If you haven’t yet seen Dunkirk and plan to do so, skip this review for a bit. If you have seen the movie, be forewarned that what you are about to read is a minority opinion. As a scholar of military history and war literature, I found it deeply disappointing. Even more so as this was one of the few non-comic book movies that Hollywood has put out in some time. I was hungering for a good cinematic drama. This wasn’t it.
When I first heard that Chris Nolan was planning a movie about Dunkirk, my thoughts were that this could either be great or horrible. The switch from the Phoney War of late 1939 and early 1940 to the German Blitzkrieg into France that Spring presents a spectacle of epic proportions demanding a Cornelius Ryan to tell the tale. None has really emerged, however, because the allied campaign at this stage was humiliating. To my knowledge, the British Army still has not assigned a campaign ribbon for this series of battles. It was melded into the larger crusade to free Europe from the Nazis.
I knew, however, that I was going to see a movie and wasn’t watching a documentary or reading a campaign history. So I was willing to be forgiving of the film for its historical license. I also knew from the reviews that characterization and narrative would be sparse, favoring a visual storytelling technique. What I was not prepared for, however, was the incoherence of that visual narrative. I was left essentially, to create my own story for the film based on what I already knew or could surmise. That’s why, I suppose, so many reviews of the film are positive. Each person sees what they want to see on the screen.
What I saw was a banal story telling me (yet again) that “war is hell” and that common soldiers are insanely brave (sometimes) even though they are lead by idiots who have no concern for their life. Trapped inside this old saw were the kernels of a better movie trying to get out. Here are three.
First, the scene at the beginning where an unnamed British soldier escapes an ambush in Dunkirk and jumps behind a sandbagged defense held by French troops. They curse at him in French and gesture towards the beach. (Post-Brexit message perhaps?) I would have loved to hear more about these brave soldiers who made the evacuation possible. Most of them ended up dead or in POW camps.
Second, the scene on the fishing boat where a group of Argyll and Southerland Highlanders are hiding in the hull waiting for the tide to rise. German troops have already flanked that part of the beach and shoot the boat to keep it from being used. They set out anyway and the vessel starts to sink. The men assume that if they unload some weight the boat will still float and plan to through the “silent man” overboard. When he finally speaks, and they discover he is Frenchman, wearing a British army uniform, they are all the more eager to throw him into to the sea. Ultimately, the boat sinks and the French man is left to drown as the others swim out of the wreck and are rescued by the civilian skipper of a motor yacht named Moonstone. (Wilkie Collins saves the day again?) Nothing is said about this moment of cowardice, but the men bear it with them on the train when they return home. The civilians cheer their heroism. They skulk and try not to make eye contact with them not because of the retreat but because of the men they abandoned to make their survival possible. Men they were willing to kill directly to get home.
Third, the scene on the motor yacht Moonstone where a soldier rescued from a ship sunk by a u-boat shoves a young boy and kills him trying to force the crew to turn back to England. His shoulder epaulette shows he is a low ranking officer (perhaps a lieutenant?). The civilian crew continues to lie to him about the boy’s death, even as he sees the stretcher with the boy’s body on it removed from the boat when they finally arrive back in England. I guess they want to save him the indignity of knowing he killed a child so he’ll be ready to defend England from Nazi invasion.
These stories are interesting because they belie the mythology that surrounds this event–The Dunkirk Spirit. Churchill, newly appointed Prime Minister, tried to spin this disaster into a triumph, and largely succeeded. The story told about this French port was one of civilian valor as small boats crossed the channel to “bring the boys back home.” We see this civilian valor. As for the soldiers, we see the baser instincts of human nature to preserve itself at the expense of all others (i.e. every man for himself). Of course, we don’t see this long enough for the lesson to register.
What does register is the stunning visual and aural spectacle. And those brief moments of narrative coherence in the air and at the end of the mole, where Kenneth Brannaugh finally manages not to overact, present the usual story of heroism in the face of superior enemy firepower. Stiff upper lip. God Save The King. Wot. Wot. Brannaugh’s character stays behind to try to save the stranded French and one of the unnamed RAF pilots who outflew his gas supply lands on the beach, destroys his plane, and waits for German’s to capture him. The two shadowy Germans pointing their rifles at him are (interestingly) the only actual Germans we see in the entire movie.
Perhaps I was hopelessly naive or out of step with the world I live in (more Call of Duty than Paths of Glory) but I was hoping for an updated version of the narrative technique used in A Bridge Too Far. I’ll never forget the hospital scene at the end as a wounded British paratrooper plays Vivaldi on the flute prior to his capture by the Nazis. The camera pans to show the cost of war.
In Dunkirk we feel the cost of war. I felt the visceral fear and frustration of the men trapped on the beach trying to get home. I wanted to start swimming myself. I also felt the fear of the men in the air and on the sea. But that was it. In a post-Brexit era, an age where attitudes of US isolationism outdo that of Col. McCormick in the 1930s, I’m afraid that isn’t enough. Viewers need and deserve more if we are going to dredge up the ghosts of WWII. This is just another exercise, I’m afraid, in nostalgia.