Dunkirk - was a 1950s English nationalist retelling inevitable?

Nolan’s Dunkirk amounts to a nostalgic remake of a 1950s WWII film where the brilliant cinematography & immersive sound fails to make up for the nationalist myth making and glorification of war.

I approached it ready to suspend political criticisms in the name of entertainment but found this impossible because both characters and story are weak and one dimensional. The story is only somewhat salvaged by the clever device of the three converging timelines that blend into a single story near the film’s end. So if you see it at all make sure to see the 70mm film on as big a screen as you can because viewed at home on a small screen or laptop the film has nothing to offer.

In the post Saving Private Ryan era its strangely bloodless, men killed through shooting or bombing simply crumply cleanly to the ground. As far as I can recall there are only two scenes involving even bloodstained bandages, a dying man on a stretcher and a young civilian who bangs his head after being pushed over. Both show the sort of quantities of blood you might generate from carelessly cutting a finger while chopping an onion. There is horror in the film but significantly it is not the direct consequences of the violent machinery of war but its side effects. Bombs do not blow men into a bloody gore, heavy calibre bullets do not blow chunks in flesh or limbs off. But men do burn alive when the oil covered water they are in catches light as a burning plane crashes into an oil slick. And they drown in suffocating darkness in the hold of a ship as it goes down after a torpedo strike.

All this is a visual signal to the lack of historical accuracy that typifies the films myth making. In this Dunkirk it is the flotilla of small boats that appears to take most of the soldiers off the coast, in reality 2/3 were taken off the mole (the pier like structure that in the film almost no one escapes from). The evacuation takes place with, at the opening of the film, the Germans only one street away from the beach. In reality they were still 3km away when the British evacuation had ended and the French begun. The RAF far from being absent flew around 3500 sorties and somewhat trivially German fighters had not yet painted their nose cones yellow. The Navy shore officer remains calm and collected throughout when in fact one officers panic resulted in a day long period when loading from the mole was abandoned as he had wrongly declared it unusable.

What has already attracted considerable discussion is that almost all the British and French troops are white, while in reality both armies included numbers of colonial troops, small at that location and point in the war on the British side but quite significant on the French. This matters in Brexit era nationalist myth making in more ways than one but in particular because Nolan chooses to end the film with the surviving soldiers reading in a newspaper thrust threw the train window Churchill’s ‘We will fight on the beaches’ speech. Nolan includes the imperialist element where Churchill declared “even 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.”

In 1943 some 3 million Bengali’s died of famine under Churchill’s war year’s management. The British destroyed fishing boats and rice stocks in coastal regions so they could not be captured in the event of a Japanese invasion, they continued to export rice as the famine developed and then they refused to divert Australian grain ships - whose cargo would be stockpiled in Britain. In the years after the war the Empire rebelled and segment by segment broke away leaving just the rump of countries where the original populations has mostly been wiped out and replaced by white settlers.

But at Nolan’s Dunkirk there are no Indians, South East Asians or East Africans among the British army and naval forces. We only catch a brief glimpse of the French army and that is also all white, missing those from what were then France’s North African colonies. Sunny Singh in a piece for the Guardian points out that the “non-white faces [that] are visible in one crowd scene” .. “were French troops scrabbling to board British boats to escape. .. In reality, non-white troops were at the back of the queue for evacuation”.

To be fair to Nolan the absence of people of colou
is in part because only some British colonial troops had arrived and the French, who hardly appear, mostly left their colonial troops behind when they evacuated. As we shall see the British tried to do the same with the limited number of colonial troops they had present. The crew of the small boats were white, it was the merchant marine ships that had a 25% South East Asian or East African crew but those ships don’t appear in the fantasy version of the evacuation where no one gets taken off the mole.

Those defending the film have of course fallen back on ‘its just art’ and these historical realities but these two are odd positions to argue at once. The film maker chooses what aspects of the historical realty to emphasise and or even show at all. A ‘Dunkirk’ that opened with a white British officer being ordered to abandon the Indian troops under his command to the tender mercies of Nazi Germany would inevitably have told a very very different story. It wouldn’t have been fiction though, the father of British politician Paddy Ashtown, who commanded a platoon of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, faced a court martial after Dunkirk because he had refused to obey an order to abandon these Punjabi soldiers. Instead he had marched them to the mole and got them on the last ship.

That would make quite a dramatic Dunkirk film but one that is unlikely to be made except perhaps by the film industry in Pakistan. The use of film to relate historical stories always involves the choice as to what stories to tell and therefore those choices can and should be judged. Indeed as is the case with Dunkirk the individuals are generally fictionalised inventions created in order to tell the exact story the film maker wants to. There were many many possible Dunkirk stories that Nolan could have chosen to tell, his selection is deliberate and not accidental.

Dunkirk was made at a time when there has been a surge of English nationalist racist colonialism of which Brexit is only a single symptom - the referendum took part at the mid point of the films production. Nolan choose’s to tell a story where Britain is forced to retreat for a period from Europe, almost entirely without aid except for the Empire on which it can fall back on if need be. The state institutions in the form of the British Navy & RAF aren’t up to the job so they plucky men of England have to come to the rescue in their small boats. The experience is demoralising for the retreating soldiers but by the end the popular support of the people will see them lift their head’s in time to hear Churchill’s appeal to Empire.

In telling the story he bends reality a little. We can imagine another film being made where the story centres instead on the Punjabi soldiers, the RAF planes have Polish crews and the men are lifted off the beaches by some of the 35 Dutch crewed flat bottomed ships that, because of their shallow drafts, did transport huge numbers. All the time the action cuts back to the perimeter manned by French troops including the colonial troops from North Africa and perhaps even some of the tens of thousands of Polish troops that were also in France. And maybe it ends with a flash forward to the anti-colonial revolts from Kenya to India that ended the Empire less than two decades later.

Such a selection of stories if told would draw howls of outrage from those so keen to praise and defend the version of Dunkirk that the films relates. To my mind it would however make for a much better story than the rerun of 1950s English nationalist myth making that we see on our screens.

Andrew Flood (follow Andrew on Twitter)

  


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