The cover of this week’s Private Eye shows a shot from Christopher Nolan’s new film Dunkirk. The shot is of a jetty crowded with British soldiers who duck as an unseen dive bomber heads towards them. A speech bubble says ‘It’s harder to leave Europe than we thought’ and the headline reads ‘Dunkirk Spirit 2017’. The temptation to project contemporary political concerns on a Second World War film is way too powerful and should never be resisted. The Brexit parallels have an on-the-noseness that makes the Private Eye cover not particularly funny – primarily because every single person who has seen the immediately iconic image has silently made the same joke already a few times.
The Dunkirk Spirit is recalled again and again by leader writers, Brexiteers and politicians. ‘The spirit of Dunkirk will see us thrive outside of the EU’ was the title of a 2016 Daily Telegraph column by Tory MP Penny Mordaunt. Steve Rose in The Guardian even suggested that Nigel Farage would have cited the film in his victory speech if it had been released in time. It’s magical thinking applied to history in a toxic form and stands very little examination. Dunkirk was a military disaster – a fact underscored both by Nolan’s movie and by Churchill’s response at the time. The ‘Never Surrender’ speech, often touted as a jingoistic , is one that foresees inevitable defeat, hence the way the locus of the fighting shifts ever closer to the center of power: ‘on the beach, the fields, the streets, the towns’ etc. It was heroic and stirring but it was an Emergency Exit, not a strategy to be pursued. The Brexiteers stiffening at the sound of the Spitfire engines overhead are like arsonists who excuse what they did because they brought the pretty lights on the fire engines and it’s not often you get to talk to your neighbours dressed in your pyjamas standing on the pavement in the middle of the night.
Of course, Britain has always loved a resounding defeat. It’s why Captain Scott is revered as the man who almost got to the South Pole first. And Mallory and Irvine inspired awe by how they almost climbed Everest. If you must win, have the good sense to die in the process. Which is why Admiral Nelson gets a column in the middle of London and Wellington got the boot. But this love of the glorious defeat is a neurotic trait of the British character, a making-do that comes of insecurity and a shrinking role in the world. The Second World War was finally decided in spite of Dunkirk, not because of it.
The Second World War has generally been relied upon by the British to bolster self-worth. My own childhood was spent reading Warlord and making models from AirFix kits. I didn’t know it then but I was in the 2nd Second World War. The 1st Second World War took place during the Second World War. Films like Casablanca and Mrs Miniver were essentially brilliantly-tooled propaganda pieces, whose longevity is partly due to the relatively uncontroversial nature of the Allied cause. Casablanca – the apotheosis of Hollywood’s war effort – is a powerful risposte to Nazism not only in its story, but also in its casting. Practically every actor but Humphrey Bogart is a refugee from the Nazis. Even the Nazi villian is played by an anti-Nazi, Conrad Viedt.
The 2nd Second World War I grew up with broke out with the peace and provided writers and filmmakers with a cinematic universe broader than Marvel or DC, but as simple in its dualities and as divorced from reality. From The Dam Busters to Where Eagles Dare, the war was replayed as a fantasy of derring-do and endless, bloodless explosions. Many of these movies were essentially westerns transposed onto the map of war-torn Europe, occasionally Asia and Africa. The thrills and spills of worldwide conflict became increasingly unpalatable as the Vietnam War invaded television sets everywhere and Platoon and Full Metal Jacket arrived.
The 3rd Second World came in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Even as the brutality of war was captured gratuitous realism – ‘war porn’ was a label that began to be tossed around about now – the films were imbued with a nostalgia for the ‘Good War’ and the ‘Greatest Generation’, which contrasted with the murk of more recent conflicts. That longing for past certainties was intensified as the HBO series Band of Brothers premiered two days before 9/11. The adaptation of Stephen Ambrose’s history book with its Shakespearean title memorialized the men who had fought, while unintentionally giving the video game Call of Duty an aesthetic to run with.
And so now we have Christopher Nolan’s contribution, which – although it’s early to say – looks as if it could be the opening shot in the 4th Second World War. Nolan deftly avoids the war porn charge – the film is remarkably bloodless, while still effectively conveying panic and fear of imminent violent death. He also allows for some nostalgia – bread and jam has never been so lovingly filmed – but this is a war which isn’t being fought, this is a rout. The soldiers themselves are defeated, psychologically as well as militarily. The heroism of individuals – the RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and civilian boat owner Dawson (Mark Rylance) – is matter of fact and, mostly, understated. The enemy is not seen and the real test is how you can physically survive and morally survive at the same time. It is about showing solidarity and compassion when the cry in your heart is ‘every man for himself’. And not only nationalist solidarity: the French are seen at the very beginning of the film defending the line from the Germans and thus allowing the evacuation to take place. ‘Bon voyage! Courage!’ the French says as the British Tommy scampers away. A doughty British officer will attempt to repay the debt at the film’s close. The point is the only reason we know about Dunkirk now and we value it is because of D-Day. If isolationism was so tickety boo, we would have made terms and sat back, saving the British Empire in the process. We didn’t. And overemphasizing Dunkirk is like praising the third rung of a tall ladder: it was important but it meant nothing if we didn’t go on to the top.