The Politics of “Dunkirk,” and what every war movie is about

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No safety on a hospital ship, hundreds sinking with it, in one of Christopher Nolan’s visions of terror in “Dunkirk.”

What every war movie is about

Every war movie is both a movie about one war, and a movie about war itself. What does Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” say about each? The second should matter more in the US today, a country always at war somewhere, with a trillion dollar “national security” budget;  a country now recommmitted to the “forever war” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen; a country threatening war against North Korea and Iran; and, on the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a country barely remembering it launched history’s only nuclear attack. We have a war party in the government with plenty of support from editorialists and pundits, liberal as well as conservative — and a president promising “fire and fury like the world has never seen” to an approving audience.

We have a culture permeated with militarist values — count the images ennobling warriors and armed combat in movies and TV, not to mention comic books and toys, and the cop shows with urban warriors fighting urban terror.*

What we don’t have is an anti-war movement. So it matters whether films like “Dunkirk” show us an inspiring image of war redeemed by heroism and meaning, or the terror of desperate men helpless under bombardment.

What we don’t see in “Dunkirk”

In popular memory in Britain, Dunkirk became an iconic moment of heroic defiance. Virtually the entire British army in the West faced certain destruction as the Germans closed in. The War Cabinet thought they could only save about 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers, and the rational calculation would have been to give up and sue for peace with the Nazis. Britain fought on alone as Europe fell to Hitler, but miraculously 338,000 were rescued by the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and a flotilla of small boats. The mythic heroism of the hundreds of small boats and their civilian crews became an iconic image of “the people’s war,” a symbol of heroic and defiant Britain, “snatching glory out of defeat,” persevering over daunting odds to eventual victory, sacrificing and suffering for “the cause of civilization itself.”  The “small boats” are the vision of Dunkirk in the contemporaneous paintings reproduced in the gallery below. Just after the rescue, two speeches articulated a divide in the framing of the event: Churchill’s Dunkirk speech didn’t mention the small boats and the civilian contribution, celebrating the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.  But the small boats were J. B. Priestley’s focus in his BBC talk. Churchill framed the national epic, Priestley the democratic one: The little boats were “what was most characteristically English” about it.

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a conscious and careful departure from such expectations and from war movie conventions. We don’t see developed characters and the few who are individualized have no backstory or personal context outside of the immediate action. We don’t even see an enemy or hear the words “German” or “Nazi” — a few German planes, a few German soldiers for a moment at the end, but for the rest, it’s bombs and bullets coming out of the sky. We don’t see the British generals and admirals planning the evacuation or talking strategy, we don’t see Winston Churchill casting a historic and heroic aura over the crisis, we don’t see the worried, but stoic and brave, families waiting back home in hope for the rescue of their loved ones. (Compare the 1958 “Dunkirk,” William Wyler’s wartime classic “Mrs. Miniver,”  or any of the mass of British World War II TV dramas with a patriotic Dunkirk moment, such as the Churchill drama “Into the Storm” or “Foyle’s War.”)

No glory here — this is not “The Good War”

Why are 400,000 soldiers stranded on the beach, why are they defeated, why are they fighting in the first place, and isn’t the rescue essential to Britain’s ability to continue fighting the war? No generalizations or explanation, let alone noble words — and hardly any dialogue. Some heroism, some cowardice, but mostly terrified helplessness. This movie is not a celebration of men at war, bands of brothers, no talk about the “good war” for democracy and for civilization against Nazis and fascists. It is a week of terror for a helpless and desperate army.

