Why Dunkirk? Thoughts on Nolan’s version of the myth

Kenneth Branagh’s character of the naval Commander on the Mole in Nolan’s Dunkirk is based on a historical figure

Keith has already written about his response to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and I don’t really want to repeat or contest any of the points he raised. Keith is very concerned about formats for viewing and since Dunkirk exists in several different formats, I should note that I saw it at the Dukes Cinema in Lancaster in what I believe is the most commonly seen format, a standard DCP. I reviewed the 1958 version a few weeks back and immediately after the Lancaster screening I watched the BBC documentary The Other Side of Dunkirk from 2004 (see below for a YouTube link) and tried to explore the evidence about what actually happened in late May/early June 1940.

I’m not as much of a fan of Christopher Nolan as it seems most film critics and many ‘frequent cinemagoers’ clearly are. I’ve previously seen three of his films and none of them won me over completely, though I recognised the talent and the vision of the filmmaker. I don’t think his version of the  Dunkirk story has changed my view very much, though it is clearly a technically well-produced and well-researched film and some of the action sequences show real visual flair. Nolan was interviewed by Nick James in Sight & Sound last month (August 2017 issue) and his answer to the question “Why ‘Dunkirk’?” seems to be because it is a British story that hasn’t been told on the big screen “in the vernacular of modern cinema”. James seems then to have inserted in parentheses “since the Leslie Norman version in 1958”. Later he does it again. Does Nolan not know about the 1958 Ealing Studios version? Perhaps it isn’t ‘modern’ enough to count? More pertinent perhaps is that Nolan doesn’t mention Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel Atonement released in 2007. Though that film isn’t about the ‘Operation Dynamo’ (the British codename for the evacuation) as such, there is a lengthy sequence set during the wait for evacuation from the town which Wright re-created on the beach at Redcar, including a sequence shot in the Regent cinema which juts out onto the beach. The sequence included one of the most audacious tracking shots I’ve ever seen, across the whole beach and lasting more than 5 minutes. It helped Seamus McGarvey win an Oscar Nomination for Best cinematography and Atonement went on to make over $100 million worldwide. Nolan must remember it? In a recent post I discussed Their Finest (UK 2016) in which the ‘film within a film’ was about two women who took their father’s boat to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation. This fictitious film production to a certain extent refers back to an Ealing film of 1942 called The Foreman Went to France, which again, thought not directly about Dunkirk was about rescuing equipment during the retreat by the BEF (the British Expeditionary Force) in 1940.

Christopher Nolan seems very much a part of Hollywood and has never really been identified with British cinema – but it would be good if he knew more about it. Instead, his reference point seems to be Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a film which certainly changed expectations about how the Second World War could appear on screen. Many veterans have attested to the ‘emotional realism’ of the scenes on the beaches of Normandy. This, they said, is how it felt to be there. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t seem to have achieved quite as much, but since I’ve not watched it all the way through I’ll resist making any other comments. The important point is that Nolan has done his own research on the evacuation at Dunkirk and has written his own script. He has also enlisted a military historian as an adviser. His intention appears to be to offer audiences an ‘immersive experience’ using IMAX and 65mm film (and keeping CGI to a minimum). Audiences are invited to experience the action from different viewpoints: the soldiers on the beach, the pilot in his Spitfire, the naval commander on the bridge and the ‘citizen sailors’ in the small boats. Nolan has also said that he isn’t aiming for Spielberg’s terrible violence but instead for the suspense of survival. Will the men get away? What does it feel like on the exposed beach looking out for your rescuer? Nolan isn’t making a war movie as such and he isn’t interested in the generals back in their operations rooms. Ironically, it seems like his approach is in certain ways not unlike that in the Ealing film 60 years earlier (which was based on a novel and two military analyses). In other ways it is very different.

An archive photo (Hulton Picture Archive) of evacuated soldiers arriving in London by train. Nolan’s images frequently use compositions drawing on such images

The Dunkirk myth

The central question for me concerns the myth of Dunkirk – the initial ‘spinning’ of defeat into a propaganda victory and the persistence of aspects of that initial spin that have remained in British culture for seventy years and have been utilised by the Brexiteers. ‘Myth’ plays an important role in film and media studies as a concept referring to those stories that become embedded in the culture of specific communities. The concept originally referred to the stories of gods and heroes in classical civilisation but modern myths have a similar function in keeping certain values and ideals in circulation but now more often through mass media circulation (and now social media circulation) instead of an oral tradition. Because myths develop through repetition, the original stories/histories may still be retained in terms of core meanings, but much of the contextual meaning is lost. The myth of Dunkirk becomes reduced to a ‘united British people, prepared to fight on alone, having escaped from Europe despite betrayal by allies’ in the cause of Brexit rather than the triumph of ‘co-operation between allies’.

