Dunkirk then and now


Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has received widespread acclaim and not a few jeers. This indicates the film is worth discussing.

I personally disliked it intensely. I also found it unforgettable.

What did I dislike? Hans Zimmer’s score for one thing, which is uninspiring and relentless. Combined with explosions and sometimes thick accents, the dialogue is often inaudible. You can follow the action from the gesticulations and panicky responses of the cast, but that’s a second-best. Story-telling requires audible speech.

My big historical quibble is that it short-changes Admiral Bertram Ramsay and his staff’s remarkable work in organising the evacuation. Battles are often won not by conventional field commanders, but by the people who organise matters for them. The little ships were identified and rounded up by his men, but in the film the Royal Navy is depicted as a few slightly ineffectual stuffed uniforms; or, as Kenneth Branagh’s oddly static Commander Bolton, repeatedly staring from the Dunkirk mole into the Luftwaffe-dominated skies. The little ships were largely crewed by the Navy, or the Naval Reserve. The civilians made for a wonderful story, but they were only part of what went down.

Ramsay was called on later to help coordinate the D-Day landings, his second enormous success in the War. He was killed a few months later, which means he is less well-known today than those who survived into the days of TV interviews, but his accomplishment was solid.

On the positive side, the film catches the paralysed anxiety of the soldiers trapped on the beach. The evacuation took days, and air attacks by the Luftwaffe were constant and nerve-wracking. The closeness of England – a half hour’s drive away if there’d been a land-bridge – combined with the logistics of moving hundreds of thousands of men, made for a terrible ordeal. The German forces were ten miles away, their planes just a few hundred feet above; and their own small warships and minefields were a constant threat. To board an evacuation craft was no guarantee of making it safely across the sea.

The nostalgia aspect of Dunkirk is inescapable, and I have little patience with people complaining that such sentiments no longer apply. Who’s to say they wouldn’t if such an emergency recurred today? Would people with darker skins and hair than the pallid young Englishmen on that beach ‘do their bit’ if one of Angela Merkel’s successors unleashed a revitalised Wehrmacht on post-Brexit Britain?

Why not? People presented with crises manage them. My favourite example is the neighbourhood teams that came together spontaneously in the aftermath of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. They had no training, but they did what they could, and saved many people buried under rubble. In the three decades since, they have evolved to become an international rescue group.

Some criticisms of Nolan’s film derive from the generational gap in attitudes, and this is the hardest topic to address. I was born less than ten years after Dunkirk, and less than five after the War’s end. I grew up in its shadow, and its impact on my parents was immediate. My father served in the Army, on a searchlight team, and my parents’ house was bombed while my mother, aunt and brother were sheltering during an air-raid. But for someone born after the 1970s, the War is further away in time and mind-space; the social attitude markers have all shifted, and opinions on country, of society and other, related factors have shifted too.

Nolan (born in 1970) had to make a film for his own generation, one that would look far more at the feelings of the participants than at seeming near-abstractions such as service to one’s country. In consequence, his soldiers’ desperation and terror is well depicted. The efforts of senior officers to save them are not.

Of course, as always happens with any film about historical events, the scriptwriter, director and editor have to select, and select again. Moviemaking, like novel-writing, is about exclusion.

Yet the story of Britain’s struggle in the summer of 1940 can’t be isolated from its context. The context defined the individual experience, just as individuals’ actions magnified the context. The story is worth telling precisely because it did rise to mythic proportions.

To present the myth as something synthetic, an exaggeration or a grand rhetorical gesture, is to deny the actual reality of what happened between May and September in that terrible year. France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Denmark all fell, as Poland had in 1939. Britain’s leadership options came down to the respected Lord Halifax, a pre-War Nazi appeaser, and the irascible and oft-mistrusted Winston Churchill. Each man embodied an aspect of his country’s soul, and one was chosen over the other as France was falling. The one selected went on to become a myth in his own right, while Halifax (who considered Churchill a better wartime leader than himself) is largely forgotten.

I ended up respecting Nolan’s film because, as someone further from the events than the actual participants or my own generation, he attempted to retell it for people such as himself. He has made it come alive for a younger generation. And I disliked it because he tried to extract his story from the myth, when to do so distorts the story itself. The truth about that summer is embodied in men in small boats braving the North Sea to rescue stranded soldiers, just as it’s embodied in a couple of thousand young men in propeller-driven planes taking on a German air force twice their own in numbers. And in the domineering Churchill’s solemn speeches. Everything was larger than life in that summer.

Facts are facts, but grasping truth can require a stepping back from the known, the quantifiable, into a bigger perspective. Myths become myths because what occurred is mythical. Perhaps that is unfilmable. It still remains the greater reality.


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