Reviews of Christopher Nolan’s new film on Dunkirk, which take quite opposite points of view.
Dunkirk without Context
Dorothy Rabinowitz, in The Wall Street Journal, proclaims “the dumbing down of Dunkirk.” Mr. Nolan, she writes:
…considers Dunkirk “a universal story…about communal heroism.” Which explains why this is—despite its impressive cinematography, its moving portrait of suffering troops and their rescuers—a Dunkirk flattened out, disconnected from the spirit of its time, from any sense even of the particular mighty enemy with which England was at war.
When an event in history has become, in the mind of a writer, “universal” it’s a tip-off. the warning bell that we’re about to lose most of the important facts of that history, and that the story-telling will be a special kind—a sort that obscures all specifics that run counter to the noble vision of the universalist.
No wonder those German Stukas and Heinkels bombarding the British can barely be identified as such. Then there is Mr. Nolan’s avoidance of Churchill* lest audiences get bogged down in “politics”—a strange term for Churchill’s concerns during those dark days of May 1940. One so much less attractive, in its hint of the ignoble and the corrupt, than “communal” and “universal”—words throbbing with goodness. Nothing old-fashioned about them either, especially “universal”—a model of socio-babble for all occasions.
*Churchill’s post-Dunkirk speech is read by a soldier at the end. See my review.
Meanwhile, Manohla Dargis in The New York Times calls it a “brilliant” film. “Dunkirk,” she writes, “revisits a harrowing, true World War II mission in a story of struggle, survival and resistance.”
Dargis’ review, one friend says, should reduce my concern about Churchill being heard but not seen in the movies: “It seems clear about who made the big decisions. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ sidelined the politicians, and properly so.” Joshua Distel, a learned friend who saw “Dunkirk” agrees:
Churchill’s words were used to great effect. The WSJ review does not understand the film as it understands itself, so to speak. The film is about survival, in the air, in the water, and on land. The film does not cover conduct or strategy or the war. It is about the heroism of the individuals at Dunkirk. The script relates the moments where they did or did not do what they ought to have done. It is about fear and danger.
Port without Stilton?
If Mr. Nolan wished simply to display the courage of troops and their rescuers, fine. But forgive us Churchillians for being a wee bit sensitive after the aforementioned bio-pix.
For us, Dunkirk without Churchill, or other valiant heroes who directed the operation, is like Port without Stilton, as Sir Winston once remarked. “Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” Consequently, the story is half-told, one-dimensional.
“Saving Private Ryan” did feature George Marshall (Harve Presnell) making a difficult choice. Should he save the last of four brothers in the midst of a desperate battle across France? This emphasizes the trauma of a command decision involving lives, which could not have been easy. “Private Ryan” is a moving piece of drama, one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
But “Saving Private Ryan” was the story of raw courage by a small unit of soldiers. It was not the epic rescue of entire armies. Many wise colleagues around Churchill thought the attempt foolhardy. Churchill ignored them. His words and speeches sparked a “spontaneous movement which swept the seafaring population of Britain.” As he wrote in his memoirs:
* * *
Everyone who had a boat of any kind, steam or sail, put out for Dunkirk. [They were aided] by the brilliant improvisation of volunteers on an amazing scale. The numbers arriving on the 29th were small, but they were the forerunners of nearly four hundred small craft which from the 31st were destined to play a vital part by ferrying from the beaches to the off-lying ships almost a hundred thousand men. In these days I missed the head of my Admiralty Map Room, Captain Pim, and one or two other familiar faces. They had got hold of a Dutch schuit which in four days brought off eight hundred soldiers. Altogether there came to the rescue of the Army under the ceaseless air bombardment of the enemy about eight hundred and sixty vessels, of which nearly seven hundred were British and the rest Allied.
And make no mistake. Had it gone wrong, Churchill would have been excoriated. By all the lesser pygmies who never had to face such decisions.
No Role for Churchill?
It’s not necessarily bad that the Prime Minister doesn’t appear in person, given the way he’s been portrayed elsewhere recently. The producers no doubt observed the eruptions caused by the aforementioned “bio-pix” that so bedizened the media. Whatever the reason, they missed a chance to add full depth to the story.
Carmine Gallo in Forbes writes in his own review that “words can inspire a nation.” Nor were Churchill’s words purely inspirational. He also told the truth. He dished out hard facts, requiring Britons to face reality. In fairness, the movie quotes some of his words:
Wars are not won by evacuations.… Our thankfulness at the escape of our army and so many men, whose loved ones have passed through an agonising week, must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster…
He also had words of hope and encouragement:
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. (4 June 1940, Churchill by Himself, 273).