Is the Movie “Dunkirk” Dumbed Down?

Is the Movie “Dunkirk” Dumbed Down?

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.

Another view

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.

Sure­ly this one can’t be more his­tor­i­cal­ly inac­cu­rate than the three recent bio-pix which did fea­ture Churchill. “The Crown,” “Viceroy’s House,” and “Churchill” speak for themselves.

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).

5 thoughts on “Is the Movie “Dunkirk” Dumbed Down?

  1. 7/24/17

    As a fan of Dorothy Rabi­nowitz and Christo­pher Nolan I under­stand Ms. Rabinowitz’s mut­ed ire in her essay “The Dumb­ing Down of Dunkirk.”

    Her con­cern is that the lessons of essen­tial his­to­ry be con­veyed in a com­pre­hen­sive man­ner. She sees Mr. Nolan’s film as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to increase and mag­ni­fy that his­to­ry. But, when an artist choos­es to tell an emo­tion­al­ly detailed, hard, grit­ty and har­row­ing ver­sion of any sto­ry, they do so knowingly. 

    Ms. Rabi­nowitz for­gets this movie is not anoth­er Bat­man, Spi­der-Man, Iron-Man, but a bril­liant vision of the all too Hu-Man. We should be grate­ful to Mr. Nolan for bring­ing atten­tion to this event in any shape, form or degree. The last two gen­er­a­tions, spoon fed as they’ve been on iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics and polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness would ben­e­fit from the expo­sure but will not be dragged from their phones, tele­vi­sions or oth­er pas­times unless they are com­pelled by mov­ing sto­ry telling.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts. Your first guess is as good as any. Only Mr. Nolan can answer that, but it is cer­tain­ly a stan­dard, if sim­plis­tic, accu­sa­tion against Churchill. I have since seen and reviewed the film: click here.) Churchill was indeed men­tioned in the dia­logue and his speech after Dunkirk is read by a sol­dier; some crit­ics say he reads it in a monot­o­ne, but that’s how most peo­ple read it at the time. I thought it was a use­ful device—in fact, the best part of the film.

    The White House Epstein bust was a loan­er (2001), returned to the British Embassy before Oba­ma arrived, but Oba­ma did retain a sec­ond iden­ti­cal Epstein bust (pre­sent­ed 1965) upstairs, which he proud­ly showed to Prime Min­is­ter Cameron. The Embassy bust, again on loan, is now back in the Oval Office. So the White House has two again. (For details click here.)

  3. I have two com­ments from read­ing the WSJ review. Ms. Rabi­nowitz in the review said that Churchill was not cred­it­ed dur­ing the film and that this was a polit­i­cal deci­sion made by the direc­tor to avoid “con­tro­ver­sy.” My guess is that Churchill is con­sid­ered bad because he was a colo­nial­ist. I remem­ber that Pres. Oba­ma removed a bust of Churchill ear­ly in his first term because of colo­nial­ism. I also spoke to a friend who did see the film and he said that Churchill was cred­it­ed. So I do not know whom to believe. I guess this is part of “the fog of war”.

  4. Nor was “Ram­say” (men­tioned once), one of many heroes ignored in a par­tial account which could be about any war on any beach, pro­vides no con­text about who they were fight­ing or why, and goes out of its way not to. Vice Admi­ral Sir Bertram Ram­say, brought out of retire­ment by Churchill, worked round the clock with a valiant staff in a Dover bunker, direct­ing the entire oper­a­tion. It’s a one-dimen­sion­al film with some high points, of which the return­ing sol­dier read­ing Churchill’s words is one. My own review will appear shortly.

  5. This is a bril­liant film. The device of hav­ing the return­ing British sol­diers read­ing Churchill’s speech in a news­pa­per, uncer­tain as to what it real­ly means, is much more effec­tive than yet anoth­er ren­der­ing of a look alike actor giv­ing the rous­ing speech. Churchill is men­tioned a few times by offi­cers and sol­diers, view­ing events through their eyes at the time of cri­sis. I am a huge WSC fan; but he was not on the beach.

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