Robbie is holding a map. He is also holding a revolver. Both are from a dead man.
Robbie is in France during World War II doing whatever he can to survive. He is traveling with two corporals and, when they see a severed leg in a tree, Robbie runs ahead to getsick. He doesn't want the other men to see him.
This moment of solitude also gives Robbie a chance to check on the wound he has in his side. He doesn't think it's too bad, though there's something inside it that he can feel when he walks. Ouch.
Corporal Mace and Corporal Nettle, whom Robbie has been leading across country, rejoin him and the three men continue on their way.
Bombers pass overhead and the three soldiers hide out before resuming their journey. When they resume their journey, Robbie finds himself thinking about the bombed out cottage near the leg and wondering about who lived there. See? He's a sensitive guy.
And then they narrowly escape a pretty epic bee attack.
The bees behind them, Robbie and the corporals meet a Frenchwoman and ask her for help. (Robbie speaks French.) She says her sons will attack them, but nonetheless brings them food and lets them rest in the barn. It's relatively comfortable, though the food leaves a bit to be desired, even for soldiers who have been trekking on foot for who knows how long.
When the woman's sons show up, they turn out to be nice guys who give them more wine and heaps of delicious food.
While they all eat, the sons recount the destruction they say earlier in the day, including dead English soldiers in the road. Robbie explains that he and his companions are heading to Dunkirk, where they will hopefully be ferried back to England.
Though he's not convinced himself, Robbie tries to assure the Frenchmen that the English will be back in time to fight the Nazis.
The sons explain that their mother has lost her mind and hates all soldiers since losing a son to war.
Before saying goodnight, Nettle gives the brothers two cartons of cigarettes he'd taken from a store while following orders to destroy it. It seems many soldiers at this point have cigarettes instead of food to handle their hunger with.
The brothers and soldiers bid each other good night and goodbye.
Robbie lies in the barn thinking about the death and destruction he's seen, and after a moment of sleep, his mind shifts to his time in prison.
His time in prison was the worst. Way worse than war.
Robbie has reason to hope during war, at least. He carries his most recent letter from Cecilia in his pocket and her promise to wait for him in his heart. She is the reason he has to survive and find his way home.
Rising from bed, Robbie notes the gun flashes going off in the distance around him. He imagines life in German prison and knows he could not survive it.
Sleep eludes Robbie, so his mind wanders to the one time he saw Cecilia between being in prison and heading off to war, which in turn leads his brain all the way back to his time in prison.
While in prison, all women except Grace were forbidden from visiting Robbie because he was deemed some sort of sex maniac.
Cecilia wrote to Robbie weekly and he dutifully wrote back. Because their letters were read and censored though, so as to assure no stimulation for Robbie, they had to express their feelings in code. Fortunately, they had both read a ton of the same books in college, so they were up for the challenge. Aww…
In one of the letters Cecilia sent, she told Robbie she'd cut herself off from her entire family.
And now we're back in the café where Robbie is waiting for Cecilia to see her briefly before heading off to war.
When Cecilia arrives, Robbie leaps up and knocks his tea over. General awkwardness ensues, despite their romantic and regular letter writing over the past years. It's just too much in person and they end up making small talk. The poor duo only has Cecilia's half-hour lunch break to reconnect in person after so much time apart. It's really pretty tragic.
They kiss at the bus stop and, when they do, Robbie recognizes it as a memory he'll have in the bank going forward. This shifts to him remembering the kiss while lying in the barn in France.
And then we're back in time again to when Robbie was in basic training.
Letter writing has resumed, this time with no censors. Robbie and Cecilia both know that they will spend their lives together and spend their letters telling each other about their daily lives and routines as a maternity nurse and a soldier.
Robbie is concerned about Cecilia's decision to cut herself off from her family, a move she made on the day of Robbie's sentencing. Cecilia is absolutely confident in her choice, though. She also believes it was Danny Hardman who raped Lola that awful night.
Right before Robbie is supposed to go on leave and he and Cecilia are to spend two glorious weeks reuniting (ahem) in a cottage, England goes to war and his leave is canceled. Then it's rescheduled, but by the time his letter arrives to tell Cecilia she's gone off to a nursing course elsewhere. He tries to catch up with her, but it just doesn't come together. Yet again, Robbie and Cecilia are star-crossed lovers. Sigh.
