Christopher Nolan’s epic movie about the May 1940 rescue of the British Army from the beaches of north-east France has become a worldwide box office sensation. This is splendid news for its makers, and can do no harm to American, Taiwanese or for that matter Rajput audiences. In the eyes of some of us, however, its impact is calamitous upon the British people at this moment in our fortunes.
Dunkirk contains no foreigners except a few understandably grumpy French soldiers. It is a British tale that feeds the myth which has brought Churchill’s nation to the cliff edge of departure from the European Union: that there is splendour in being alone. This was most vividly expressed at the time by King George VI, who wrote to his mother ‘Personally, I feel happier now that we have no allies to be polite to and to pamper’. One of the British officers who escaped with his battalion via the beaches greeted news that the French had surrendered on 17 June by exulting mindlessly to comrades in the mess: ‘Thank heavens they have, now at last we can get on with the war’.
Michael Korda, for decades a celebrated New York publisher, was born in Britain in 1933 as son of Vincent, one of the three Hungarian-born brothers who were cinema wizards of their day. Now he offers two books for the price of one, interweaving a historical narrative of the events of 1939-40, climaxing with Dunkirk, and a succession of vivid fragments of autobiography. He describes the flow of Jewish refugees through the North London homes of his childhood: ‘They had the haunted look of people who have just witnessed a bad accident, people with aggressive charm and formal manners who had grown up with the Kordas in Turkeve, or had been to university in Budapest with Alex, or loaned him money, or worked with my father on film sets in Vienna, Paris or Berlin’.
Holidaying in France in the summer of 1939, as the world tumbled towards catastrophe he recalls his actress mother constantly reprising the comic hit song of the day Tout va tres bien, Madame La Marquise, which tells of an aristocratic woman on holiday calling home to check that all is well, to hear from her servants of one catastrophe after another, each described as ‘a little incident, a nothing’, culminating in the suicide of her husband and incineration of her chateau. Korda writes: ‘Even as a boy of six I observed that everybody in France talked about la ligne Maginot reverentially, as if it were a holy object’.
He is very funny about his family’s experiences embarking on the film That Hamilton Woman, which eventually became one of Churchill’s favourites: his father, as set designer, failed to grasp that this was a tale of Admiral Nelson. Instead supposing it to be about General Wellington, he began to create a backdrop for the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels before Waterloo.
Once the European struggle began in earnest with the launch of Hitler’s blitzkrieg, ‘my mother, when she thought about the war at all, had the cheerful conviction that everything would work out well in the end because it always had for Britain, except for the war against the American colonies, and that was too long ago to matter’. He discerns among Britain’s modern Brexiters the same mood that he himself witnessed after Dunkirk.
This comparison seems valid. Johnson, Fox, Gove, Davis, Duncan Smith, Rees-Mogg and their misbegotten Tory kin daily assure the British people that once we have cast off the shackles that bind us to Europe, caravels laden with the spoils of free trade will bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to our island; as an added bonus, the sun will shine every day. Watching the Dunkirk movie, I half-expected foreign secretary Boris Johnson to appear in lieu of Winston Churchill, promising to hurl back the Hunnish hordes led by Angela Merkel, and to show no mercy to such knock-kneed Petainistes as France’s Emmanuel Macron.
The irony, of course, is that Churchill himself never saw anything in the least glorious about standing alone. In May and June 1940 he moved heaven and earth- even fantastically offering the Reynaud government political union with Britain- to persuade France to stay in the war rather than sign an armistice. When the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, Churchill embraced the tyranny of Stalin, morally indistinguishable from that of Hitler, and greeted the Russians as comrades in arms. The foremost objective of his premiership was to woo the United States into belligerence.
No man understood better than himself that, while Britain might somehow avert defeat, without fighting friends she could not conceivably aspire to victory. Only necessity and a supremely courageous willingness to defy reason, which many British politicians and generals felt unable to share, caused him in June 1940 to proclaim his country’s determination to fight to the last.
