Friday, 18 August 2017

Film Review: 'Dunkirk'

‘Dunkirk‘, directed by Christopher Nolan is about Operation Dynamo (May 1940), the rescue of 330,000 stranded British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. It is told, supposedly, from the point of view of British troops and pilots.  As a military exercise, it was the reverse of D-Day, without suitable landing craft.

The Moonstone used in the film took part in the 1940 rescue
By Foxy59 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

This rescue gave rise to the Churchill's dramatic and morale boosting 'we shall fight them on the beaches' speech. The evacuation prevented many men spending the war fighting disease and likely death in Nazi factories, labour camps and mines (as happened to the 40,000 British soldiers left behind). It is a film that is short on dialogue and over-reliant on sustained sounds and explosions but Dunkirk veterans say it is technically and visually realistic and highlights the pointlessness of war. ‘The Moonstone’ and twelve other little ships featured were actually at Dunkirk in 1940.

Watching it on a large screen, I certainly tasted something of the narrow and terrifying reality. However, this film does not tell the most moving part of this classic and spiritual story. Instead, it reflects a narrow and deChristianised (postmodern) viewpoint which strips truth and meaning from our history. Complaints that 'women and ethnic minorities do not feature' in it sound like political correctness - but actually they are not without validity. Unknown actors play ordinary ‘Tommies’ portrayed as ‘everyman’ who are focused far too much on ‘personal hygiene’ issues (for my taste). They are seeking every way to ‘sneak’ home, when in fact, the majority of soldiers patiently stood in British queues waist deep in the cold sea being bombed. The lead actors seem unsympathetic characters, needlessly unheroic - a bit of an insult to the memory of so many noble sacrifices.

The film completely lacks the Christian element in William Wyler’s ‘Mrs Miniver’ made in 1943 (see the pastoral speech that was reproduced as real propaganda during World War Two). 'Mrs Miniver' starred noble-faced, Presbyterian actress Greer Garson married to Walter Pigeon who sails in the ‘little ships’ to save troops from the beaches. Without this willing 'Dunkirk spirit', the soul of this story dies.The real Dunkirk story lies in two moving things which are the quintessence of truth about Britain:
  • Britain is defended (by God, according to Shakespeare) through the ‘wall’ of the sea and its islanders are good sailors, as a result; 
  • historically, Britain has survived major threats to its continuance from Europe through exercising faith and prayer. 
I believe that the Dunkirk National Day of Prayer, called by the King George VI, changed the course of the entire war at this darkest hour of the Dunkirk 'encirclement'. As an apparent outcome, Hitler (totally inexplicably) halted his relentless ‘blitzkrieg’ tank divisions from advancing towards the Channel ports and driving the French and British into the sea; bad weather diminished the German aerial bombardment of the beaches; then it cleared just in time to let the little ships through to the French beaches sailing on a glassy sea. The God of weather and perfect timing seemed to intervene, as during the Armada. A film can convey the reality without ‘the soul’, miss the real point by telling half a story.

The real power and meaning of this story is: hidden power in weakness set against strength'. This is a Biblical principle (2 Cor 1.4 - 'when I am weak then I am strong') because God works in the world apparently ‘weakly’ so that He gets the glory. Weakness is symbolised by:

  • the terrified, hungry, cold and feeble men up to their necks in the sea just holding on against the might of the ruthless Nazi 'war machine' prepared to dive bomb lines of men trapped on jetties; 
  • the little pleasure boats and paddle steamers risking the dangerous and changeable English Channel and a fierce aerial bombing
  • the humanity of the decision to risk the defence of the whole island to save just 200,000 fellow islanders stuck a few miles across the English Channel.
This last point is the strongest one made by the film:  it is explained that Churchill had expected to save just 30,000 men (out of 330,000) and possibly preserve a limited number of Spitfires and Navy ships for the subsequent Nazi onslaught on Britain itself. In fact, around 250 precious aeroplanes were lost defending men on the beaches at Dunkirk and 226 vessels, plus a massive amount of hardware and supplies, were forfeit. The film’s message conveys humanity and hope -  that people matter more than machines even when your back is up against a wall. But the wider story is also missing:
  • the heroism of those (British and French) who were ordered to ‘fight to the last man’, holding off the German advance from the beaches. They are not featured but we owe so much to them in making time for the full evacuation. 
  • an insight into who it was, in the Admiralty, who thought of the ‘miraculous’ plan of using small boats. I'd like to think it was a ‘brainwave’ coming out of The National Day of Prayer for Dunkirk (but I may be wrong). 
  • how the Dunkirk rescue was conducted from The Dynamo Room inside the White Cliffs of Dover. 
The vision of 'Dunkirk' may be hyper auditory, hyper visual and hyper realistic but it is far too narrow in its imaginative, spiritual, emotional scope - and therefore in its relevance and humanity. It is probably better to watch the warm Oscar winning ‘Mrs Miniver’ (only available from Amazon). There is also another film that could be made about the power of prayer ‘at the eleventh hour’. Having said, that if one wants to taste the full horror of war and witness the despicable inhumanity of mankind, see 'Dunkirk' at an iMax cinema (but also take earplugs!).

No comments:

Post a Comment