Dunkirk: A Deliverance Worth Cheering

dunkirk 2

Tony King is one of the world’s most distinguished sociologists, and he now turns his guns on the new film Dunkirk. King charges it with regressive nostalgia. Dunkirk is a re-telling of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation in mid-1940 of over 300,000 British and Allied troops from a port on the French coast while trapped by German forces on land and bombed by the Luftwaffe from the air. Dunkirk became a celebrated escape in folk memory. It did so, not least, because a flotilla of little ships operated by civilians helped ferry troops from the beaches. Despite the English-American director Christopher Nolan’s protestations to the contrary, King suspects this portrayal of brave survival to be a “Brexit film,” and a pernicious one. With his sharp pen, and wary eye, King draws a stark picture: Dunkirk functions as little more than a party-political broadcast for the British Conservatives, or even the U.K. Independence Party, and offends the effort to create an “outward looking” Britain. As he argues, we need different and better myths to nourish the political commitments King explicitly embraces, a multicultural, internationalist, and progressive rebuilding in the wake of these “febrile” days of nationalist backlash. Because the film is Anglo-centric and uplifts a heroic withdrawal from the European continent, the Dunkirk myth is “out of fuel.”

To declare an interest, King is a friend and former colleague. We both figuratively enlisted in the E.U. Remain camp, but in different ideological regiments (as will become apparent). We both loathed the referendum (and referendums) and Tony can never out-do my elitism on this point. But it would also be fair to say that Tony is less sympathetic than I with the souls who voted Leave. And, as his Dunkirk review suggests, he is more willing to affirm the polarizations and take up the partisan battle cries of our time.

Which leads to the main issue: Tony is wrong. Not so much for his political commitments — here is no place to fight that vaster battle — but because the myth he decries is clearly not out of fuel, and does not deserve to be. It is larger, richer, and more open to internationalist sympathies than Tony allows. More fundamentally, King falls prey to the very wrong-headed reductionism that he perceives in the film.

In the spirit of Homeric tradition, Dunkirk begins in the violent middle. For this viewer, at least, its panoramic sense of danger coming from anywhere was bloody terrifying. It is tightly-wound and mercilessly builds tension. I can’t evaluate whether it is a “great film” — that’s for pointier heads to determine — but its achievement is to transport us to a moment when the terrorized participants didn’t know the outcome, while leaving us glad we weren’t there in the first place, and grateful to those who were. Tony scolds the film for conscripting its audience into a “facile” celebration of the little ships arriving. “Conscription” is an odd word for voluntarily attending a film, and given the distress that the film puts the audience through, the sense of relief on the troops’ faces as the ships turned up didn’t look or feel facile, but well-earnt.

Despite Tony’s suspicions, the film does not end simply celebrating homecoming and a departure from Europe. King nods to this possibility at one point, noting that “the naval officer played by Kenneth Branagh, stays on the dock at the end of the film to help save the French.” It does not entirely sever ties to the continent, then. And Nolan’s steely Spitfire pilot, having landed and destroyed his plane, looks suggestively into the distance while the enemy closes in, implying a sequel in the Battle of Britain, a truly multi-national effort, but also an unfinished fight and a return to Europe. After all, that was what the evacuation made possible. For a New York Times reviewer, the pilot’s gaze suggests an ongoing struggle: “By the time that plane is burning — and a young man is looking searchingly into the future — you are reminded that the fight against fascism continues.” This elliptical statement suggests the American reviewer had something on her mind beyond squabbles over the European Union, like a struggle against fascism closer to home, and the film’s value in fortifying the will to survive present onslaughts. And why not? Is the job of film-makers always only to “challenge” and subvert? Art also affirms and strengthen the things cultures value, an uncontroversial proposition when applied to others.

For despite King’s claims to the contrary, Dunkirks success (at the American box office as well as the other side of the pond) suggests that this story of deliverance still has fuel in the tank. If it was so negligible as a ‘worn’ myth, it would not need energetic repudiation. It is precisely the film’s success, not its obsolescence, and the myth’s power even beyond British shores, that gets up King’s nose. The oldest stories are usually the most potent. In Joseph Campbell’s Hero with A Thousand Faces, a vital stage in the hero’s voyage is the return.

In collective memory, there has always been a struggle over the ultimate meaning and ownership of World War II, from the shrivelled Daily Mail version of an isolated island-nation battling alone against the world, with the Commonwealth and colonial troops and Britain’s role as an empire forgotten, to a richer and more layered version where Britain’s survival was the sine qua non for a victorious alliance that transcended racial and ideological divides, helping incidentally to unravel the Empire. King only allows for the first version: Nationalism at his hands is necessarily a bad and parochial and right-wing thing, erasing at one swoop a whole tradition of patriotic socialism, and the ability of humans to sustain multiple loyalties. Also absent from this picture is the inconvenient reality that determined nationalists from Warsaw to Stalingrad were central to the struggle against what Nazism truly represented — genocidal imperialism.

At root, King’s critique suggests an overdrawn and binary picture, where celebrating deliverance at Dunkirk is necessarily a reactionary posture of “arrogant insularity.” This suggests a deeper binary vision, as though we must choose absolutely between the dog-whistling demagoguery of Nigel Farage and the preening global villager universalism of Nick Clegg, and as though an attachment to home excludes the embrace of wider responsibility. But no one has a monopoly on enlightened internationalism. And a “progressive” Britain that Tony calls for should recognize that there is more than one form of patriotism and other shades of internationalism.

No doubt Dunkirk oversimplifies, but if it does also celebrate, it celebrates a basic political reality. Nazi Germany, the most predatory barbarism the species has ever seen, really had overrun continental Europe. It really was closing in on Britain’s expeditionary force. Only this (mainly Anglo-French operation) prevented an unthinkable worse outcome. The war effort as a whole was a truly multi-national one, and can legitimately be celebrated as an international (and internationalist) struggle. But for that effort to proceed, it really was unambiguously necessary that troops were evacuated, and pulling off that task was worth a round of applause or two. Because of the survival at Dunkirk and the ultimate victory it made possible, those who believe in what King calls “cosmopolitan internationalism” today are able to struggle for what they value. It’s only fair that in looking back, they pay their dues.


Professor Patrick Porter is Academic Director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter. He is writing a book about Britain’s war in Iraq.

Image: Warner Bros.