Dunkirk, cinematic story of wartime evacuation, inspires tourism boom in northern France

Tourists are flocking to Dunkirk in northern France, where the wartime rescue of 338,000 Allied soldiers took place — many to see locations for the filming of the Hollywood hit named after the coastal city.

Christopher Nolan’s Hollywood hit renews interest in site of Second World War 'miracle'

Malo-les-Bains beach adjacent to Dunkirk was the site of both the rescue operation in 1940 and filming last year of director Director Christopher Nolan's blockbuster smash. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

For all of his life until now, Nicolas Idasiak would walk along the beach in his hometown and dream of being elsewhere.

"Either I think about the war, either I think about the bad weather," he said of the notoriously grey skies in the northern tip of France.

But now at 48 years old, the lifelong Dunkirk resident is feeling a boost of pride in his own city. Dunkirk, one of the summer's hottest movies, has earned $234 million US worldwide. And it's acted as a global ad campaign for the city of the same name.

"We are world famous," Idasiak said with a laugh.

Seeing history up close

He now spends 90 minutes daily showing visitors around town in a tour based on the Hollywood hit. The walk stops every few minutes along the beach and outside nondescript houses — spots where the movie was filmed.

The Buitendik family from Struik, The Netherlands examines Second World War relics on display at Dunkirk's newly expanded Operation Dynamo museum. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

Director Christopher Nolan's blockbuster smash tells the tale of Operation Dynamo, considered the greatest wartime evacuation of all time. In May 1940, German troops had Allied forces cornered in Dunkirk. In a last-ditch rescue effort, Britain sent more than 800 ships — naval vessels, yachts and fishing boats — across the English Channel.

Some 338,000 British and French troops were saved. Winston Churchill called their rescue a "miracle."

On his walking tour, Idasiak does explain the city's history. Most tourists, though, seem just as interested in the movie's behind-the-scenes anecdotes: the business that scored a 700,000-euro ($1 million Cdn) contract to sell lumber to the production company; the movie's 1,500 extras — some of whom were locally hired; or the downtown streets covered to look older and dirtier.

Filmed where it happened

Big-budget war movies aren't always shot where the action really took place. A previous film about Operation Dynamo was entirely produced in Hollywood. Steven Spielberg filmed the Normandy, France-based epic Saving Private Ryan in Ireland.

Tour guide Nicolas Idasiak shows Second World War-era aircraft while explaining how Operation Dynamo unfolded. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

Nolan's production is believed to have injected as much as 9 million euros ($13.3 million Cdn) into Dunkirk's economy.

Depending on the weather, between 10 and 30 visitors take the movie tour on any given day — a small fraction of the influx of tourists newly attracted to Dunkirk this summer.

"It is the best promotion you can get," acknowledged Onno Ottevanger, the marketing manager at Dunkirk's tourism office.

The city of Dunkirk has released a line of newly created Operation Dynamo merchandise, including T-shirts. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

"We already noticed the impact before the film came out," he said, adding his office started getting more calls from as far away as Canada and Australia at the start of the year.

In anticipation for a tourism boom, the city created a new line of Operation Dynamo-branded merchandise, including T-shirts, hoodies, pens, keychains and a perfume described as the "Spirit of Dunkirk."

The tourist boom

The local Operation Dynamo museum doubled in size to allow for more Second World War relics to be displayed ahead of the movie's release. The museum would previously see 100 tourists a day but this summer is welcoming at least 300 daily.

"These guys laid the groundwork," said John Paterson of the soldiers honoured at the museum. "That allowed my dad, for example, to come over to Britain from Canada, and then embark on his exploits" later in the Second World War.

Dunkirk shows the heroism and sacrifice of those raw, often bewildered young men on the beaches of a land occupied and overrun by fascist thugs.

Paterson, from Vancouver, had long planned to visit Dunkirk. But most other tourists at the museum appear to have been drawn to the city this summer after seeing the movie or — or even just hearing of it.

"Having seen the trailer of the movie, we thought it would be a great idea to come here and see it in person'" said Carmela Russo, from Italy, where Dunkirk will only be released later this summer.

"We wanted to get spiritually ready," added her son, Riccardo Lichene, who recently finished a history degree.

Christopher Nolan's Second World War film gets 4.5 stars out of 5 from CBC film critic Eli Glasner 5:38

The city plans to tally the number of additional tourists at the end of the summer.

For Idasiak, the tour guide, the scale of the opportunities for Dunkirk became clear on a visit to New York with his daughter earlier this summer.

Among the brightly lit signs in Times Square was an ad for the movie with giant letters spelling "Dunkirk."

"It was a very, very big surprise," said Idasiak. "I saw my beach" in New York — the same beach he would once walk along, hoping to be transported elsewhere.

About the Author

Thomas Daigle

Thomas Daigle is a journalist for CBC News based in London.


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