The vessel and skipper that inspired the “Moonstone” and Mark Rylance’s character in “Dunkirk?”

rylance.jpgAs part of “Take Dad to ‘Dunkirk’ This Weekend,” I took my father and caught the film a second time. I rarely do that, but period pieces/WWII movies and films about boats are kind of my thing. Things.


One element I fixated on second time around was how Nolan didn’t alter the design of the boats to suit filming purposes. Thus, a shroud (cable) holding up a mast on “Moonstone” gets in Oscar-winner Mark Rylance’s face for a few shots.

Another was the inspiration for this fictional part of the story. “Moonstone’s” story appears to be close to that of “Sundowner,” owned by Charles Lightoller, a former “Titanic” officer, sailed by that owner, his son and a friend of his son to the beach. Their story is altered for the movie –the names and backgrounds changed to heighten the pathos and the drama — in a very touching way.


Here’s “Sundowner.” Ran across that photo on Wikipedia.

The boat used in the movie was not an actual Dunkirk “little ship,” but an antique 43 footer — “Revlis.” That name, by the way, is “Silver” spelled packwards. The wooden motor-sailor seems even smaller in the movie, and yes, she was used by the Navy during WWII — just not at Dunkirk. Thus, renting her and recreating studio interiors of her involved less risk to an actual “Little Ship.” Film crews can be rough on historic objects and locations.

In terms of historical accuracy,  let’s focus on the film’s harrowing death toll. There is no actual casualty count from the evacuation. But thousands died. That is lost in much of the “Miracle of Dunkirk” historical spin associated with the withdrawal. Over 200 British and Allied ships and boats were sunk during the battle, a staggering number. We’d remember D-Day for much darker reasons had the Allies suffered similar losses in attempting to storm back into France four years later.

Among those lost — HMS Wakeful, a destroyer whose motto was “Si dormiam capiar,” “If I sleep, they will catch me.” “Wakeful” went down with 640 evacuated soldiers on board. One survived. That sinking — and those like it — figure into the film.

I could not find an account of a U-Boat sinking an Allied ship by torpedo, something the film suggests. But German E-Boats, their motor-torpedo boats that patrolled the Channel, wreaked havoc on the evacuation. A torpedo in the dark is just as deadly coming from an E-Boat as from a U-Boat.

I was also struck, on second viewing, by the groaning, rattling nature of the Spitfire Tom Hardy’s pilot flies. It stands out because that’s all we have to focus on in Nolan’s brilliantly minimalist aerial scenes. Lovely sound detail, which anyone who has ever owned a vintage British roadster will recognize as British “that’ll do” clever but under-built engineering. Nimble, quick, graceful — not built for comfort or quiet. Did they leak oil, too? Just curious.


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2 Responses to The vessel and skipper that inspired the “Moonstone” and Mark Rylance’s character in “Dunkirk?”

  1. Michael Davis says:

    ‘Rattling’ Spitfire is correct. A WWll veteran told me that the Spitfire definitely rattled.

    • Much of that groaning was what you’d expect in a flimsy airframe. I dare say you wouldn’t have heard that in a P-38 or P-51. Heavier, sturdy and stiff.

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