Our most eminent living historian, Professor Sir Michael Howard, who lived through that era relatively early in his 94 years, observed to me recently: ‘the great lesson of my lifetime is that all difficult problems and challenges are best addressed with partners and allies’. This is the wisdom that the modern Brexiters seek to trample, in a spirit that even the original jingoes of 1878 might find a trifle exuberant. They find the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ refreshingly bracing, which Churchill certainly did not. ‘I cannot say that I have enjoyed being Prime Minister v[er]y much so far’, he wrote wryly on 4 June to an earlier incumbent, Stanley Baldwin.
And so to the Nolan film. It possesses many of the virtues and vices of Steven Spielberg’s epics, wrapped in a union flag instead of the stars and stripes. It looks terrific, though noisier than any battle I have ever attended. It contains some adequate acting, reminiscent of the silent movie era, because the stars deliver few coherent lines, being instead merely required to look staunch, stressed, indomitable at appropriate moments.
As for storyline, the film opens with unseen Germans firing on a group of British soldiers in the deserted streets of Dunkirk town, killing all but one, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), whose experiences during the ensuing week, on the beaches and offshore, form a principal theme of what follows on screen. At intervals between being bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe, Tommy and various companions board ships in hopes of escape, only to find each in turn stricken. Computer wizardry generates extraordinary sinking scenes: Tommy’s escapes make Leonard de Caprio’s misfortunes aboard Titanic seem tame stuff.
Meanwhile the Royal Navy has commandeered a host of small boats from the harbours of the South Coast, and dispatched them to aid the evacuation. One boat-owner, named Dawson (Mark Rylance), sets forth with his teenage son Peter (Tom Glyne-Carney) and a young helper named George (Barry Keoghan). Their first encounter with the war comes when they rescue a traumatised soldier (Cillian Murphy) from a floating hulk. He is so appalled on finding that they are heading for Dunkirk, from which he has just escaped, that he tries to seize control of the boat, hurling George onto a ladder below, which his head strikes with fatal effect, a mawkish moment.
Meanwhile in the air, there are spectacular scenes as three Spitfires duel with the Luftwaffe over the Channel. One RAF pilot (Jack Lowden) ditches in the sea, from which he is rescued by Dawson and his son. As they then approach the beaches amid a throng of such craft, a colonel on the Dunkirk mole asks the Royal Navy’s Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) what the boats mean. Branagh offers a performance as the elegant, unruffled naval officer that Noel Coward- who played Captain Dickie Mountbatten RN in that notable wartime weepie In Which We Serve– might identify with. Now, Bolton answers the soldier laconically: ‘Hope’. In the cinema where I saw the film, at that moment the audience burst into spontaneous applause.
The small boats, including Dawson’s, load up with soldiers amid worsening perils- oil from a sunken minesweeper blazes on the water- before setting course for home, and a heroes’ welcome. Commander Bolton gallantly lingers on the mole, to ensure that some French soldiers can also get away. He remarks wryly that it has been not a bad fortnight’s work, to rescue 338,000 British, French and Belgian troops, when at the outset it was thought that no more than 30,000 could be taken off. Back home, the rescued Tommy reads in a newspaper Churchill’s heroic words to the nation, concluding with the vow that Britain will never surrender.
Most of us would agree that no work of art, whether novel, play or film, has a responsibility accurately to represent history, any more than Shakespeare did, or David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan opens with a 20-minute portrayal of the 1944 D-Day landings that is as vivid and realistic as anything we are ever likely to see on screen. Thereafter, however, that film deteriorates into routine Superman stuff, which bears no relationship whatsoever to anything that happened to US soldiers in Normandy.
The mini-series Band of Brothers is a superb piece of film-making, probably the best-ever about Americans in World War II, but it is suffused with the romanticism that colours all Spielberg’s work together with much of that of Stephen Ambrose, who wrote the book from which it derives.
Nonetheless, for the record we shall consider how far Nolan’s film tells the Dunkirk story like it was. There is no historical context, explaining why the British Army found itself on the beaches. On 10 May 1940 Hitler invaded France and the Low Countries. The British Army, together with a substantial French force, promptly hastened north into Belgium, expecting the Germans to reprise their 1914 Schlieffen offensive.
Instead, however, in fulfilment of the only authentic personal inspiration of Hitler’s career as a warlord, the Wehrmacht’s schwerpunkt or main thrust pushed through the Ardennes, meeting the French Army where it was weakest, and bursting across the Meuse. The British found themselves falling back, fighting desultory actions but chiefly making haste to avoid encirclement. When the panzers reached the Channel coast, cutting off the British, Belgians and French Seventh Army from the bulk of France’s forces further south, evacuation became the only plausible, though immensely difficult, option.
