Iconic moments in history rarely tell the whole story and sometimes embody a lie or an unpleasant truth which a convenient untruth or an information blur will render more palatable. British military history in the 20th century is full of them: the war that would be ‘over by Christmas’; the valour at the Somme; the Battle of Britain; the Dambusters; the retreat from Dunkirk. (Retreat? Surely not; ‘evacuation’ would be better, or ‘re-grouping’.) Lying and euphemism are essential for the waging of war, and in World War 11 the British authorities were sometimes Orwellian in their mendacity, regularly in bulletins exaggerating the ‘kills’ credited to Spitfire and Hurricane pilots, for example, while ignoring the courage of vulnerable Atlantic convoys, the industry of women in armaments factories, and the disinterested physicality displayed by men hewing coal to keep the country fuelled. But then, as now, we appear to need jollying along with tales of derring-do, and women stuffing cordite into shells, unarmed merchantmen maintaining our lifelines, and benighted bolshie coalminers hacking at the face fit no bill.
But maybe it’s because we cannot deny the heroic contribution of those who did marginally less than officialdom would have had us believe. The ‘Few’ were certainly few and the ‘many’ ever in their debt. At the time, victory was everything, truth a necessary casualty. Perhaps it was this retrospective licence that allowed the film adaptation of Ian McKewan’s novel Atonement, and the novelist himself, to depict the beaches of Dunkirk as hellish and surrealistic, as hundreds of thousands of troops wandered on to the strand not knowing whether they’d make it across the Channel and with an almost world-weary attitude to their chances of doing so. From Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, now on general release, we might have expected something similar or even insightful, so well covered is the World War 2 genre in film. Kenneth Branagh as a jetty-bound Commander Bolton explains why there were no Royal Navy vessels in abundance to get the troops home and why it was necessary, that absence notwithstanding, to ensure Britain till had a soldiery to fight the battles to come. And at the end, one of the rescued infantrymen is homebound on a train and reading Churchill’s speech from a newspaper, quoting the front page as admitting that what had happened in Belgium and France pre-evacuation had been a military disaster.
So much we know. And, truth to tell, we know almost everything else this film chooses to depict in often harrowing detail – but not as harrowing as the first twenty minutes on the Normandy beaches in Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In fact, Nolan begins in documentary fashion as though wishing to establish a Spielberg-like mise-en-scėne but he is most of the time hampered by lack of numbers. When Branagh says there are 400,000 troops waiting deliverance, one is tempted to ask where they are. Where, too, are the hundreds of small boats which, like the centrepiece craft of Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, with his two sons aboard, sailed forth to pick up the evacuees? It was the unimaginably monolithic nature of the task that marked the Dunkirk exercise, yet everywhere in the film there is reduction: three Hurricane pilots represent the RAF, a couple of screaming dive bombers the Luftwaffe, and a half-dozen parallel stories inter-cut with some skill, but never enough to tell us what we could not ordinarily have imagined, reflect the almost anonymous personalising of mass trauma. The film’s low point arrives when Hans Zimmer’s visceral score opens out into an attenuated version of Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, as the rescue is at hand. The Spitfire pilot who has done his bit but run out of fuel makes a perfect landing on the beach, sets fire to his plane, and awaits capture by the German army which has reached the dunes. True grit, but he’s one pilot who wouldn’t be fighting further battles in the skies above the South coast. There’s almost a sense in which the jingoism is a parody. But surely not. The cast also includes Harry Styles, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead, and Jack Lowden, none of whom hog the celluloid any more than do Branagh and Rylance.
So what inspired the making of this film? The importunate French soldiers who also want to be evacuated but are told to join the queue (because Dunkirk was a case of putting Britain first) has risible parallels in current Euro-events, so let’s discount that. A new slant on the Dunkirk ‘miracle’? Well, the action is relentless but we get no sense of anything miraculous or incredible, which Dunkirk was. Controversy? There’s no attempt to explain why the Allies had been so shot to pieces that they had to make for the coast and hope for rescue. As a reminder of an important event in Britain’s military annals? Possibly. The problem with that approach is the temptation to segue into propagandese – hence the Elgar; hence the defiant fighter pilot waiting to be shipped to a PoW camp; hence the failure to suggest why, with the enemy queueing on the beach like proverbial sitting ducks, Goering did not seize his chance to end the war in 1940; hence Branagh’s tearful Bolton, a man who in reality probably had more worrisome things on his mind than a job done against the odds for which a sob was in order. Dunkirk the film is about heroism, self-sacrifice, the horrors of warfare, and warriors with little to say about what is happening to them. It’s familiar, even pedestrian, cinematic territory. And we knew the actual Dunkirk operation involved all that. Didn’t we?