It’s a difficult thing to communicate that you find World War II extremely interesting without coming across as massively offensive. After all, what are the phrases that you usually use, “Oh my god, I love World War II!”. “World War II was the best!” “Wasn’t World War II just completely fascinating?” Probably not to all the millions of people who died during it – no! You have to choose your words carefully. I blame my high school history teacher. She was phenomenal. Her name was Mrs Gold and without again meaning to sound incredibly offensive, she was like a piece of history herself. I don’t ever remember taking notes in her class. I just remember listening. She spoke about Napoleon as though she were Josephine herself. When I visited Paris a few years ago, I knew I had to go to Versailles, and I swear I could hear her voice in my head giving me a personal tour of the Hall of Mirrors.
She told us extraordinary tales of Grigori Rasputin – a family friend of Tsar Nicholas II – who simply refused to die. But then she also told us the tragic story of the execution of the Russian Imperial Romanov family, including the Tsar’s five children, during the Russian Revolution. It was almost as though we were in the room with them. We experienced the highs of the roaring 20s and the lows of the Great Depression in that classroom and learnt all about how Roosevelt’s New Deal was going to fix it all. We learnt about how Stalin’s failed revolution was killing his own people and we learnt that no one really won the Vietnam War. We learned about Hitler’s rise to power and we grew to hate Neville Chamberlain as we watched his policy of appeasement unravel (oh the value of hindsight and all that). Credit to Mrs Gold, she was able to show us, through her vivid storytelling, that an ordinary person, just like you and me, very well might have supported Hitler in the early 1930s. He sure did give a rousing speech, and in that moment, there was very little sign of what was to come.
With a teacher like that, how can you not be passionate about the past? The good, the bad, the tragic and the truly gruesome and grisly? Because Mrs Gold didn’t just give us facts, she told us stories. She didn’t just tell us about the Battle of Dunkirk, she made us feel as though we had been there. By May 1940, Germany had successfully invaded The Netherlands and Belgium. By the 26th of May, German advances into France had pinned the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) – some 400 000 men – and the French First Army in a corridor to the sea. They were flanked by two massive German armies and had no way out except across the sea. In a matter still debated to this day, on the 24th of May, Hitler gave a Halt Order, ordering his troops to halt their advances on the Allied troops in Dunkirk. Some believe this is because the terrain around Dunkirk was thought unsuitable for tanks and his advisors believed his land forces could be put to better use elsewhere. There is also the argument that the commander of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring, wanted the glory of destroying the forces at Dunkirk from the air. Whatever Hitler’s reasons, he was clearly confident the Allies were already doomed either way, but nonetheless, rescinded the Halt Order on the evening of the 26th of May. However, he had already given the Royal Navy enough time to co-ordinate an evacuation plan of British and Allied troops.
From the 26th of May – 4th of June 1940, 338,226 men escaped, including 139,997 French, Polish, and Belgian troops, together with a small number of Dutch soldiers, aboard 861 vessels (of which 243 were sunk during the operation). The docks at Dunkirk were too badly damaged to be used, but the East and West Moles (sea walls protecting the harbour entrance) were intact. The last of the British Army left on the 3rd of June, and at 10:50, Captain William Tennant – in charge of the operation – signalled home to say “Operation completed. Returning to Dover”. Churchill insisted on coming back for the French and the Royal Navy returned on the 4th of June, to rescue as many as possible of the French rear-guard. Over 26,000 French soldiers were evacuated on that last day, but between 30,000 and 40,000 more were left behind and forced to surrender to the Germans.
I am somewhat saddened that this was not reflected at all in the movie. In reality, the entire evacuation at Dunkirk was only made possible by the fact that the French army held the perimeter around Dunkirk for long enough, buying time for the ships to evacuate. This 12th Infantry Division literally fought to the last minute on the 4th of June, protecting the evacuation, but unable to embark themselves. They were taken prisoner on the beach. Not one of them made the movie. There is only one French soldier in the entire movie. He pretends to be a British soldier so he can try and escape on one of the incoming boats. He even saves all the soldiers from drowning below deck when it is hit by a torpedo by opening the hatch from the outside. Yet when they find out he is French, they want to kill him. This seems a little fickle as Operation Dynamo – as the evacuation came to be known – rescued thousands of French soldiers. So, what’s one more? I felt this part of the storyline gave a really false impression of what the operation was all about. Yes, the young British soldiers were scared and wanted to save themselves first. But at the end of the day, Dunkirk was about saving all the Allies, not just the Brits. We didn’t need to see battle scenes on the perimeter but a one line mention of them would have been nice. I felt the movie massively undermined the role of the French to a disgraceful degree!
My love of history has always been about the stories, the people. That is what makes you connect with that moment in time. You don’t “love” World War II because of the horror and the brutality and “man’s inhumanity to man”. You “love” it because it showed what the human spirit can overcome under the most devastating of circumstances. You “love” it because it showed the unselfishness of people to come together and make immense sacrifices for the greater good at huge personal cost to themselves. And you “love” it because it showed that ultimately, good will triumph over evil. And sadly, for me, this is everything that Dunkirk lacked.
Apart from Mr Dawson and his two sons who make the journey on their pleasure boat to do their part and suffer a personal tragedy along the way, I made no personal connection with any other character. No one else has a story, hell most of them don’t even have names. If you scroll down the list of character names on IMDB it is littered with “French Soldier 1”, “Petty Officer 3”, “Stretcher Bearer”, “Lieutenant”, “Able Seaman”. Even characters with fairly significant speaking roles, played by well-known actors like those of Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, I couldn’t have told you their names after a one hour and forty-six-minute movie. No one spoke about their family. No one had a wife or a child to get home to. There wasn’t even a hint of a spirit of comradery between the soldiers – except maybe between the two RAF pilots (apparently called Farrier and Collins). When I compare this to every other war movie I have ever seen, I am just left hollow in this respect.
I know I was spoilt by Mrs Gold, I know this. When she told us about Dunkirk we were on a ferry belonging to a young man from Glasgow. It had been passed down from his great-grandfather. He left a young wife at home with a baby on the way to sale to Dunkirk to bring those men home. She told us about Al Deere, a Spitfire pilot who shot down a German Dornier before being hit in his cooling system and having to crash land on the beach. A woman in a nearby café tended to a wound above his eye before he made his way to the moles to be boarded onto a ship. Soldiers hurled abuse at him, asking where the hell he’d been, feeling completely abandoned by the Airforce as most of the action had taken place out of sight of the beach. And she definitely would have told us about the French 150th Infantry Regiment who held off the encroaching German forces, making the whole thing possible.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is very pretty to watch. It is well edited. The sound mixing and editing are excellent. Visually it is clean. It must have been a bitch to direct. There are a lot of people in it and a lot going on, so kudos there. But as a story it is cold. A very heavily edited history lesson. There is very little to connect to. I “love” World War II but I didn’t love this very detached retelling of a pivotal part of it.