The first miracle of Dunkirk was that the German army scarcely interfered, partly because Goering assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe could dispose of the British, and partly because Churchill’s contingent was marginal alongside the forty-three divisions of the French army still in the field further south. There was no ground fighting in the town or port, so that Nolan’s opening scene is spurious.
In the movie, all the big ships seeking to rescue troops are sunk in dramatic circumstances, leaving small craft to do the business. This is a travesty. The Royal Navy sent 39 destroyers to Dunkirk, of which although many were damaged, only six were sunk. Two-thirds of all the men brought home sailed in big hulls, notably including the destroyers, just one-third in smaller ships.
The film shows air battles low over the Channel, whereas many soldiers came home full of bitterness towards the RAF because they never saw its aircraft: combat took place thousands of feet above, invisible to those on the ground or at sea. On the British side, it was dominated by Hurricanes, not Spitfires. Nolan shows a fighter floating for some minutes after ditching, whereas the huge Rolls-Royce Merlin engine in its nose would have sent the plane plunging to the bottom within seconds.
The character of Dawson may owe something to Charles Lightoller, a former officer on the Titanic who at the age of sixty-six took his boat Sundowner to Dunkirk, accompanied by his son and a friend, and brought home 120 men. Commander Bolton’s role at Dunkirk was fulfilled in reality by Captain Bill Tennant, who did a superb job as Senior Naval Officer. Oddly enough Tennant, as evidenced by his diary, later became a bitter critic of Churchill’s war leadership.
On screen, endless British soldiers perish. Michael Korda suggests that the British Army’s rate of loss was ‘comparable to that in the bloodiest battles of the First World War or the American Civil War, and an indication of just how hard the fighting was’. Yet what was remarkable about the reality was how few men died. In the entire May-June 1940 campaign, including Dunkirk and later episodes of which more below, just 11,000 British troops were killed, compared with at least 50,000 French dead.
A further 41,000 British troops were taken prisoner by the Germans, but alongside the 229,000 brought home, the ‘butcher’s bill’ was small. Gen.Sir Harold Alexander, who commanded the rearguard, told Anthony Eden on his return: ‘We were not hard pressed, you know’. This remark is sometimes cited as an example of ‘Alex’s’ bent for heroic understatement, but was no more than the truth.
Cinema audiences are left to assume that after Dunkirk, the British sat down on their island and prepared to resist the Nazis on the beaches. In truth, by one of Churchill’s more spectacular follies, he promptly insisted upon dispatching another two divisions, one of them newly-arrived Canadians, to Normandy and Brittany, to show the French government and people that Britain remained committed to fight on at their side.
His chief of staff, Maj.Gen.’Pug’ Ismay, gently suggested to the prime minister that it might be wise for these troops to proceed slowly towards France, since its cause was obviously doomed. ‘Certainly not’, replied Churchill angrily, ‘it would look very bad in history if we were to do any such thing’. Few great actors on the stage of world affairs have been so mindful of the verdict of future generations. On 13 June, four days before the French surrender and nine after the Dunkirk evacuation ended, British soldiers were still landing at Breton ports.
By yet another miracle, within days of arrival in France their commander, Lt.Gen.Sir Alan Brooke, persuaded Churchill that they must come home. This time there were no beaches- they embarked through the port. Many prisoners, tanks and vehicles fell into German hands, including the entire 51st Highland Division, and there was a spectacular disaster when the liner Lancastria, carrying something over 3,000 men, was sunk by air attack.
But the overarching theme was that thanks to Brooke, the prime minister was spared from evil consequences for his reckless gesture. Some 144,000 British troops, together with 24,352 Poles and 42,000 other allied soldiers, were brought to England. Only historians are much aware of this ‘second Dunkirk’, and it seems ill-natured to make much of the fact that of100,000 French soldiers brought to Britain, three-quarters thereafter chose to be repatriated to their homeland under Nazi occupation, rather than serve with Gen.Charles De Gaulle’s ‘Free French’.
