Nolan’s Dunkirk: “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans”

Nolan’s Dunkirk: “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans”

(Reviewed for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.) Dunkirk, pro­duced by Christo­pher Nolan, sets out to por­tray the 1940 res­cue of the Allied armies from the clutch­es of Hitler’s Wehrma­cht in terms of courage, hero­ism, sur­vival, and a few exam­ples of cow­ardice. In that he suc­ceeds admirably. In terms of context—in con­vey­ing an under­stand­ing of what Dunkirk was about—he fails utterly.

The real Dunkirk, 1940.

Drama Sans Meaning

Mr. Nolan says con­text wasn’t the aim. Dunkirk is about com­mu­nal togeth­er­ness and uni­ver­sal good­ness. But that could be shown on any beach in any war in the last hun­dred years from Gal­lipoli to Nor­mandy to Inchon. It’s dra­ma with­out mean­ing: good as far as it goes, but not going far enough.

We see this most obvi­ous­ly in the way Mr. Nolan com­plete­ly over­looks the polit­i­cal back­ground dri­ving the evac­u­a­tion. Giv­en the fre­quent mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Churchill in films late­ly, we should per­haps be glad he plays no role. Yet it was Churchill whose call inspired what he called the “spon­ta­neous move­ment which swept the seago­ing pop­u­la­tion of Britain.” But Churchill would just dis­tract view­ers, Mr. Nolan said. He didn’t want to trou­ble us with “pol­i­tics.”

Pol­i­tics? Churchill head­ed an all-par­ty gov­ern­ment, a coali­tion he assem­bled in a des­per­ate emer­gency. His con­cern was not pol­i­tics. It was the sur­vival of Britain, lib­er­ty, and west­ern civilization.

Nolan’s Missed Message

What’s more, delet­ing con­text obfus­cates just what these troops were real­ly fight­ing. In ignor­ing the iden­ti­ty, nature and goals of what it calls “the ene­my,” Dunkirk offers view­ers no con­cept of why Churchill said “we shall nev­er sur­ren­der.” Instead we get a kind of polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect vir­tu­al real­i­ty, deter­mined to offend no one—or as Noël Cow­ard par­o­died in more judg­men­tal times, “Don’t Let’s Be Beast­ly to the Ger­mans.”

His­to­ry vs Hol­ly­wood, which gives the film good marks for accu­ra­cy, illus­trates how swastikas seem to dis­ap­pear. Who was “the ene­my”? (

Mr. Nolan over­looks the real­i­ty that while “the ene­my” were brave and fought well, they also stood for some­thing. They fought for what Churchill called “a mon­strous tyran­ny, nev­er sur­passed in the dark, lam­en­ta­ble cat­a­logue of human crime.” There is no hint of this to jus­ti­fy the sac­ri­fices made by Dunkirk’s res­cuers and res­cued. It would be worth offend­ing some­body to con­vey under­stand­ing of a key his­tor­i­cal event.

To make mat­ters worse, real-life heroes are deter­mined­ly excised. Ken­neth Branagh, the great Shake­speare­an, plays a Roy­al Navy pier-mas­ter, “Com­man­der Bolton.” The actu­al pier-mas­ter was Cana­di­an-born RN Com­man­der James Clous­ton, who saw more than half the troops off before his motor­boat was bombed by the Ger­mans on the last night of the evac­u­a­tion. Clouston’s son asked the pro­duc­ers to cred­it his father. Every hero could not be hon­ored, they said.

Absent Heroes

But no heroes are hon­ored. Some claim Branagh is Cap­tain William Ten­nant, who hero­ical­ly super­vised on-scene operations—but Ten­nant isn’t men­tioned. We hear the name “Ram­say,” with­out con­text. Appoint­ed out of retire­ment by Churchill, Vice Admi­ral Sir Bertram Ram­say and his staff worked round the clock for nine days in a Dover bunker, dis­trib­ut­ing charts, orga­niz­ing buoys and the flow of ship­ping. In this film, they go unremarked.

The result of this decon­tex­tu­al­ized vague­ness is that the stage isn’t set for the spec­tac­u­lar footage to fol­low. We are told briefly that “the ene­my” (don’t let’s be beast­ly) has dri­ven the Allies to the sea. They await their fate in sur­round­ed Dunkirk. “Hop­ing for sal­va­tion. For a mir­a­cle.” That’s it. It is an intro equal­ly suit­able for a scene in Star Wars.