Nolan’s claims for a suspense film rather than a war movie has some justification, though at times I felt that the best generic description might be the ‘disaster movie’, especially during the sequences in which men jumped from sinking ships. There are indeed no generals and politicians, but I was surprised by the film’s resolution which achieved some emotional moments which lead into the myth. The opening half of the film has relatively little dialogue but the closing stages seem quite wordy, especially around the evacuated soldiers’ sense of  wonder that instead of being seen as ‘failures’ their survival makes them ‘heroes’. I’m not suggesting that this suggestion about how the survivors felt isn’t ‘accurate’ or ‘true’ and the 1958 film includes some of the same sentiments, but in the Nolan film’s case it sits alongside the lack of any political or historical context. It is these omissions which help to shore up the myth. The film is a co-production, shot on the main beach at Dunkirk and also including studio and location work in the UK, US and the Netherlands, but apart from a single ship’s captain, the Dutch don’t appear and the French, though present in some scenes, are acknowledged only by Kenneth Branagh’s Naval officer as needing to be evacuated. In reality, out of the 330,000 men evacuated, more than a third were French and other nationalities (Belgians in particular). It was a French force of 40,000 that protected the outer perimeter of Dunkirk and had to be left behind leading to surrender to German forces.

Tom Hardy plays one of just two RAF pilots shown in the film. (A third is quickly shot down)

One of Nolan’s problems is that, having decided on the ‘authenticity’ of using the modern Dunkerque and its main beaches as his principal location, and eschewed too much CGI, it became very difficult to convey the complete devastation of the town during the ten days of evacuation. As a result (and this also applies to the UK locations) the film seems to exist in a kind of limbo land between ‘realism’ and the fantasy more familiar in Nolan’s other blockbusters. The lack of World War Two aircraft available to filmmakers is another problem, so the aerial warfare is presented as almost a personal battle (which it no doubt was for individual pilots) involving two or three aircraft rather than representing the frequent bombing raids on the beaches by groups of aircraft. The RAF lost around 150 aircraft during Operation Dynamo and a similar number of German aircraft were downed.

The 1958 film faced similar problems but its greater length (134 minutes against Nolan’s 106 minutes, but watch out for severely cut versions) allowed director Leslie Norman to stage scenes in the UK and in Northern France before the retreat to Dunkirk. These sketched in British attitudes to the ‘phoney war’ up to May 1940 and at the end of the film he managed to undercut the myth-making to some extent by emphasising the military defeat as well as the spirit of resistance. Nolan includes several scenes within the chaotic events on the beach which suggest how British soldiers felt (e.g. the soldiers who try to board a hospital ship and are thrown off), but the focus on the individual stories and the ‘immersion’ of the audience in the action scenes through music and cinematography works against a distanced take on the context.

My main fear is that American audiences and younger audiences in the UK will not learn the history of what happened from Nolan’s film and that the myth of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ will be understood in its narrowest sense of ‘Britain alone’ in defiance of Hitler – which will sustain the Brexiteers. The real context, in which Britain became a base for troops (and crucially for airmen and women) from other European nations and from the British overseas empire, will not be understood. The ‘little ships’ and the civilian sailors were at the centre of the myth-building because their stories appealed directly to the British public. But though they certainly played a vital role, especially in the shallow waters of the beach evacuations, the majority of men were evacuated by British and French naval ships or requisitioned ships sailed by crews commanded by Royal Navy officers. The myth was important for British propaganda in maintaining morale in a crucial period of the war, but its persistence is not helpful in the modern context.

For the record, in the format I watched, I enjoyed some of the cinematography (though I don’t understand the seemingly blue-green emphasis in the colour palette) but the music irritated instead of drawing me in. Nolan’s well-known penchant for playing with narrative time I found confusing and ultimately self-defeating. None of the soldiers on the beach are introduced and though the young actors were very good in their roles, I couldn’t easily tell one from another (and I have seen some of them before). In yesterday’s Guardian, the Northern Editor Helen Pidd says the film was a ‘snooze’ in the tiny cinema where she saw it. Perhaps Nolan’s film is really an IMAX entertainment? I wonder how it will work on TV? Since it looks like breaking a few box office records, it will have to be taken seriously, but I think the 1958 film is better at representing the story of the evacuation.

