Re-Remembering Dunkirk: Art, Commemoration, and Memory


In his counter-review of Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk, Patrick Porter raises one important issue: What is the relationship between art, collective memory and national identity? The question is especially pertinent at a time when the United Kingdom is going through an identity crisis following Brexit. But, as recent events in Charlottesville show, it is equally relevant in the United States. In the face of geo-political ruptures and the re-configuration of internal class, gender, ethnic, and racial orders, the question of how a nation should define itself and its past is increasingly contested and problematic.

Despite his imputations, Porter and I share a common view of British nationalism in the era of Brexit. Especially as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, an inclusive and expansive national identity will be required. Brexit has radically accentuated existing fault-lines within the United Kingdom, bringing its collapse closer than ever in its 300-year history. It is by no means certain that the union will survive Brexit.

The distribution of votes during the E.U. referendum in June 2016 illustrates the point neatly. While most of England and Wales voted forcefully to leave, Scotland, Northern Ireland, London, Liverpool and Manchester voted to remain with equal conviction. A once unitary and broadly homogeneous nation is being reconstituted into a more loosely coupled state, as local, sometimes ethnicized identities, interests and affiliations become more prominent. The move to Scottish independence is the most obvious development here but, in fact, urban and sub-regional solidarities, especially in London, Northern Ireland and northern cities, are also becoming increasingly assertive. The United Kingdom is being federalized.

The re-negotiation of English identity will be particularly delicate here. Having routinely presumed that English and British identities were co-terminus, many moderate English citizens now believe that they need to find a constructive self-conception that affirms the liberal traditions of the country, while also deferring to emergent local and regional identities and reflecting the United Kingdom’s new place in the world.

For Porter, Dunkirk is the vindication of precisely this progressive nationalism. He points to Britain’s continental commitments which are implied by some scenes in the film: the fate of the last Spitfire and the naval commander’s lone vigil. Other examples, such as the French soldier saving Tommy, might be added.

Porter’s emotional response to these scenes is, of course, a matter of personal taste. However, it seems peculiar to invest these brief montages with the narrative significance which Porter does. These scenes are but brief chords in an orchestral work set in a different key. Indeed, the structure of the film consciously foregrounds the nationalist myth. The film is organized around three locations and three sets of actors introduced with subtitles at the beginning of the film: “1. The Mole: one week” (the soldiers), “2. The Air: one hour” (the Spitfires), and “3. The Sea: one day” (Mr Dawson’s small ship). Nolan disorders the natural narrative sequence in order to disorient the audience. However, the plot is resolved with the arrival of the small boats, the symbols of the English homeland, establishing them definitively as the redeeming motif of the film. “The audience’s distress” is relieved only by those boats.

Indeed, in the end, Porter admits the point: “No doubt Dunkirk oversimplifies.” The dispute between us lies in the weight which we respectively give to Nolan’s oversimplifications. I maintain that the film’s structure threatens to reduce it to an indulgent sentimentality which ignores the complexities of British national identity today. Porter does not.

This division between our interpretations of the film are themselves based on alternative understandings of the role of art in commemoration. Art has often played an important role in commemoration and collective memory. Art can memorialize. It can reconcile communities to their losses and their differences. Edwin Lutyen’s Cenotaph in London or Maya Ying Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C would be obvious examples here. Nevertheless, while there is no clear boundary between art and commemoration, there is a distinction. The purpose of art – and certainly great art – is not just to celebrate but also to interrogate deeply held beliefs. Art normally involves a critical, self-conscious dimension; it aims not simply to interpret culture but to change it. It is interrogative. Commemoration, by contrast, is about unification; its role is affirmative, the submerging of difference and division to one common vision. It is affirmative.

Porter believes that it is adequate for an artwork simply to affirm collective memories and to celebrate national identity. After all, what could be worthier of celebration than a liberal democracy opposing fascism? Consequently, Nolan’s film is therefore, almost by definition, a success for him. I believe that an artwork, to be worthy of that status, must do more. Of course, the commemoration of the past, and especially war, is central to the constitution of any nation. Britain certainly remembers both world wars vividly. Indeed, from June 1940 until late 1941, Britain displayed remarkable fortitude. At this point, Britain stood alone against continental fascism embodied not only by Hitler and Mussolini but the neutral Franco and Salazar, too. Britain’s proud stand should be memorialized.

However, rather against the Dunkirk legend of an embattled little island and its plucky peoples, it might be remembered that Britain happened, at that point, to possess the largest navy and the largest empire in the world. Consequently, while appeasement might have been cynically feasible before 1939, it was utterly impossible in the face of German aggression from 1940. Britain had to oppose the Nazis and was right to do so. The problem in the United Kingdom today is that the proper commemoration of this past has become an obsession with a self-regarding distortion of World War II. Dunkirk condones that conceit rather than questioning it.

Even then, should we forget Dunkirk itself? No. But maybe we should have different memories of it, which did not, of course, feature in the film. For me, one of the most poignant episodes at Dunkirk involved an exchange between Alan Brooke, commander of II Corps, and his closest subordinate, Bernard Montgomery, commander of the 3rd Division. The two men would become critical to Britain’s war effort. Having successfully withdrawn his corps, Alan Brooke came to Montgomery’s headquarters to say goodbye on May. 30, 1940. He was to be evacuated immediately.  Recognising the imminent distress of his commander, Montgomery discreetly escorted him to the privacy of the nearby sand-dunes where Brooke broke down. The strain of the previous weeks, the losses he had suffered and the defeat finally overwhelmed him. He wept on Montgomery’s shoulder.

There are many ways to respond to this emotive episode but, for me, it is deeply illuminating about Montgomery and the way he is now remembered. It demonstrates not only that Montgomery was a very fine general, who had commanded his division with the greatest skill and remained utterly imperturbable even in the face of disaster, but it also reveals the rare humanity of an often cold and unapproachable man. He could be kind. Yet, in contemporary imagination, this Montgomery has been forgotten, not, instructively, so much because of his many enemies, but primarily because of his own vanity. Montgomery was remorseless in promoting himself over colleagues, peers and allies. In this way, like Achilles, Montgomery traduced his own reputation. Yet, there in the dunes of Dunkirk, a quite different, nobler person was on display. That man – spoiled by his own hubris – is, perhaps, something Britain should remember and learn from today.


Anthony King holds the Chair of War Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. He is currently finishing a book on divisional command, entitled Command: the twenty-first century general, which will be published next year.