Nolan’s picture of war shows some striking and memorable heroic acts — Mark Rylance the captain standing in for the men on the mythic small boats that came to the rescue, Tom Hardy standing in for the RAF which defended them in the skies.  But for nearly the whole of the movie, we are looking at thousands of soldiers waiting helplessly for ships to save them from the German army as it closed in, German planes bombing and strafing them.  The soldiers watch rescue ships sinking, the water dark with blood as dead bodies wash ashore around them. We see terror, panic, desperate and even ignoble attempts to survive. Two soldiers load an unresponsive wounded man (or is he dead?) onto a stretcher and run with him to break into the beginning of a long queue waiting to board a ship. Soldiers watch impassively as one soldier walks out into the sea to drown himself. Others hide in a stranded fishing boat ready to throw out one of their number to lighten the load as the tide comes in. But most of all, soldiers getting bombed, shot, drowned.

Captions: 1. “The Withdrawal from Dunkirk,” by Charles Ernest Cundall, 1940. Courtesy Imperial War Museum. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 305)
2. “London Fire-Boat ‘Massey Shaw’ approaching Dunkirk at 11 pm on the 2nd June 1940” by Rudolf A Haybrook, 1940. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 248)
3. “The Little Ships at Dunkirk: June 1940” by Norman Wilkinson. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 6007)
4. “Their Finest” (2017) . Right after Dunkirk, propaganda filmmakers love the story of the twin sisters who steal their father’s boat to save the soldiers on the beach in France. Their boat breaks down off the English coast, is towed back by a boat that really did save soldiers, but the girls are celebrated as heroes when they disembark. The filmmakers make the movie anyway.

Ambiguities and interpretations, the power of national myth

As in most complex works of art, there is ambiguity allowing for other interpretations — and reading the reviews reminds us that meaning in a work of art is not independent of what an audience brings to it.  To many, the movie is an “immersive experience” and about what it was like to be there, delivered by the brilliance of the filmmaking. To some right-wing commentators, the movie is another skirmish in the culture wars. The Wall Street Journal review is more about Churchill than the soldiers; the reviewer complains that Nolan unforgivably left the conservative icon’s colossal, scenery-eating presence out of this “dumbed-down” film. To the Tribune’s John Kass, the takeaway was “decency” — the decency of the long lines of soldiers, the decency of the boat captain played by Mark Rylance, the decency of the Spitfire pilot played by Tom Hardy. (And those did provide poignant moments.)

The Dunkirk evacuation has been and still is a contested memory. “The Dunkirk spirit” may describe Mark Rylance’s boat captain, Mr. Dawson, who risks his life and livelihood to sail into the chaos; or Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot, Farrier, who stays in the battle while his fuel runs out to save a ship from a German bomber; or Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, who remains on the “mole” after the British soldiers are evacuated to make sure the French soldiers can also be saved. But we don’t see much Dunkirk spirit on the beach, and the British public and military was divided and demoralized.

In reality, there were some Dawsons coming in on the tide, but the Rye fishing fleet and many others refused to serve, and many of the civilian sailors gave up after one trip. Most of the small boats, commandeered by the Navy, were not piloted by civilians, and it was the Navy’s big ships that carried off 2/3 of the evacuees.

Dunkirk, like the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, became a necessary and redeeming national narrative for a Britain in decline. They were part of a cultural obsession motivated in part by the need to redeem Britain’s poor military performance in the rest of the war. The military failures before the US entry into the war revealed the end of Britain as a world power and the coming loss of its Empire.

Popular culture was obsessed with the imagined centrality of the small boats and “the people’s war.” But there was a  bigger myth: the very idea that heroic Britain was fighting on alone for freedom and civilization. In this myth, the Empire is invisible. Nolan was criticized for leaving out the Indian troops at Dunkirk who were “particularly cool under fire and well organized in the retreat.”  There weren’t many Indian troops there, a few hundred to a thousand. But the way many remember the British role in the war leaves out five million colonial troops, half of them Indian, in the rest of the Empire. Britain depended on this subject army, which, like all mercenary armies, have uncertain loyalties.  The Indian soldiers, after all, were defending the Empire during their subject nation’s struggle for independence. Meanwhile the British allowed three million to die in the Bengal famine; Gandhi, Nehru, and countless other Indian freedom fighters were in British prisons; and another Indian hero, Subhas Chandra Bose, was forming the Indian National Army to fight with the Japanese against the British. How inspiring could they have found Churchill’s ringing invocations of the crusade for freedom and civilization?

