Christopher Nolan, the Trump of Dunkirk, Misses the Boat

By Diane Klein

In "Dunkirk," Christopher Nolan (of "Interstellar" and "Dark Knight" fame) has given us a war movie only Donald Trump could love.  Full of bombast and spectacle, it is ignorant of history, devoid of nuance, frequently unintelligible, and ineloquent.  It is a movie by, for, about, and starring handsome Anglophone White men, and reflects a view of history in which only their lives matter.

The film's subject is the evacuation from Dunkirk in Northern France, of more than 300,000 Allied troops, mostly the British Expeditionary Force but also French, Belgians, and others.  The evacuation occurred between May 26 and June 4, 1940 - but the film takes place in what critic David Edelstein calls "Nolan time" - "cutting among several locations in several timelines." However effective this may have been in "Memento," here, it serves mostly to confuse and distract. Nolan's film doesn't tell us what year it is, much less what day - but perhaps that is because he can't.

One of the film's main narratives is a cross-channel flight that occurs in close to real time (that trip, like the film, takes about two hours).  But even as our nameless masked Spitfire pilots mumble and soar through Hans Zimmer's blaring soundtrack, events unfold below that necessarily take much longer - the channel crossing of one of the "Little Ships" and its return (the second main narrative); and multiple attempts by our nearly-wordless hero to get aboard any ship that can take him home (the third narrative), while a fictionalized British Navy Commander oversees the evacuation.

Early in the film the stranded soldier seeks momentary shelter behind sandbags with the French in the town of Dunkirk; he meets a comrade on the beach; he finds himself aboard at least one ship torpedoed by night, and by the end he is back in England, docking in darkness, sleeping on a train, and waking up to read Churchill's immortal "We will fight on the beaches" speech aloud from a newspaper (on what must be June 5, 1940, because the speech was delivered to the House of Commons on the afternoon of June 4 and the soldier reads it from a freshly-delivered daily paper). All while the pilot makes a single Channel crossing.

But the real crimes of "Dunkirk" are the ones it commits against history, not art.

Shall we begin with the fact that this is a World War II movie in which the word "Nazi" is never mentioned and only an aviation buff could recognize the Luftwaffe overhead?  Even the word "Germans" seems to have been purged from the script, in favor of the more anodyne "enemy."  Who is this nameless, faceless "enemy" that menaces France and England?  Nolan will never tell.

But it is not only the Germans who are almost absent from the film. Despite shooting much of it on location in France, the French are almost nowhere to be seen (or heard).  French critic Jacques Mandelbaum seeks to remedy that in Le Monde, writing a scathing review that includes this:
La bataille de Dunkerque est en effect, ici, une histoire purement anglaise.  Une dizaine de secondes consacreéà un groupe de soldats français, au demeurant peu amènes, défendant la ville, quelques autres dévolues à un second rôle déguisé en soldat anglais pour fuir le massacre, ne font pas le compte de l'implication française indispensable à cette folle évacuation.  Sans doute les Allemands ne sont-ils jamais montrés non plus, autrement qu'à travers leur puissance de feu. Sans doute encore ne peut-on nier à un créateur le droit de focaliser son point de vue sur ce que bon lui semble. Tant que ce point de vue, du moins, ne dénature pas la réalité qu'il prétend représenter.
Où sont, dans ce film, les 120,000 soldats français également évacués de Dunkerque? Où sont les 40,000 autres qui se sont sacrifiés pour défendre la ville face à un ennemi supérieur en armes et en nombre? Où sont les membres de la première armée qui, abandonnes par leur alliés estimant la partie perdue, empȇchent neanmoins, à Lille, plusiers divisions de la Wehrmacht de déferler sur Dunkerque? Où est mȇme Dunkerque, à moitié détruite par les bombardement, mai rendue ici invisible? 
Where, indeed?  Instead, we get scene after chronologically scrambled scene of beaches full of White Englishmen, sinking ships crowded with White Englishmen, Spitfires flown by White Englishmen, and a boat sailing across the Channel piloted by - you guessed it - a few more White Englishmen.

