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Thursday July 18th 2024

Dunkirk | 2017

Dunkirk film location: Rue Des Fusilles, Dunkirk
Dunkirk film location: Tommy escapes the German snipers over a garden gate: Rue Des Fusillés, Dunkirk | Photograph: Google Maps

Discover where Dunkirk (2017) was filmed in Dunkirk itself on the French coast, as well as Dorset in the UK, the Netherlands and Los Angeles, California.

Every director nowadays boasts (not always with total honesty) about how little CGI they’ve used in their film but Christopher Nolan went to extraordinary lengths to capture reality as much as possible, with real ships and planes – using heavy IMAX cameras even for the flying scenes.

The film uses the the site of the actual events, the French coastal town of Dunkirk, 26 miles east of Calais toward the Belgian border. Dunkirk is now accessible by rail from the UK via Rail Europe.

Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) alone escapes German snipers on Rue des Fusillés, clambering over the garden gate facing the western end of the street and making his way into Rue Belle Rade, which leads him north to the seafront.

Dunkirk film location: Rue Belle Rade, Dunkirk
Dunkirk film location: Tommy finds a road to the beach: Rue Belle Rade, Dunkirk | Photograph: Google Maps

Here on Place de Malo-les-Bains, he sees troops lined up on the beach lined up waiting to be evacuated back to Britain.

Quick-thinking, along with Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), he passes himself off as a stretcher-bearer of the wounded and hurries to the Jetée de Malo‘The Mole’ – where they can push through the crowd and rush the wounded man onto a hospital ship.

The Mole is a stone jetty at the western end of Malo-les-Bains, augmented for the film with the wooden superstructure it would have had in 1940.

All does not go to plan. After feeling they’re headed home, their ship is torpedoed and they’re forced to swim back to the beach, the Dune DeWulf, just east of where the troops were gathering, and now a nature reserve.

Over in the UK, ‘Operation Dynamo’ has been enforced, allowing the Royal Navy to commandeer private boats in a desperate attempt to rescue more than 300,000 troops from the French beaches.

Dunkirk film location: Weymouth Harbour, Dorset
Dunkirk film location: the 'Moonstone' sets sail for Dunkirk: Weymouth Harbour, Dorset | Photograph: Shutterstock / Nicky Rhodes

Boat-owner Dawson (Mark Rylance) is eager to help but determined, with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and young helper George (Barry Keoghan), to pilot his own craft. They set sail from Weymouth Harbour, a long way west in Dorset, and not the obvious point from which to leave for Dunkirk. Most of the little boats left from the much closer Ramsgate in Kent, but Weymouth with its Georgian architecture remains much more as a 1940s harbour would have looked.

Filming at sea (as opposed to faking everything in a studio tank) is notoriously a nightmare (ask the director of Jaws) but Nolan was determined to capture reality both in tight close-ups and epic long shots.

As much as possible was filmed in the Channel, in disturbingly choppy weather, but scenes requiring carefully controlled sinkings, demanded a more manageable environment.

Dutch cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema came up with the idea of using IJsselmeer, a large artificial freshwater lake near the small fishing village of Urk in Flevoland, in the Netherlands. Open water with convincing horizons but comparatively shallow.

Scenes with even more specific requirements meant heading off to Los Angeles, where the famous backlot lake at Universal Studios Hollywood was pressed into service.

The interior of the beached ship, punctured with bullet holes and leaking like a sieve as the tide rises, was a set built in the huge Stage 16 at Warner Bros in Burbank, which houses a 2 million gallon water tank. One of the tallest stages in the world, the ceiling of Stage 16 had been raised 30 feet in 1935 to allow for the filming of the musical finale of Cain and Mabel (well it did star the longtime companion of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who chipped in for the expense) and has since been used to stage ocean sequences for The Goonies and The Perfect Storm.

Perhaps most ingeniously, to show actors in close-up actually at the controls of a Spitfire while avoiding green screen, a cockpit was constructed on an elaborate gimbal able to be easily tilted in all directions, atop the bluffs at Rancho Palos Verdes, on LA's southern shore, west of Long Beach. This gave genuine ocean views to a distant horizon and also the requisite height above the water.

Palos Verdes is a frequent seaside location, seen in films such as The Lost Boys and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

It’s bank to Dunkirk as Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy), having run out of fuel, makes a forced landing at Digue du Braek, where he’s taken prisoner by the Germans, but not before setting his plane alight to keep it out of enemy hands. The Braek Dyke, a six km barrier defending the coast just to the east of Dunkirk,is now a prime spot for bird-watching.

Arriving back in England, Tommy and Alex (Harry Styles) board a train to London at Swanage Railway Station, terminus of the heritage 10-mile Swanage Railway, on the Dorset coast east of Weymouth.

Finally Peter, honouring the dying George’s wish to be mentioned in the newspaper, duly delivers a school photo of George to what appears to be the office of the ‘Weymouth Herald Newspaper’. This was actually the Harbour Office back at Weymouth, 13 Custom House Quay at South Parade.