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  • Writer's pictureJude

Dunkirk – Britain was never alone

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

Trailers adopt a sense of a film, winding down to a few captivating moments, that invites you to eagerly wait its release. A great feat of Dunkirk was the enigmatic trailer, which gave you vibes of a sailor but chills of a horror. A reality captured to explain the aura of a twisted time, the constantly refined imagery of a World at War. The film immediately makes you feel small, setting on the beach of Dunkirk, which lurks with a looming sound. The brilliant Hans Zimmer clings to every second of the film, a thrilling soundtrack amid Wars ambience. The waves beating the shore, the stunning silence of over 300,000 men who fought, serenaded by a constant fear of War.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk is based on the real events of the Dunkirk evacuation during WWII. In an interview with TIME Nolan described how a journey across the channel in a small boat made him imagine the admirable task of civilians embarking on that journey through the War. Nolan crafts a film that compiles the wholesomeness of War, how it involves us all, breaks barriers of language, all whilst having a sense of pointlessness to it in the greater scheme of living and death. This compilation is chilling and the beginning places you alongside a shell-shocked Soldier. As the British Soldiers scavenge to recuperate strength, you witness the propaganda and paranoia of the settings. This film has a great sense of immediacy that leaves no time for romantic storytelling or stigmatising as we usually see in War films.

As there is no romantic storytelling the Characters are less important than the situation at hand. They are simply individuals conscripted to War. Having watched a decent range of such films this is what I found to be greatly different with Dunkirk’s approach. It does not fantasise about a great immoral enemy, I do not recall seeing one German in the film – only the frantic rush to escape from them. I see the concept of Nazism having dwindled from prominence, despite the madness that has occurred in Charlottesville and the intensity of racism today. We do not need to revive the idea of the German enemy, it is a British fetish that is rekindled through competition but boring to play with. It also lacked an intense sense of imperialism which I witness in many War films. Imperialism in a sense of showing how Great Britain is. That familiar old school radio sound of propaganda and the sirens of the blitz. Such is replaced with Hans Zimmer’s fine instrumentation of the trinkets and metallic feel of War. There is a sense of sulkiness over Churchillian pride, which I felt is important.

When a film intends to not be so obvious the script usually demands a newer perspective from watchers. I feel this endeavour is key for War films, especially capturing WW1 and WW2. The Kings Speech for instance, which focused on King George VI’s stammer and how he overcame it to offer a heart-warming and motivating speech in Britain’s time of need. Valkyrie, where Tom Cruise plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg – a German officer who attempted to assassinate Hitler and his close aides. Being able to build countless stories around one large event, film has truly spent a lot of its energy dwelling on War.

But what is it all for? Dunkirk carries a somewhat insightful message, it stresses the gruesome mentality of War. I imagine those who were involved in the project learned a great deal of its realities. Dunkirk does a brilliant job in putting you in the setting of these Soldiers. The eeriness of death lingers, instruments of destruction rain down on scattering men. This film contains no blood, a move which could soothe the desensitising factor our violent films have. Having watched it twice my confusion was with the placement of the film. There is a time lapse that brings 3 parts of the stories together over its course, showing the reasoning behind their behaviours. The structure is an experiment Nolan plays with, he claims it’s his most experimental since Memento. Since War is such a real-time thing, it intensifies the story as It all pieces together.

There is no “main character” but through the script and how these Characters are described, it shows the vastness of the experience in War. Fionn Whitehead who plays Tommy, the Character we follow the most, is strategically named after a slang term for a typical Soldier. It is not like Saving Private Ryan where their identities are cast and dialogue so powerful you are sucked into admiring them individually, where they state where they’re from and their hopes of home. You gain a sense of this in Dunkirk through the numerous accents, the varied behaviours, the sheer desperation and number of horrified Soldiers. As you are dwarfed by the setting Nolan invites you to witness this number game for every perspective. Tom Hardy reprises a masked role, I was only sold his performance through my own fear of heights. As well as the clump of unstable metal the Airforce had to struggle with, and the depths of the sea they glide over.

