With the cream of the British army cornered by a lightning German advance into northern France, Winston Churchill is told they will be lucky to get 30,000 men out alive.
Yet over nine days in May 1940, more than 10 times that number of British, French and Canadian troops are rescued, many plucked from the beaches by a flotilla of “little ships” crewed by civilian volunteers who set out from England.
The audacious rescue, codenamed Operation Dynamo but immortalized as the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” is the subject of two movies vying for best picture at the Oscars on Sunday.
Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” sees events through the Allies’ eyes as they face what looks like certain death in France, while Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” follows the travails of Britain’s newly-anointed prime minister back in London.
Despite its relentless high-octane score and action scenes, “Dunkirk” isn’t really a war film, according to Nolan, who told AFP he wanted to make a “survival story” unlike anything “seen or experienced before in a cinema.”
For Wright, “Darkest Hour” is a nuanced portrait of a man berated as the irresponsible and reckless architect of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign from the previous world war, who nevertheless stepped up to become a national hero.
“He kicked and he screamed and got a lot of things wrong in his career, and in his personal life, but one thing he got right was he resisted the tide of fascism, bigotry and hate,” the director told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.