees Moonstone down below.

Farrier arrives at Dunkirk to continue air defence and eventually runs out of fuel. He takes out one last dive bomber before landing in the German area and is captured by the German army.

Dunkirk Ending: Why Does Farrier Land In The German Area?

Why Does Farrier Land In The German Area And Get Caught?

Farrier’s plane has run out of fuel, and he glides around, providing air support to ensure the ground is evacuated. When he loses a lot of altitude, he uses the long stretch of the beach to land safely. Farrier doesn’t parachute and bail because he is an ace pilot and lands his plane gracefully because that’s who he is. Also, back in the day, there were no ejector seats, so bailing from a jet wasn’t necessarily straightforward. He destroys the plane as it is war protocol if you’re about to get caught by the enemy.

Do you have to wait three or six hours for the high tide? 

There is a scene in the movie where the army officer thought it would take three hours for the tide to rise, while the naval officer standing aside said it would take six hours. The naval officer says, “Then it’s good that you‘re Army and I’m Navy, isn’t it?” Later, Tommy and the other soldiers hide in a fishing boat, waiting for the high tide. One of them asks how long it would take for the tide, and some soldier answers three hours. 

The answer is that if that sea is at its lowest tide, it will take 6 hours to reach its highest tide. While the tide will cover the land in 3 hours, it will not be enough to float the ship.

The blind old man on the platform 

At the end of Dunkirk, the male protagonist and his group of soldiers successfully return to the British port on a civilian ship, preparing to take the train back to the garrison. On the platform, there is an old man handing out blankets to the soldiers, but he doesn’t look up and finally touches Tommy’s face. There was this dialogue between them: 

Old man: Well done, lads. Well done. 
Soldier: All we did was survive. 
Old man: That’s enough. 

Alex thought that the old man didn’t even want to look at them, that everyone treated them as worthless deserters, and that he had to accept everyone’s cynicism. The blind man was there to support the soldiers in their time of need.

The film ends with everybody cheering for the safe return of their soldiers. While Alex was preparing for the worst, to constantly live in embarrassment, the people are happy that their protectors are back home safe and now stand a chance in the next war.

And that’s that, what did you think about the plot and ending of the movie Dunkirk? Comment with your thoughts and open questions in the section below.