By omitting the Siege of Lille, in which outnumbered French infantrymen held off the Germans from May 28-31, 1940, to allow the evacuation to occur, and then omitting all but one lonely dissembling Frenchman from the evacuees (played by a Welshman!), the inspiring true story of cooperation between the Allies disappears.  As Mandelbaum points out, the French are portrayed as the collaborators they had not yet become.  As a result, when Commander Bolton decides, near the end of the film, not to evacuate with the last of the Englishmen but to stay "for the French," we have no idea why he would do such a thing.

But it's not just the French who are inexplicably absent from an historical event that occurred on their own shores.  Also MIA are the non-White non-Europeans who were there.

One reason people come to believe that people of color did not participate in the great events of history is that representations of those events consistently exclude them.  That may partially explain (though it does not in the least excuse) how a reviewer like Tom Rogan at the Washington Examiner, after properly scolding other reviewers for overstating the purely military-historical significance of Dunkirk, can come out with out a howler like this: "What measure of honor would there be to inject 'actors of color' into a historical event in which no persons of color served?"

I don't know how to answer that offensive half-rhetorical question, other than to point out that Dunkirk was not such an event.  Historian John Broich, though relatively kind to the film overall, does point out the omission of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps and the 2nd North African Infantry Division (the 2e Division d'Infanterie Nord-Africaine, or DINA).

A Dunkirk story involving the Indian Army that is well-known to British historians (and is it too much to have expected half-British screenwriter Nolan to have consulted one?) concerns John Ashdown.  Ashdown was an Indian Army officer of the 14th Punjab Regiment, who brought a platoon of Indian soldiers and their mules (the 32nd Animal Transport Company (Mule)), to join the BEF in France. Though ordered to abandon the mules and the men during the retreat to Dunkirk (and save officers only), Ashdown disobeyed, marched his platoon to the beach and "secured a berth for them all on the last ship out before the jetty was bombed" - and then was court-martialed in England for his trouble.  The only part of that story in which Nolan shows the least interest is the bombing of the jetty (aka "The Mole").

And once the Siege of Lille was left out of the film, it is hardly surprising that no image of the French 2e DINA, comprising soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, is anywhere to be seen.  Persons of color served, Mr. Rogan - greatly outnumbered by White Europeans, to be sure.  They were in Europe, after all.  But they served honorably in a conflict far from home, and many gave their lives. You just wouldn't know it from seeing Nolan's film.

Perhaps as regrettable as the omission of the stories Nolan doesn't bother to tell, is how badly he mishandles the one he does try to convey.

The story of Dunkirk - the story of Dunkirk, the story no other war movie can tell  - is the story of the "Little Ships" - the 800 or so requisitioned private craft, many small pleasure boats, some of which were captained by their own owners into a war zone. Over the course of a week, more than 328,000 men were ferried out to large destroyers that could not navigate the shallow waters, and ultimately brought to safety.  The ignominious defeat of the British Expeditionary Force was transformed not only into something of which the British could be proud, but into something which revealed the best of British identity, of European unity, of self-sacrifice for the preservation of human liberty, of decency, of courage.

And by the way, since Bolton is fictional, let me suggest a rewrite. When he catches his first glimpse through binoculars of the first of the Little Ships, and an Army officer asks what he sees, he says, "I see home" - when clearly, what he should have said is, "I see England."  The extreme pathos of Dunkirk is that the British were trapped less than 50 miles (as the Spitfire flies) from England.  They could not get to England.  So England came for them.

Apart from all its aesthetic shortcomings, in bringing this legendary episode of British history to the big screen, Nolan had a chance to counter, in some small way, the historic ignorance of Donald Trump, who knows little of our country's history and still less of Europe's.  He could have reminded us of the events that forged the American and European coalition Trump takes so lightly.  There isn't likely to be another Dunkirk movie anytime soon.  Christopher Nolan spent $150 million and he missed the boat.  The nearly-mute hero might as well have worn a "Make England Great Again" cap.