he retreat from the Continent was a perilous time for Britain. The Germans were willing to throw everything into making it as dangerous and costly as possible for the island people. Britain’s French allies were full of suspicion about what they were depicting for propaganda purposes as a treacherous retreat. The British government was in disarray, with senior government ministers even proposing negotiating with the enemy in order to minimize the terrible ultimate cost that they now saw as inevitable. Everyone was crying out for leadership.
But enough about Brexit; what about Christopher Nolan’s new movie about Dunkirk?
Dunkirk is undoubtedly a blockbuster with a huge cast—Nolan has splendidly used thousands of extras rather than computer cartooning to depict the vast numbers of Allied troops trapped on the beaches—and a superb score by Hans Zimmer. Kenneth Branagh is a stiff upper-lipped rear-admiral, whose rather clunking script is all too obviously designed to tell the audience what’s going on; One Direction pop star Harry Styles is a British Tommy, and Tom Hardy is a Spitfire pilot who somehow shoots down two Heinkels while gliding, having run out of fuel about halfway through the movie. Mark Rylance, meanwhile, plays the brave skipper of a small boat taking troops off the beaches in the manner of Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver.
Yet for all the clichéd characterization, almost total lack of dialogue, complete lack of historical context (not even a cameo role for Winston Churchill), a ludicrous subplot in which a company of British soldiers stuck on a sinking boat do not use their Bren guns to defend themselves, problems with continuity (sunny days turn immediately into misty ones as the movie jumps confusingly through time), and Germans breaking into central Dunkirk whereas in fact they were kept outside the perimeter throughout the evacuation, Dunkirk somehow works well.
It works for the same reason that the 1958 film of the same name directed by Leslie Norman and starring Richard Attenborough and John Mills did. The story of the nine-day evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940 is a tale of such extraordinary heroism, luck, and intimate proximity to utter disaster that it would carry any film, even a bad one, and Nolan’s is emphatically not a bad one. Although the dogfights take place at ridiculously low altitudes, they are thrilling, and the fact that one doesn’t see a single German soldier until the closing scene, and then only two of them in silhouette, somehow works, too. See the film on the biggest screen you can, which will emphasize the enormity of the challenge faced by the Allies in getting over 336,000 troops off the beaches for the loss of only 40,000 killed, wounded and captured.
There is a scene when the armada of small boats arrives at the beaches that will bring a lump to the throat of any patriotic Briton; similarly, three swooping Spitfires are given a wonderfully evocative moment. The microcosm of the evacuation that Nolan concentrates on works well, despite another silly subplot in which a British officer with PTSD (played by Cillian Murphy) kills a young boy on Rylance’s small boat. That all the British infantry privates, not just Harry Styles, look like they sing in boy-bands doesn’t affect the power of seeing them crouch en masse under German attack in their greatcoats and helmets on the foam-flecked beaches.
On the tenth of May in 1940, Adolf Hitler invaded France, Belgium, and Holland, unleashing Blitzkrieg on the British and French armies—a new all-arms tactic of warfare that left his enemies reeling. He also sent tanks through the forests of the Ardennes mountains, which were considered impassable, and by May 16, some panzer units had already reached the English Channel. With the British and French in full retreat, on May 24 the Fuhrer halted his tanks’ headlong advance for various sound military reasons—he wanted to give his men some rest, did not want to over-extend the German army, needed to protect against counter-attack, and wanted his infantry to catch up. From May 26 to June 3, the Allies used this pause to throw up a perimeter around the French port of Dunkirk, from whose pleasure beaches more than a quarter of a million British and more than 80,000 French troops embarked to cross the Channel to safety in Britain.
Protected by the Royal Air Force, which lost 144 pilots in the skies over Dunkirk, and by the French air force (which plays no part in this movie) and transported by the Royal Navy (which doesn’t seem to be able to use its guns against the Luftwaffe in this film, but which luckily did in real life), British and French troops made it to Dover, albeit without any heavy equipment which they had to destroy on the beach. An allusion is made to that when Tom Hardy destroys the Spitfire he has (I must say quite unbelievably) landed on a beach in order to prevent its falling into German hands.
In response to a call from the British government, more than 700 private vessels were requisitioned, including yachts, paddle steamers, ferries, fishing trawlers, packet steamers and lifeboats. Even today when boating down the Thames it is possible to see small pleasure vessels sometimes only fifteen feet long with the plaque “Dunkirk 1940” proudly displayed on the cabins. That 226 were sunk by the Luftwaffe, along with six destroyers of the 220 warships that took part, shows what it meant to rise to what was afterwards called “the Dunkirk Spirit.” It was a spirit of defiance of tyranny that one glimpses regularly in this film, even if Nolan does have to pay obeisance to the modern demands for stories of cowardice alongside heroism, and the supposedly redemptive cowardice-into-heroism stories that Hollywood did not find necessary when it made Mrs. Miniver in 1942.
Nolan’s Dunkirk implies that it was the small boats that brought back the majority of the troops, whereas in fact the 39 destroyers and one cruiser involved in Operation Dynamo brought back the huge majority while the little ships did the crucial job of ferrying troops from the beaches to the destroyers. Six of which were sunk, though none by U-boats (which the film wrongly suggests were present).
Where Nolan’s film commits a libel on the British armed services is in its tin ear for the Anglo-French relations of the time. In the movie, a British beach-master prevents French infantrymen from boarding a naval vessel, saying “This is a British ship. You get your own ships.” The movie later alleges that no Frenchmen were allowed to be evacuated until all the Britons were safely back home. This was not what happened. The French were brought across the Channel in Royal Navy vessels and small boats when their units arrived on the beaches.
There was no discrimination whatsoever, and to suggest there was injects false nationalist tension into what was in truth a model of good inter-Allied cooperation. Only much later, when the Nazi-installed Vichy government in France needed to create an Anglophobic myth of betrayal at Dunkirk, did such lies emerge. It is a shame that Nolan is now propagating them—especially since this might be the only contact that millions of people will ever have with the Dunkirk story for years, perhaps even a generation. At a time when schools simply do not teach the histories of anything so patriotism-inducing as Dunkirk, it was incumbent on Nolan to get this right.
In a touching scene at the end, one of the Tommies is depicted reading from a newspaper Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4, 1940, with its admonition: “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Churchill made no attempt to minimize the scale of what he called a “colossal military disaster,” but he also spoke, rightly, of the fact that it had been a “miracle of deliverance.” That is all that matters in this story.
So despite my annoyance at how many little details are off here—for example, Tom Hardy firing 75 seconds’ worth of ammunition when he would really have only had 14.7, or choppy weather when the Channel was really like a mill pond—I must confess that such problems are only for military history pedants like me. What Nolan has gotten right is the superb spirit of the British people in overcoming hatred, resentment, and fury with calmness, courage, and good humor.
Which brings us back to Brexit.