Cecilia begins ending all of her letters with, "I'll wait for you. Come back," which is what she said to him when he was first taken away by the police. We think it's pretty romantic.
Robbie remembers the long boring winter with the British Expeditionary Force in France, doing little more than digging trenches.
With the arrival of spring, Robbie again writes to encourage Cecilia send a note to her family. He doesn't ask her to forgive them, but just to let them know where she is. He worries she'll be filled with regret if she doesn't do so before they die and he'd feel terrible knowing she'd severed contact out of her love for him.
Her reply comes shortly before they are told to retreat to the English Channel and is the last letter Robbie receives from her before the mail delivery system stopped running.
In her letter Cecilia says that Briony has decided not to go to Cambridge and is training as a nurse. Cecilia thinks it seems like a sort of self-imposed penance because apparently Briony also wants to recant her accusation against Robbie. Cecilia says that if Briony does so, and her parents listen to the apology, she just might be able to reconcile with them after all.
And then she tells him about twins who died in the hospital… because, hey—she's still a maternity ward nurse.
Back in the barn in France, Robbie is awoken and divides the provisions before the three men set off through the countryside. Robbie is exhausted and his wound is throbbing.
Eventually they reach a road and join many other soldiers and families heading toward the sea.
A car in the mass honks at Robbie. He almost attacks the driver, but Mace stops him. Traffic is irritating even when you're retreating from the Nazis, it turns out….
Robbie won't hitch a ride because he saw a bomber destroy an entire truck along with everyone in it. He hid in a ditch when the bomber came, and this is where he got the shrapnel in his side.
The walk down the road is generally depressing, with dead horses and dead bodies and sour spirits. It's pretty much as you'd expect during war, we guess.
There is a major who is trying to pull soldiers from the column and direct them towards some woods in the distance. It seems like he might be off his rocker a bit, and when he comes to Robbie, Mace, and Nettles, Mace and Nettles basically mock him into submission.
The conversation is interrupted by a plane strafing them. Robbie throws himself behind a truck (or a lorry if you're British) and survives the deluge.
The major is wounded, but still wants to go on the attack. Robbie tells him that he and Mace and Nettle are leaving, though, and off they go. Sound idea, gentlemen.
They stop to bury a boy, and then they keep right on walking.
Robbie thinks about the possibility of Briony clearing his name, of all the space it could open up for him and Cecilia in their lives.
The soldiers are walking through a bombed-out village now, with bodies strewn everywhere and a stench in the air. Robbie wonders at how history gets recorded, at how it's possible to pin down the names of villages and the dates of their destruction.
Robbie daydreams about having his name cleared some more before inevitably bumping up against Briony. Despite recognizing that she was just a child when she had him sent off to prison, he harbors feelings of resentment toward her.
Robbie feels as though Briony only wants to clear his name because her guilt is weighing on her, not because it's the right thing to do for him.
He also thinks about how much he dislikes Danny Hardman, who he now thinks raped Lola thanks to Cecilia's letter.
And now, thanks to Robbie's memory, we flash back to a summer day with Briony. It is a few years before the terrible evening when she ruined Robbie's life, and she is excited and talkative.
They are walking to the river for a swimming lesson, something Robbie has promised Briony.
After the lesson, Robbie ducks off to the woods to change clothes. When he returns, Briony is standing on the bank in her swimming clothes, looking down at the water.
She asks Robbie if he would save her if she fell in the river. He says of course, and then she jumps in.
He has to go in fully clothed to save her.
After her rescue, Briony thanks Robbie for saving her. Robbie, however, tells Briony how stupid she is for doing that and that she put them both in a dangerous situation.
Briony tells Robbie that she loves him, but he says he doesn't love her despite being willing to save her.
Robbie thinks that Briony must have had a crush on him for years, and that this was why she lied to put him in prison.
He thinks she must have felt betrayed when she read the letter to her sister. And then he thinks he will never forgive her, even if she recants.
And now we're in France again. Welcome back.
A French column comes through the crowd, masking the sound of a German plane approaching.
