Courage is found in unlikely places.  —J.R.R. Tolkien

I had the opportunity to see two powerful movies this week, both of which told stories of individuals standing in the face of dreadful circumstances. For me, each elicited a visceral reaction – I could truly feel the fear and hopelessness of the situations and was left troubled in their wake. Though these stories compel us to consider the nature of fear and courage in the face of death, the message in both applies equally well to the daily moments we face in less dire circumstances.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk tells the amazing story of the British evacuation of over 300,000 soldiers from a French beach at the beginning of World War II. The result is miraculous: British troops, trapped by the advancing German army are evacuated by thousands of small civilian boats sent across the English Channel. Christopher Nolan’s movie, tells that story while giving us a shocking inside glimpse of that day through the eyes of characters on the beach, in the air, and on the water as they fought for survival. The noble success of the operation is marred by the gritty realities of men acting under intense pressure in life or death situations. The film recounts the heroic and the cowardly while compelling us to consider our own humanity in the face of such despair.

In one dark scene, a group of British soldiers have found an abandoned boat on the beach and climb aboard to await the rising of tide. As the tide begins to rise, Germans advance on the boat shooting holes into the hull and sending the hiding soldiers into a panic. Lord of the Flies is evoked as the soldiers determine that they need to lighten the weight in the boat by sending one or more of the men out to die on the beach. The desperation of the soldiers teeters into ridiculousness as it becomes clear to the viewer that  all of the men are doomed if they stay in the hold of that boat. Courage, order, and humanity disappear as quickly as the bullets start to fly.

The scene above is contrasted by three fighter pilots sent across the channel to give air cover to retreating troops. The heroism inherent in the pilots’ efforts is only heightened by the gross inadequacy of sending only three fighters for the job. Courage is on display as the only remaining pilot in the air foregoes any possibility of returning to England by using his remaining fuel to protect troops and ships from German fighters and bombers. We’re left wondering what makes the pilot courageous and the soldiers cowardly? Yes, it is a movie made to move us with emotion but the question remains: why do some of us rise to the occasion while others shrink from it?

The 15:17 to Paris

The 15:17 to Paris tells the story of three friends thrust into an impossible situation on a train between Amsterdam and Paris in 2015. The movie itself is classic Clint Eastwood as he slowly evolves the back story and a sense of inevitability leading to the defining moment. In this case, the three friends’ split second reactions to an armed terrorist avert the potential deaths of hundreds of passengers. In the movie, there is virtually no hesitation as the friends rush the armed man after he’s shot another passenger. The encounter is brutal and brief as they subdue him and proceed to help save the life of the injured passenger. In that moment, they make a choice.

I suspect the movie will be criticized for moving slowly, highlighting the main character’s Christian faith and sense of destiny, and for having such a clean, happy ending; these elements may be too pure, too fairy tale-ish to be believable for some. But the true story is compelling and challenges us to consider what we would do in similar circumstances.  In a scene near the end, French President Francois Hollande (played by Patrick Braoude) gives a speech celebrating the heroism of the Americans and commending them for their willingness to make a difficult choice – to do something in the face of great evil. Even more directly than Dunkirk, this film asks: will you rise to the occasion?

Most of us will never have to face anything like the dangers described above. However, our days are marked by opportunities to show courage in the face of fear and doubt. Will we shrink from the challenge or rise to it? Both movies challenge us to consider these defining moments and look deep inside ourselves. The heroes depicted send a clear message: courage is a choice. How will you choose when the moment comes?