As for the British people, for the rest of 1940- the mood turned sourer in the following year- they did indeed display a stoicism and even euphoria as irrational as today’s Brexiter exultation. The MP Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary on 15 June: ‘My reason tells me that it will now be almost impossible to beat the Germans, and that the probability is that France will surrender and that we shall be bombed and invaded…Yet these probabilities do not fill me with despair. I seem to be impervious both to pleasure and plain. For the moment we are all anaesthetised’.
The writer Peter Fleming, then an army staff officer, wrote in similar vein: ‘It was as though the whole country had been invited to a fancy-dress ball and everybody was asking everybody else ‘What are you going as ?’. A latent incredulity [gave]…problems connected with invasion the status of engrossing digressions from the main business of life…The British, when their ally was pole-axed on their doorstep, became both gayer and more serene than they had been at any time since the overture to Munich struck up in 1937’.
Among countless reasons for revering Churchill’s performance in 1940 is that he himself never for a moment succumbed to such silliness. Though he justly described Dunkirk as a deliverance, he also warned the House of Commons and the nation that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’. He knew that, while the men had been brought home, almost all their weapons and equipment had been lost: the British Army was effectively disarmed.
Thereafter he and his nation set the world a magnificent example of defiance. But it was an impotent defiance, from which both Britain and democracy were redeemed only by the belated arrival of allies. It was 1944 before Churchill’s soldiers, aided by huge infusions of American men, materiel and especially tanks, were fit to face a major European battlefield.
In the intervening four years, relatively tiny forces fought the Germans in North Africa and Italy, and a large imperial army surrendered to the Japanese at Singapore in February 1942. Contrary to persisting British delusions, Hitler’s enmity and ambitions always focused upon the East. In consequence of his invasion of Russia, the British and later Americans were granted the priceless luxury of being able to prepare at leisure for the belated June 1944 liberation of North-West Europe: the band of brothers of the US 101st Airborne Division, for instance, spent more than two years in uniform before hearing a shot fired in anger.
Michael Korda suggests that, thanks to victory in 1945, ‘Dunkirk was, and remains, perhaps the greatest British victory of World War Two, that rarest of historical events- a military defeat with a happy ending’. This assertion stretches a very large point, not least because Churchill himself regarded the outcome of World War II as anything but happy, because Britain’s voice in the world, not to mention his own, had become so much diminished.
It would be unreasonable to demand that Christopher Nolan should have injected more than a fraction of the realities above into his Dunkirk. The most absurd assaults on the film come from India, where critics complain that he does not feature the two companies of Indian service troops who were present on the beaches. This is comparable with British wailing when Saving Private Ryan appeared, that their soldiers were absent without leave from the screen. I wrote at the time that if any nation wants its role in any conflict glorified, it must make the films for itself.
Nolan seems to deserve congratulations for declining to include even a token American, for decades a pre-requisite for securing a US audience for a British war movie. Indeed, this imperative so intimidated many British directors and their screenplay-writers that gallant American characters were often depicted showing the stupid English how battles should be fought.
This latest epic represents little worse a version of history than did The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far or The Guns of Navarone. Some of us are grateful that so many schoolchildren are going to see it, because they will at least discover that in 1940 there were beaches; the rescue of an army; sacrifice and considerable fortitude by their forefathers. Britain’s grown-ups, however, should have been forcibly denied entrance to cinemas, at this moment when we are threatened with embarkation upon one of the most self-indulgent, wilfully foolish acts of self-harm in the nation’s history.
For all the charm of Michael Korda’s personal reminiscence of 1939-40, he is on much less sure ground in his narrative of the big events, partly because he is obviously a romantic, and partly because he relies heavily on elderly sources, including the British official history of the campaign in France, much of which is tosh. He is surely right, however, to conclude his book by comparing the emotions of the modern Brexiters with those of June 1940: ‘there was a national feeling of relief at leaving the Continent and withdrawing behind the White Cliffs of Dover’.
After Brexit takes place I fear that this time around, we shall be unable to rely upon the Russians to stage a grand diversion in the East, to spare us from the hideous economic, social, cultural and political consequences of attempting to fight on alone, without the impeccable justification that Hitler has forced such a course upon us.
Originally published in The New York Review of Books, 12th October 2017.