Setting the Scene
Director Christopher Nolan went to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of his new World War II epic Dunkirk.
The film tells the incredible true story of the nearly 340,000 Allied soldiers who were evacuated from the French beach ahead of a German attack in 1940.
With Dunkirk, Nolan attempted to transport audiences into the boots of the young soldiers caught on the shore. The film’s depiction of the events was so accurate that veterans of the battle felt as if they were reliving their memories.
“The whole thing was really realistic, makes you think you’re back there,” veteran George Wagner, 96, told PEOPLE. “Being that long ago, it was dead with the memory. But when I saw the film I was brought back to it.”
Click through to see how the movie compares to the real life scenes at the Battle of Dunkirk.
Thousands of soliders lined up on the beach as they hoped for a ride home. With nowhere to hide, they were left to the mercy of the German planes shooting down from above.
“I went up into the sand dunes instead of just laying on the beach and getting picked off,” Garth Wright, another Dunkirk veteran, said. “I dug myself a little trench up there and watched what was going on. I spent about 48 hours up there. It was hell on earth.”
Nolan quickly established the size of the stranded army with sweeping wide shots of the thousands of extras gathered on the beach.
Finding a Way Home
The smiling soldiers looking into the camera are some of the lucky survivors who made it back to England in the early days of the battle. Over the course of a week, British ships were able to transport soldiers by the hundreds back across the English Channel — only 26 miles from the coast of France where the Allied forces were stranded.
Desperate for Escape
From helmets to the uniforms, the movie’s attention to detail is evident even in packed crowds of extras playing desperate young soldiers piling onto boats by the hundreds.
Above, a British fighter plane escorts one of the getaway ships across the Channel. But Wright told PEOPLE that he and his fellow soldiers didn’t see many planes during the battle — and for good reason.
“The Spitfires and Hurricanes didn’t come over so there was no protection. In retrospect, I’m glad they didn’t because the Battle of Britain followed immediately afterwards and, by God, they saved our day here,” he recalled. “If they’d lost some at Dunkirk, [Hitler] would have walked into Britain.”
Support From Above
Dunkirk shows how civilian boats were instrumental in the evacuation. Here, three Spitfires fly protectively over a British merchant vessel as it crosses the Channel to pick up soldiers.
Allied forces were rescued in boats of all shapes and sizes — including small boats crucial to ferrying troops out to bigger ships.
In the film, soldiers row out to sea in searh of ships with room to take them aboard. Wagner told PEOPLE a midnight row boat is how he made it out of Dunkirk.
“I came across a naval rating who had just brought one of their lifeboats in,” he said. “He said to me ‘Can you row?’ I was up to my neck in water then, but I got on and we started to row. We reached a minesweeper, and got on. We didn’t get away until the next day or so.”