Dogfighting Over “Dunkirk”

Christopher Nolan’s new World War II epic contains some of the most thrilling aerial engagements ever staged.

Tom Hardy plays a Spitfire jockey in "Dunkirk." (Melinda Sue Gordon)
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Dunkirk, the new movie dramatizing England’s evacuation of its forces from France aboard civilian boats in the summer 1940, examines the event from three overlapping perspectives: A handful of the foot soldiers trapped on the beach, a father-and-son yacht crew sailing across the English Channel to retrieve those troops, and a pair of Supermarine Spitfire pilots out to defend the stranded soldiers and their rescue craft from aerial attack. Especially as viewed in IMAX—the ultra-high-resolution film format in which the majority of Dunkirk was shot—the movie is an enthralling sensory experience, with the progressive interweaving of its three story-strands building to an emotional finale.

Dunkirk was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the celebrated English filmmaker who often experiments with varying time scales in films such as Memento, the dreamy thriller Inception, and his space-exploration epic Interstellar.

Air & Space readers might naturally be more interested in the dogfighting scenes. Royal Air Force officers played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden challenge several Messerschmitt Bf 109s and a Heinkel bomber while trying to preserve enough fuel to get home. As has long been Nolan’s preference, these sequences were shot practically, meaning he captured footage of real aircraft performing real maneuvers. Visual effects were added later, but nothing was invented out of whole digital cloth.

"Dunkirk" writer/producer/director Christopher Nolan confers with his crew between takes. (Melinda Sue Gordon)

Three Spitfires, two Mark Is and a Mark V, were used in the production; a Spanish HA-1112 Buchón stood in for the Bf 109s when authentic German warbirds could not be secured. (Large-scale, though not quite life-sized, radio-controlled models were also used in a few shots, particularly of the bomber.) While Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley strove for historical accuracy, they made some concessions to the audience—for instance, giving their “Messerschmitt” a slightly anachronistic yellow-nosed paint job so that it could be more easily discerned from the Spitfires.

Speaking before Dunkirk’s premiere at the National Air and Space Museum on Wednesday night, Nolan discussed the challenges of balancing verisimilitude with clear storytelling—no small feat, especially given that his film does not unspool in a purely linear way, but jumps back and forth in time in an attempt to conjure the disorienting experience of combat. “I’m fascinated by point of view,” Nolan said. “What I try to do is use chronology to express the point of view I’m trying to get across.”

Three RAF Spitfires fly over the Moonstone, one of many civilian vessels requisitioned by the Royal Navy to rescue stranded British soldiers. (Melinda Sue Gordon)

And yet some fudging is intended to serve the audience rather than the artist.

“You manipulate things so the audience can get a handle on what’s going on and understand things,” Nolan said. As an example of dramatic invention, he singled out a moment when Hardy’s character, who must calculate his remaining fuel supply by hand after his fuel gauge is damaged, switches to his reserve tank. “A Mark I Spitfire would not specifically have a reserve tank; it would have three tanks with different amounts of fuel,” Nolan said. “So we simplified that. You try to strike a balance between historical accuracy and clarity and drama for the audience.”

He said that while writing his script he conferred with pilots who’d flown Spitfires in the Battle of Britain, which began just a month after the Dunkirk evacuation. He also took a flight in one himself.  At Wednesday night's screening event, a remark from Jeremy Kinney, a curator in the Museum’s Aeronautics Department, about the Spitfire in the Museum’s collection prompted a fond reverie about the iconic British fighter.

“There’s a very good case for it being the greatest machine ever made—certainly moving machine,” Nolan said. “It’s a classic of design. It’s one of those machines that doesn’t date or age in some way, because the proportions and the balance between form and function are weirdly perfect. And as a symbol for British people, it’s really seen as something that saved our culture. So there’s a huge sense of attachment to that vehicle.”

For their aerial camera platforms, the production used an Aerostar as well as a more unique aircraft: a Soviet Yak-52, a two-seater that could be made to look enough like a Spitfire to pass in close-up shots of Hardy and Lowden in their cockpits. Dan Sasaki of Panavision devised a custom, periscope-like lens that would allow the bulky IMAX camera to fit in the Yak’s second seat to capture shots that would reflect the pilot’s view looking out through the canopy. Still other close-ups were shot of the actors in a replica Sptifire cockpit mounted on a gimbal and posted on a sea cliff at a U.S. Coast Guard station in Palos Verdes, California.

The majority of Dunkirk was filmed on location in France, where the real-life evacuation occurred. The producers even swept the beach for eight-decade-old unexploded ordnance, knowing that they would have to set off their own controlled explosions for the cameras.

Dunkirk opens today.

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