The Architecture of Dunkirk: Land, Sea, and Air

We’ve previously made our arguments for why we think Christopher Nolan is one of the most architectural directors of our time. In his career, he has shown an inherent interest in architecture as a whole (from his portrait of Chicago as Gotham to the works of M.C. Escher playing a major role in Inception).

The past few films have seen him go bigger, bigger, bigger; and while his previous film, Interstellar (2014), was set in space, he comes back down to Earth (quite literally), in his latest effort, Dunkirk (2017), wherein he deals with the notion of cinematic space in new ways.

Dunkirk is broken down into three parts: land, sea, and air. The film’s narrative takes us back and forth through these three “spaces,” all of which revolve around the World War II Dunkirk evacuation.

We open on the backs of several British soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk, as they come under fire from unseen German forces. We follow one young British private in particular, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), as he’s chased off the streets and onto the beaches of Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan plays with off-screen space here, never showing us the enemy, and suggesting that the threat can be much more fearful if you never actual see it, much like the shark in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).

Dunkirk is a race against time (rescuing the stranded soldiers), as Christopher Nolan cuts between land, see, and air, playing with the concept of time.


Dunkirk was shot on location on the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, in the north of France. The first part of the narrative concerns itself with soldiers stranded in Dunkirk, who attempt to make their way off the land. In this sense, this portion of the film deals with escaping the space.



The second portion of the film deals with the sea, and while the Royal Navy prevents private boats from participating in the evacuation, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) navigates his civilian ship (Moonstone) without permission from Ramsgate in England, with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan). This small 43-foot long motor yacht, built in the 1930s, becomes a primary setting for the film, as the narrative makes use of every corner of the ship. In terms of space, it’s interesting to see that Mr. Dawson uses the Moonstone to rescue sixty soldiers, while the ship was originally designed for fewer than ten passengers.



We also follow the narrative into the sky, focusing on Farrier (Tom Hardy), a Royal Air Force pilot that mans a Supermarine Spitfire. The production outfitted a Soviet-era Yakovlev Yak-52, which was roughly the same size and shape of a Spitfire. Christopher Nolan once again uses space in noteworthy ways. The original plane had two cockpits, which meant that the production could film in-flight. The crew designed lens mounts and filmed in the sky with the actor, resulting in a much more believable look.