Hollywood production by Christopher Nolan disrupts nationalist fantasies
It was hard to tell how much time had passed, but about 30 or 45 minutes into the film, I looked around to gauge the audience reaction. It felt almost voyeuristic, given how intimate the collective experience was. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) is both unique, yet realises something essential about entertainment and of artistic creation itself: it transports us from the everyday to a place where time and space are no longer governed by normal measure.
Stripped of all narrative except what we know already from history books, reduced to the bare minimum of character and nearly devoid of comprehensible dialogue, Dunkirk is as close to the avant-garde as a Hollywood blockbuster has ever got. Confirming that there is no separation between art and society, it has been met by a debate quite unlike any other war film that I can remember. Dubbed Tory-porn, a Brexit fantasy, and a whitewashing of imperial history, one might say that never in the field of film criticism has so much been said, with such self-assurance, to so little purpose. Indeed, Dunkirk offers a demythologisation of the Dunkirk legend itself and unnerves the simplistic jingoism that denies culture its true value.
It is common for nationalist zealots to prefer literalism over critical subtlety, but they vandalise culture in the process. WH Auden wrote ‘Funeral Blues’ – known as ‘Stop All the Clocks’ – to satirise the pomp accorded to grand personages, but it appears in Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell) with the solemnity of a sermon. William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ is a hymn to the radicals of the French Revolution, not the British Conservative party, while ‘This England’ that Shakespeare put into the mouth of John of Gaunt in Richard II makes more sense as the fallible dotage of an ineffectual old man (for England has never been an isle, sceptered or otherwise).
They say the first casualty of war is the truth. Although it has escaped the attention of most columnists, Dunkirk is not a British film. It is a Hollywood production with French and Dutch backing – three entities not historically sympathetic to the British Empire (Hollywood has historically used Britain’s empire as an allegory for Nazi designs on Europe). While the question of whitewashing does indeed highlight how rarely troops from the colonies are accorded a voice in representations of the war, as far as the Brexit argument goes, the film’s gestation long predates the EU referendum. But more importantly, the whole basis of the film’s impact lies not in delusions of imperial grandeur but its opposite.
The heightened emotion the film is so successful in conveying is not the pluck, courage and calm under fire of the British soldier, but demoralisation, and blind, sometimes murderous, panic. They are boys, they are terrified, and they are not protected by their navy. The film’s starting point is French troops enabling the British evacuation – troops whom British officers then refuse to help. Moments of class antagonism between privates and officers jostle with those of national antagonisms. This accords with historical record: Britain’s domestic spies reported that ordinary Britons considered the French to have been sold out by their own leaders, just as the British suspected they too would be in the event of invasion. The inclusion of a Dutch character who helps the Tommies at a crucial point underlines how this is a film about European co-operation, not standing alone against continental cowardice.
The film presents retreat as an extended state of vulnerability. The dramatic stage is ruptured between airborne pursuit, the undulating sea, and the perilously exposed pier on which the soldiers helplessly await their fate. It interweaves three different temporalities, so that the only measure remaining is not human time, but the grand movement of history. It is a moment of crisis, a stalled movement between two landmasses that geography and European rivalry have made tantalisingly close, and yet utterly separate.
Dunkirk thus goes far beyond the war film’s focus on the camaraderie of the military unit. Granted, it is an all-star cast, and hymns to the magnificence of air warfare are inherently fascistic; the far-right Italian Futurists wrote poetry to the beauty of fighter jets, and Franco’s slaughter of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War unleashed the horrors of aerial bombardment on the world. And the film does indeed offer something to believe in, an emotional release that breaks the stasis and delivers hope.
But how does salvation arrive? While the army command will not send its naval destroyers, and the officers refuse to help the French, an anonymous multitude of ordinary men and women arrive in popular solidarity, reaching out to the French and British alike (one can’t imagine Nigel Farage supporting such help to shipwrecked foreigners). The Soviet filmmaker Eisenstein introduced the idea of a collective hero to cinema, whereby the masses are the protagonists of history, not exceptional individuals. Wartime British propaganda offered something similar, and the idea of pulling together contains a radical vision of equality. Dunkirk revives this tradition, repositioning the evacuation as the first act that led to the postwar construction of the welfare state. For if the full might of a nation’s resources can be used in a massive plan of national rescue against a foreign enemy, then can’t the same be done for rescue from the scourges of illness, poverty and inequality?
All this does certainly produce a misty eye for the wartime spirit. But even at the moment of greatest sentiment we are cued not to mistake the symbols of national mythology for reality. As the soldiers sail home, Hans Zimmer’s music assumes the strains of Elgar. Proudly passing the white cliffs of England, a soldier asks “Is this Dover?”
“Er no,” responds the sailor, “Dorset.” Again undercutting the clichés of patriotism, the film ends with Churchill’s famous speech after the evacuation – except it doesn’t. His words are read fitfully from a newspaper by the teenage protagonist, a soldier who didn’t fight on the beaches but who ran instead. He reads it out to the fellow soldier he came to blows with when they were both facing death. The speech ends, but the film doesn’t. The camera returns to the boy’s hesitant face. Behind claims of fearlessness lies this look, vulnerable to the possibility of defeat.
Dunkirk reinserts the fractious panic into our myths of natural resilience. It places uncertainty back into the historical record. It reminds us that the land we live in is not the product of God-given right, but mutual endeavour. The potential of that is radical.
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