Robbie runs from the road. He takes a child from a woman, and tries to help them run from the bomb.
The woman stops running and Robbie has to leave her. A bomb falls and the shock knocks him to the ground. The woman and child are obliterated. No, really—there's just a giant crater in the ground where they once were.
Robbie goes into the woods desperate for water and unable to find any.
After what feels like forever, Mace finds him and hands him a dead man's nearly full canteen. Glug glug glug.
The two men begin to walk again and Nettle soon joins them. He has a bottle of wine and an Amo bar (the artificial chocolate bars which Paul Marshall hoped would make him super rich… looks like the war worked out for him at least) with him.
Robbie, Mace, and Nettle continue their trudge toward Dunkirk, surrounded by struggling citizens and soldiers. It seems like everyone is wounded.
Robbie suddenly remembers being carried on his father's shoulders and his thoughts turn to how badly he wishes for a dad.
He realizes his yearning for a father is the same as his yearning to be a father. After seeing so much death, fatherhood reminds him of his humanity. He fixes his mind on finding Cecilia and his father once the war is over, on becoming a father and his own father's son.
As the men near Dunkirk, they come to a bridge over a canal. A sergeant on the bridge is pulling out men for defense duties.
Mace tells Robbie that he'll be selected and tells him to start limping between his two comrades, leaning on them for support. Robbie isn't proud, but he follows the advice. He's super determined to get home.
A little farther down the road Nettle decides he can't take another step in his boots with his blisters, so he takes them off and throws them away.
Robbie collects Nettle's boots after declaring that they've got a long way to go still. As a favor to Robbie, Nettle agrees to carry the boots around his neck. Some favor.
As the soldiers keep walking, Robbie grows delirious. His wound still pulses and it seems he might have developed a fever.
Finally—finally—they arrive at the beach in Dunkirk. Phew.
Oh but wait… there don't seem to be any boats. Nope. Just one old useless whaler lolling about in the distance. Oh—and at least twenty thousand men.
This is what Robbie and Nettle and Mace have been walking toward, one agonizing step after another, for days. We're gonna go ahead and call this a disappointment of epic proportions.
The men are parched so they head away from the beach and into a bar, hoping to find water or something to drink. There isn't anything there, though, but some free cigarettes and tons of soldiers.
While in the bar, Robbie overhears a snippet of conversation that says there were boats yesterday and there's the possibility of more boats tomorrow.
A group of men is threatening an RAF (Royal Air Force) man because they're angry at the RAF for not protecting the soldiers better from enemy air fire during the retreat.
The man does not speak, and the crowd grows increasingly violent.
Mace, in an effort to protect the man, shouts that he wants to throw the guy in the sea. He grabs the guy and rushes out the door. Nettle and Robbie block the door for a second as Mace escapes.
Robbie and Nettle look for Mace, but can't find him.
They meet a gypsy woman and ask her for water. She's wary of the men and tells them she will give them water if they capture her escaped pig.
Nettle doesn't want to, but Robbie feels that he needs to get the pig in order to be sure he'll be saved.
Let's just say they don't catch the pig quickly. When they finally do, though, the woman gives them water and food, and helps them clean up.
Robbie and Nettle look for a place to sleep and finally find a cellar already crowded with men.
In the dark they are able to eat and drink without the other men taking their food.
Robbie becomes more delirious as his fever rages on, and his morale slips even as he tries to conjure Cecilia and think about his name being cleared by Briony. He is haunted by the things he has seen in the war.
Nettle tells him to be quiet—Robbie has been shouting without knowing it.
Nettle tells Robbie he looks terrible and makes him drink some water.
Robbie obliges, though he thinks the water tastes terrible, and tries to pull himself together in hopes of seeming better than he feels.
He tells Nettle he'll be staying on in France to tend to some unfinished business. Nettle sees how much his friend is struggling and tells Robbie that he has seen the navy and that they are coming to take them home tomorrow. It seems like a lie, but it soothes Robbie.
Robbie remembers in detail the exchange he had with Cecilia before getting into the police car all those years ago. He remembers her promise to wait for him, how much her words meant to him—how much they still mean.
He promises Nettle he'll keep quiet and asks his friend to wake him in the morning.