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.
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?”
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.
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.)
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”.
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.
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.