YouTube and other internet sources offer several interpretations of Nolan’s Dunkirk, several setting out the problems with the film and addressing them from sometimes widely different political positions. I was also interested to see the Indian claims that Indian Army involvement in the evacuation is not mentioned – I haven’t been able to find the evidence for this apart from one archive photo. The BBC documentary is useful in discussing the way the British myth has been seen by a range of French and German historians as well as the British. In my research I’ve also come across the story of a young Royal Canadian Navy officer, Sub-Lieutenant Robert W. Timbrell, who made several trips across to Dunkirk as the master of a requisitioned yacht. He was responsible for saving 900 men and his exploits sound even more fantastical than Nolan’s script. There is a lot more to say about the myth of Dunkirk and at least Christopher Nolan’s film has started a conversation.


  1. des1967

    I agree with the general thrust of Roy’s contribution. I saw it after a friend telling me his nerves were shredded watching it on IMAX. Not having an IMAX screen nearby, I watched it via DCP at the Belmont in Aberdeen, not a particularly big screen. I was certainly involved for the first half hour or so as my senses were battered but I began to disengage to some extent. It did take me a while to negotiate the time sequencing but I really couldn’t see what this technique added to the experience.
    I heard that Nolan aspired to universality rather than the historical reality of Dunkirk by not anywhere referring to Nazis/Germans, just ‘the enemy’. But when you base a film on an actual history and geography, there is what you might call the responsibility of representation. If he wanted to make something abstract and ahistorical, he could have done so but he gives enough of a context to require extending and deepening it. Roy mentions the 40,000 French and Belgians who provided the defence of the outer perimeter of Dunkirk and enabled the evacuations to take place. Apart from a brief scene at the beginning when a British soldier manages to get behind a French defensive position from which he can get to the beach, there is no explanation. And of the 100,000 French soldiers or so who were evacuated, all we see is a few French soldiers being denied entry to some of the boats. And, enigmatically, we have the Kenneth Branagh character saying he’s staying “for the French” despite the impression being given that this was the last boat home. Nolan ends with a sequence showing the British evacuees getting home by train. The French had a different ending as most of them were back on French soil within days (but disembarked further south to continue the fight against the Wehrmacht) and ended up either dead or in a POW camp.
    Roy is correct about the actual role of the small boats in the evacuation but even here Nolan distorts by omission in that, while just over 500 of these were from Britain, 300 were from France with smaller numbers from Belgium and the Netherland. I know even a more avowedly historical film can’t show everything but back to the responsibility of representation. I’m a bit sceptical with recent the tendency to link everything to Brexit but in this aspect maybe there’s something to be said about Nolan’s film.
    As for and keeping CGI to a minimum, I read an interview in which Nolan suggested that CGI “was cheating”. I’m no more convinced of this “self-denying ordinance” that I was about the Danish Dogme movement and their famous ‘vow’. Is using lighting cheating? Tracks? Steadicam? The failure to use CGI makes Nolan’s Dunkirk beach rather under-populated whereas Joe Wright/ Seamus McGarvey’s famous Dunkirk 5-minute Steadicam sequence in Atonement does – brilliantly. (And if we’re giving out accolades, let’s not forget camera operator Peter Robertson).
    I think Roy’s categorisation of the genre as including the disaster movie (not my favourite genre) is perceptive but, of course, disaster movies are about the response of the people trapped etc. and the suspense over who will escape and who won’t, rather than an in-depth look at how the disaster happened. Contrary to Roy, though, I thought the music was quite effective but my heart sank when it segued into Elgar’s “Nimrod’ (Enigma Variations), connoting as it does all the pomp of Empire. Roy mentions Their Finest which I dreaded going to see as I thought with that title it would be more Churchill hagiography but I was pleasantly surprised that it was funny and even moving.


  2. keith1942

    After seeing the film in 70mmIMAX and reading Roy’s post I have added some comments on my post on ‘Dunkirk’.
    Reading Des’ comments I can see the limitations of Nolan’s treatment of the event. But I think it is a little idealist to include criticisms about not treating the event ‘historically’. How many war films [ or story films] do that? In fact how many historians do that?
    Fine if Des thinks those are some of the failings. But I would be interested to read his list of titles that treat history accurately. I have [I believe] seen all the film that feature Dunkirk as a major part of the plot, [apart from the 1984 French film ‘Week-end à Zuydcoote’ / ‘Weekend at Dunkirk’], all of them have a limited representation of the actual historical record and all the English-language film subscribe in some way to the British ‘myth’.
    I was stimulated by Nolan’s narrative treatment; it was fresh and inventive: and it gives the film a climatic grandeur that the 1958 version fails to achieve.
    And both Roy and Des appear to have watched the film on DCPs and probably only 2K. Before the screenings I read the interviews in ‘Sight & Sound’ with Christopher Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema: I knew then that I had to see this film on formats that were worthy of its intent. Hitchcock fans love to quote him on ‘pure cinema’: well for me this new ‘Dunkirk’ is a rare contemporary example of this.


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