Review­ers have praised this dra­mat­ic cin­e­matog­ra­phy, but there is some ques­tion­able empha­sis. Sol­diers crouch for long min­utes in a beached trawler used as tar­get prac­tice by some­body (“the ene­my”?). Mean­while, large ships cap­size and sink quick­ly with the weight of one load of bombs. The aer­i­al dog­fight scenes are lengthy, but not sub­stan­tial­ly bet­ter than ear­li­er, low­er-tech films on the Bat­tle of Britain or Pearl Harbor.

Addi­tion­al­ly, the film seems to rush along toward the end, as if an alarm clock has gone off. For an hour or more we see strag­gling lines of troops on a beach, end­less, emp­ty sands, and a Chan­nel almost devoid of ships. Then, sud­den­ly, a fleet of lit­tle boats appears and 338,000 cheer­ing British, French, Cana­di­an and Bel­gian sol­diers (the last two groups not men­tioned) mirac­u­lous­ly escape.

A Poignant End

That said, when the film does reach its end, it is a poignant one – and it at last pro­vides a trace of con­text. At a south coast port the exhaust­ed, res­cued sol­diers climb aboard a train, gaz­ing out its win­dows at pass­ing views of the green and pleas­ant land that is Eng­land, and home.

Know­ing what they have gone through, that scene brings a tear even to the most jad­ed movie­go­er. It is an effec­tive device for a sol­dier to read Churchill’s words from a news­pa­per: “We must be very care­ful not to assign to this deliv­er­ance the attrib­ut­es of a vic­to­ry. Wars are not won by evac­u­a­tions…. what has hap­pened in France and Bel­gium is a colos­sal mil­i­tary dis­as­ter…. We shall defend our island, what­ev­er the cost may be.”

But what was the deliv­er­ance, and what was the dis­as­ter? Mr. Nolan fails to answer these ques­tions – and in so doing, fails to give his view­ers a clear pic­ture either of the extent of the dis­as­ter or the exhil­a­ra­tion of the deliv­er­ance. Dunkirk end­ed with civ­i­liza­tion fac­ing the great­est threat in history—and only one nation, or rather Com­mon­wealth-Empire, in arms against it. It imbued in the British the spir­it to fight on, as Churchill told them: “If nec­es­sary for years. If nec­es­sary alone.” But you wouldn’t know it from this ambigu­ous, indif­fer­ent film.

As a friend says, “This is very much a gen­er­a­tional movie. But the gen­er­a­tion it aims at is of this cen­tu­ry, not the last. Thus the mod­ern artis­tic empha­sis: aton­al music, ear-pierc­ing screams and bangs. We miss an oppor­tu­ni­ty for reflec­tion and under­stand­ing.” For those of “a cer­tain age,” Dunkirk has a fuller and deep­er mean­ing. Its pre­sen­ta­tion here doesn’t pass muster.

3 thoughts on “Nolan’s Dunkirk: “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans”

  1. Thanks for the reply. In the words of Sir Win­ston him­self, “I am an opti­mist. It does not seem too much use being any­thing else.” In the hope of reach­ing a com­pro­mise with a great man whose words I hang on with fas­ci­na­tion, I total­ly agree with you on the decon­tex­tu­alised state of mac­a­roni with­out cheese!

  2. If by “most of us” you mean those who have learned some­thing about his­to­ry, of course. But real his­to­ry isn’t much taught any­more, and vast tracts of gen­er­a­tions, as shown in inter­views, don’t even know who we fought, if they’ve heard of WW2 at all, much less why. It’s a dra­mat­ic por­tay­al of any war on any beach for the last cen­tu­ry, as devoid of con­text as mac­a­roni with­out cheese. Full marks for opti­mism, though.

  3. Whilst I total­ly accept that you are tech­ni­cal­ly cor­rect about the omis­sions sur­round­ing the polit­i­cal con­text and scale, I rather think that most of us (and not just Churchill devo­tees) are all too aware of the “mon­strous tyran­ny” that faced the world at the time. Seri­ous­ly, who isn’t? It hard­ly needs say­ing. Less is more in my view and the movie’s obvi­ous attempt to focus instead on the human dra­ma around those trapped on, or head­ing to, Dunkirk, makes it all the more pow­er­ful. You say that the open­ing words are akin to a Star Wars crawl. Had the text been strewn instead with a sum­ma­ry of the polit­i­cal back­drop of the time, it would have seemed heavy hand­ed, con­de­scend­ing and, in my view, all the more super­fi­cial. I absolute­ly felt the sense of dis­as­ter and deliv­er­ance, per­haps more vis­cer­al­ly and mov­ing­ly than ever before, and as a man whose late grand­pa made it home from that God for­sak­en beach, I will for­ev­er doff my hat to Nolan.

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