Addressing the British parliament in June 1940, Winston Churchill described the German rout of the French, Belgian and British armies and the seaborne evacuation of 338 000 troops as a “colossal military disaster” writes Andy Stowe .
For a nation whose national identity is intimately bound up with war, victory and conquest it’s paradoxical that the retreat from Dunkirk has become such an important part of British mythology. Racist pub bore Nigel Farage tweeted “I urge every youngster to go out and watch #Dunkirk”, the massively successful new film by Christopher Nolan, in the week when discussion about Britain’s next major withdrawal from Europe mainly dwelt on the wisdom of eating chickens treated with chlorine.
Films about war are the most inherently political of all, and viewing the output from British and American directors over the last few years, you’d be forgiven for forming the view that the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are being made by honourable people doing their best to help out the benighted locals. Dunkirk is political too. Its central premise is that British pluck saved the day against overwhelming odds and the director seeks to lead us to this conclusion by playing fast and loose with history, playing up to particular British self-image and creating a superb piece of cinema.
It starts with his representations of the other combatants. Nolan avoids the standard trope of the decent German soldier who hates the Nazis by not showing the audience any Germans. In fact they are only ever referred to as “the enemy”. French troops appear three times. Briefly when they are defending the outer perimeter of Dunkirk, again when a group of them try and board a British ship and are refused, and the French character with the largest role has put on a British uniform and is trying to escape. Can’t trust ’em, you see.
It’s just not possible to watch Dunkirk except through the prism of Brexit and the orgy of British chauvinism that made it possible. The closing scene of the film has a character reading another extract from Churchill’s speech: “if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
It’s essentially the Tory programme for leaving the European Union. “There are big markets in the Commonwealth and the USA will bail us out.”
Nolan plays up a certain notion of British, or more specifically English, patriotism. Belfast born Kenneth Branagh channels Jack Hawkins in all those 1950s British war films. The left leaning Mark Rylance is the civilian boat owner who keeps calm when avoiding a strafing from a German plane. Tom Hardy is the epitome of the stoic Spitfire pilot. It’s easy to see how anyone in the audience who’d had a parent or grandparent fight in the British army during WW2 would feel a deep sense of pride watching this bloodless representation of war and Nolan definitely milks it.
Nevertheless, even viewers without that personal emotional attachment will get drawn into this astounding piece of film making. From start to finish, to the accompaniment of Han Zimmer’s masterful soundtrack, the tension barely relents. We may not see the result of bullets and bombs on bodies, but we vividly experience something of what waiting for death to randomly strike was like. Nolan plays with our emotions too. No matter how many times you’ve read The Meaning of the Second World War by Ernest Mandel you’ll get goosebumps when the small boats arrive or when Rylance goes into the offices of the local newspaper.
The kinetic drama even allows you to momentarily ignore the stupidly Anglocentric marketing slogan that it was the “event that changed our world”. Stalingrad has a better claim on that idea. It was there that the Red Army decisively defeated the Germans. Dunkirk was not even a sideshow by comparison.