Nearly half a century ago, a new fashion swept the historical profession. Rather than focus on the “great men”—or would-be great men—of history, the decision-makers who initiated, fought, won and lost wars, or passed laws, or ran for office, many historians argued for examining the experience of ordinary—or marginalized—men and women, whom they argued had been neglected in the past. It took time for this new idea to spread outside the academy. In the early 1990s, Ken Burns met with a group of professional historians after the screening of his first great documentary on the Civil War, and they took him to task severely for his traditional approach. His subsequent work has increasingly reflected their criticism. Now, however, this view of history has become mainstream in much of the press and in the media—and it is very much on display in Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk. One way to illustrate this is to look at what Nolan left out—the political and military context of the events he shows on the screen.
When the Second World War in Europe began in September 1940, the British and French expected a long struggle, and most Americans expected the British and French to prevail. The French invested huge sums in the Maginot Line, a system of fortifications along the Franco-German border (but not along the Franco-Belgian border), and thought themselves secure from attack. Neither side wanted to begin a bombing campaign against the other, and for seven months, through April, both sides built up their forces without any fighting. By May, about three million German soldiers faced two million French and about 400,000 British troops. (Today, the entire army of the United States numbers less than half a million.) In early April, the Germans struck north, not west, invading Denmark and Norway. That catastrophe brought down the government of Neville Chamberlain in Britain, and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in early May. Then, on May 10, they invaded neutral Holland and Belgium. On May 14, backed by dive bombers, the Germans crossed the Meuse River at Sedan, very near the intersection of Belgium, Germany, and France.
Having broken through, German tank forces and motorized troops advanced with unprecedented speed. They reached the English Channel at the mouth of the Somme by May 21, just one week after their breakthrough. That divided most of the French Army to the South from some French forces and the entire British Expeditionary Force to the North. Within a few days, further German advances forced the British and French into a small pocket around Dunkirk. Suddenly, the fate of western civilization hung in the balance.
For seven years, since 1933, Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany had established a new totalitarian form of government in the heart of Europe, based upon the idea of Aryan racial supremacy. Hitler, Mussolini in Italy, and Franco in Spain had declared that liberal democracy was dead, and that they were leading Europe into a new future. By the last week of May their hopes seemed on the point of realization. Nothing, it seemed, could stand in the way of German forces. France was collapsing, and the entire British Army was likely to be captured. The allies, meanwhile, had been unable to cope with the German air force. Most of the world expected the British either to suffer invasion or make peace within a few weeks, and across the Atlantic, as I showed in my last book, the US government began to think seriously about how to defend the western hemisphere against the victorious Axis. The world faced one of the great turning points of modern history.
That is the background to the organization of the evacuation of British and French forces from Dunkirk of which Christopher Nolan’s film gives us a glimpse. I use that word on purpose. Although one character reports, correctly, that more than 300,000 men were evacuated, at no time did Nolan attempt to set up a scene on the beach or in the water that would give a true idea of the scale of the operation. We spend a lot of time with Mark Rylance’s small boat, but it was only one of 700 that the Royal Navy requisitioned—and most of them were not manned by their owners, but by naval personnel. I thought the shots of troops on the beach gave the impression that thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of men, at most, were involved—not hundreds of thousands. Nor was there any real sense of the battle French troops were waging just outside the city to keep the Germans out.
According to Nolan, this was not accidental, but purposeful. “Dunkirk is not a war film,” Nolan says. “It's a survival story and first and foremost a suspense film. So while there is a high level of intensity to it, it does not necessarily concern itself with the bloody aspects of combat, which have been so well done in so many films. . . The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?" In another interview, Nolan says, "I knew I didn’t want to make a film that could be dismissed as old-fashioned, something that wasn’t relevant to today’s audiences," he elaborates. "What that ruled out for me immediately was getting bogged down in the politics of the situation.”—that is, that the future of the world was at stake. “We don’t have generals in rooms pushing things around on maps. We don’t see Churchill. We barely glimpse the enemy. It’s a survival story. I wanted to go through the experience with the characters."
The evacuation succeeded largely because the Royal Air Force mostly kept the Luftwaffe out of the skies over Dunkirk. That allowed Churchill to promise Britain and the world that Britain could fight on and survive until help came from the New World. That is why democracy, not totalitarianism, has ruled the western world for the last 72 years.
Born in 1970, Christopher Nolan may understand that he owes his whole life and career to Churchill, and Roosevelt who rallied their peoples and to the admirals and generals who commanded the forces that defeated Hitler--but he chose not to put any such understanding into his film. More importantly, he does not seem to understand that the allies won the war precisely because the soldiers and sailors and airmen in his film were not thinking only about whether they personally might survive. They knew that they might not, but they believed that they were fighting for things that justified their sacrifice—and they were right. The question now before us is whether we can preserve the civilization that we inherited without finding leaders who can rally us behind a common cause, and without reviving some spirit of sacrifice for the common good. That is something that films could help us do.