It manages to place you in the setting of the brink of death. Even as the civilians left the shores of home to reach out, the moral conversation is present. Mark Rylance and Barry Keoghan are the civilians we follow to Dunkirk. Their dialogue is short snappy and intense. Thier involvement highlighted the knowhow of Brits back in the day. Barry who plays the young boy Geroge embarks on this mission to “be of use”. Mark is an elderly man who lost a son in the first few weeks of the War. Cillian Murphy boards their boat stating “You should be at home” to both. A common argument of War is the use of young men to fight and die while the elderly spend their lives. At this point I felt a sense of British duty tainted by reality today.

I read an article by an interested fan, who stated there is a sense of “the spirit of Dunkirk” or rather “Dunkirk spirit”. Even though I cannot find the piece, articles on the term show how Brits who acknowledge that history refer to it. That is making light or stressing the point of endeavour.

For instance, while stranded on a Virgin Train, a man described the Dunkirk spirit of giving tea biscuits and water whilst they waited. In this post, this guy describes how there is a flowing sense of Dunkirk spirit after tragic situations, like 9/11, the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester. While I agree a great deal of people help in those situations despite the range of ethnicities involved, the claims of Islamic extremism and such, I feel the Dunkirk spirit is absent when dealing with the Other. The Other being anyone who considers themselves British but are not white. In my view, you cannot consider the idea of “Britain” without the influence and contribution its former colonial subjects made. For the process of modernisation wasn’t solely European. All what the colonies, trading and other occurrences during those centuries die contributed to the concept of Britain today. This country would not exist without us. They would have lost both Wars, no doubt. The highest forms of representation by influence, in Education, through Cultural Products, Museums and our constant feed of news. Without including the former colonial subjects and defeating the idea of total white Britishness, they/we will never gain the representation they deserve. In turn, the descendants of such people will never have the respect they deserve – hence Brexit can occur.

The most obvious example in recent times was the incident at Grenfell Tower. How when that building was burning with residents inside, the skewered narrative of many complainers was sickening. Stating they don’t deserve to be homed, they don’t want to live around the Grenfell victims, they shouldn’t receive such donations. I witnessed the state of the tower last week, I was disheartened at the sight and looks an extract from a war zone finely placed in capitalistic London. To help the victims of the incident there was an endless stream of donations. I referred to imperialism because I believe if not for the mainstay of the tower being working class and minorities the Government wouldn’t have acted so negligently. While Dunkirk doesn’t parade Britishness as the greatest thing since sliced bread it doesn’t stick to a truer sense of history. Which would show migrants to this country have a longer forgotten and underrepresented history.

The trailer for example, constantly poked at 400,000 men – without a mention of the colonial subjects present. At Dunkirk, there were three contingents of Indian Army Soldiers, over 100,000 African soldiers from Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and Niger that served for France. In the film, you see a few Black Soldiers which would seem like representation enough. However even after Dunkirk the Indian Armies supported the British by fighting in Ethiopia, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and in Malaya – against the Italian, Germans and Japanese. Over my life time I have never witnessed or learned about their involvement to this studied extent for this review.

Terms such as whitewashing have been pushed to liberal grounds. Dunkirk is a type of whitewashing through the response in many reviews, think pieces and such. Nolan said he approached the film “from the point of view of the pure mechanics of survival rather than from the politics of the event” – which is understandable. Though in a project so vast, based on real events and realising the social power of today representation goes a long way. There seems to be a Brexit agenda behind Dunkirk, even saw an article that stated the British will see Brexit through via the spirit of Dunkirk. Specifically, the idea of Britain being alone, left alone, fighting by themselves. The strategic placement of the Characters, to make Britain appear self-sufficient.

The absence of the heavily racialised culture of those days, where foreign soldiers were less valuable. For example, this article which shows how a court martial questioned a British Soldier who refused to abandon the Indian Men of a regiment alongside mules – to head straight for Dunkirk. Those colonial French Soldiers were key to delaying the German advance on Dunkirk. 10,000s of them died. Many became Prisoners of War having been captured by the German soldiers during the retreat. Even when Paris was reclaimed, it involved many colonial Soldiers – who were ordered to leave so French soldiers could enjoy a fake liberation led by White Soldiers.

So, as I enjoyed this well worked film I was disappointed with all such ideas floating around my head. How with every great cultural product created in this Society, the World even, we have to struggle to represent ourselves. In not every story must there be some quota of “do we have any Black or Asian people? Make him or her black that will do”. There is a more important task at hand, especially with times like Brexit. To destroy these ill advised narratives we need more correct history to be applied to such scenarios, to take away from the stigma of the Other the British have constructed.

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