All self-respecting history buffs should add “Dunkirk” to their must see lists.  From the opening credits to the closing, this Christopher Nolan war film takes on big proportions and creates massive landscapes. Waiting to see it on a small screen will lessen the experience. Don’t delay.

“Dunkirk,” as the name implies, focuses on one setting at one point in time: the French harbor town of Dunkirk in the early summer of 1940. More than 400,000 British troops must be evacuated or face certain death. The relief effort proves nearly impossible, but the metal of the men pushes them on with grim determination as the chock-hold around them becomes more solid with every passing day.

The soldiers can almost see their homeland across the English Channel, and that’s from where, if it comes at all, that relief will arrive. The epic proportions of this film put the war and grit at the forefront. With bombers screaming overhead, explosions in the sea and on the beach, and gunshots echoing through the streets, the onslaught of war feels endless. Point of view shots and lots of camera tracking plunge you right into the action.

The never-ending tumult leaves little time or room for emotional connections with the characters, but the plot does follow the movement of one French solider, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). Having just narrowly escaped a hail of German artillery fire that killed the other soldiers in his group, Tommy races through the rubble of the streets. He somehow manages to dodge the continuing showers of bullets coming his way. It’s a tap dance with death that he’s doing, but he miraculously survives. When he arrives at the beach, his luck continues. Tommy passes himself off as British and boards one of the few rescue ships. He’s not above lying to save himself.

An older man with more noble aims, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) has signed on as a civilian to help rescue the trapped soldiers. His private fishing boat makes the harrowing journey across the English Channel through dangerous waters. Mr. Dawson, his son Peter (Tom Glyne-Carney), and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) will make untold sacrifices to serve England.

“Dunkirk” follows the trajectory of history and brings closure to this chapter of human survival and force of will.

 World War II, the beach at Dunkirk, a glimpse of the horrors through the eyes of those who lived it ¾the intensity of it all has great power to enlighten contemporary audiences and make us all remember and know it: war is hell.

Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.

Marilyn Robitaille has been writing film reviews since 1999.