The myths live on in the Brexit debate

In the UK, we see the enduring power of the myth of Dunkirk in the way it was politicized to serve the Brexit debate. “The spirit of Dunkirk will see us thrive outside the EU,” wrote the Tory Minister of State for the Armed Forces. Brexiters watched “Dunkirk” and saw proud England fighting on alone, again let down by European allies and again doing just fine without them. Right-wing Brexit campaigner and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage tweeted, “I urge every youngster to go out and watch Dunkirk.” Foreign Policy photoshopped a “Dunkirk” still and put Nigel in the Spitfire cockpit next to heroic Farrier. Add this to plenty of Photoshop ridicule of Farage on social media.

The Guardian saw a different movie, with a different lesson about Brexit:

It masks a more banal lesson from the evacuation: retreat is no one’s favourite manoeuvre, but sometimes it is the best one available. Sometimes, when a plan goes wrong and disaster is visible on the horizon, it is time to swallow pride, and turn around.

Nolan’s war

Dunkirk in popular culture incorporated some of the disillusion of England in decline, showing some ambiguity almost from the start.  Here’s one dramatic moment in the film that captures the feelings of returning soldiers. A scene at the end shows surviving soldiers in a train in England, exhausted and demoralized, expecting to be despised as defeated and cowardly failures who ran from the battle. They are astonished to be welcomed as heroes for merely surviving, as relieved and grateful civilians turn out to hand them beer, sandwiches, and (of course) mugs of tea. Nolan constructs a signal telling moment when one of them opens a newspaper and reads an extract from Churchill’s “fight on the beaches” speech. They are astonished to see what they lived through given a meaning beyond defeat and survival. Nolan used only the famous words read aloud hesitantly, without Churchill’s colossal, heroic presence. The words were pronounced not by Churchill, but read by two somewhat bewildered soldiers, a reminder of the ambiguity of their experience — emptied of all meaning other than terror and survival, then later ennobled and assigned meaning by soaring rhetoric.

Nolan simplified a complex story when he eliminated historical detail and war movie genre conventions that were irrelevant to the few impressions that mattered to him. The omission of explanation, context, larger meanings tells us something about the film’s design. Nolan’s story was the common soldier and the small boats, not the admirals, generals and ministers — a vision of war as terror, war without any overriding redemptive meaning in heroism and sacrifice for the cause.

Every movie is a movie also about war itself. Nolan’s war has no overriding redemptive meaning in noble causes, good against evil, civilization against barbarity; instead, war as terror, war as disaster and the struggle for survival. A rare movie, maybe only possible because that is how so many of us see our country’s endless warmaking.

—Paul Elitzik




  1. In “In Which We Serve,” shown during the war (1942),  officers are the heroes, the ordinary sailors obedient to social hierarchy to the point of personal insignificance. This was not the “people’s war” of later myth. Churchill didn’t celebrate the small boats or the soldiers or the people at home in his famous Dunkirk speech, giving all credit and attention to the Royal Navy and the RAF, not the routed army.
  2. Ealing Studios wanted its “Dunkirk” (1958) to be about the “people’s war” focusing on the working class soldiers, but the Ministry of Information insisted on scenes with admirals and generals. Ealing paid the price to get the destroyers and weapons from the War Office.
  3. “Wonder Woman” was loved by feminists (and me too) for its “empowering” Amazon goddess.Yet it rubbishes history to revive the allied propaganda of World War I as “the war to end all wars,” has Wonder Woman side with the good British against the evil Germans with their evil general and evil scientist making an evil weapon of mass destruction. Maybe Hollywood needs the feminist mythmaking to make us swallow the militarist mythmaking.


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