This article was originally published on Mar 19, 2018.
The important thing to remember about historical films is that they’re never really about the events they depict, but about how specific groups at the time of release perceive them. Saving Private Ryan is about how Americans saw WWII veterans during the ‘Greatest Generation’ revival in the nineties. Detroit is about how modern white American liberals see police brutality.
Modern British cinema is no different. As the country readies itself for Brexit, its ideals, hopes and desires can be seen in the blockbuster movies it has created. In fact, the central split in the British psyche right now is perfectly divided between two films. The first is Paddington, the film for the remain voters, which tells the story of a refugee coming to the UK and being taken in by a British family, in an incredibly welcoming, vibrant, post-colonial multicultural Britain. The second is Dunkirk, the film for the leave side. A backwards-looking romanticized-version of the past, it presents Britain as a proud island nation standing nearly alone against the world, and with an entirely white cast.
The story of the Dunkirk evacuation is one of the most enduring stories of WWII for Brits. The popular version, which almost every English person knows by heart, goes like this:
On the 28th May 1940, the British army was stranded on the windswept beaches of Dunkirk, trapped between the sea and the encroaching German army. The situation looked hopeless. But at the last minute a fleet of tiny ships appeared on the horizon. Banding together from all walks of life, ordinary Britons bravely sailed their ships across the English Channel to bring the troops home. Doing what the navy could not, they brought hundreds of thousands of men back to Britain, saving the country from defeat at the hands of the Nazis.
There are several inaccuracies here. First, a third of the Allied forces at Dunkirk were French, who held off the Wermacht long enough for almost everyone to be evacuated safely. But they’re almost always omitted from British retellings.
Second, the ‘little boats’, as they came to be known, played a smaller part in the evacuation than they’re usually credited with. Less than a third of the 300,000 men evacuated were carried by civilian vessels, with the rest carried by navy vessels. The civilian ships were also almost entirely staffed by navy men, the boats having been requisitioned some time before, in contrast to the romanticized image of ordinary Britons sailing across of their own accord.
These inaccuracies are revealing, because in the years since WWII the myth of Dunkirk has become one of the cornerstones of British nationalism. It has powered the country though the disintegration of the Empire, the fading of Britain’s international relevance and most recently Brexit, and is critical to understanding modern Britain.
There’s a lot of international confusion about how Brexit came to be, which I feel is due to a lack of understanding about the nature of British nationalism. Today it’s almost entirely based in the country’s memories of 1940. France had fallen, America had not yet entered the war, and Britain seemed on the verge of invasion itself.
For Brits this is the most important moment of the war, the turning point when Britain, alone in the world, held back the Nazi tide sweeping Europe. Our “finest hour,” as Churchill put it. Dunkirk, the Blitz (the carpet bombing of British cities), rationing and the Battle of Britain (the RAF fending off the Luftwaffe) are seen as proof of an inherent quality of the British character, a solidarity and resolve to weather terrible circumstances as a united people. A ‘Dunkirk Spirit’. This phrase has become a shorthand for British resilience, invoked to encourage the public in the face of everything from terrorist attacks to rained-out cricket matches.
All four of these memories of 1940 are stories of survival, and together form the basis of the two great British myths of WWII. The first is that of ‘Britain Alone’, the image of Britain abandoned by its allies, the sole bulwark holding firm against the Nazi tide. It’s the romanticized myth of total self-reliance that ever since has been used as a justification for the country distancing itself from Europe.
The second myth is that of the ‘People’s War’. This is the story of how all strata of British society overcome their class differences to fight for the greater good. It presents 1940 as the year in which ordinary Britons were willing to accept rationing, take on jobs in the war industries, endure the bombing of their homes and risk their own lives sailing into battle. Everyone, from factory workers to the Queen sacrificed for the war effort, embracing the Dunkirk spirit to be the best of what British people can be.
Britain has never gotten over the loss of its empire. It’s haunted by the memory of when it used to be a great power dictating the fate of the world, and in its more desperate moments tries to bring back the last time it played that role. Seventy years later it’s still mentally stuck in WWII.
Of all Britain’s WWII accomplishments, Dunkirk may seem a strange choice for the country to fixate on. It’s a story about running away. But Dunkirk is merely the latest in Britain’s long tradition of heroic military stories about failure.
Ironically, despite its history of military conquest, British popular culture has always had a deep-seated resentment for war and militarism. Like everything British, it’s rooted in class politics. Historically, the army was seen as an extension of upper-class power, being officered by aristocrats who literally bought their commissions, so the image of the soldier became hated by the working classes. As late as 1940, George Orwell wrote that “Well within living memory it was common for ‘the redcoats’ to be booed at in the streets and for the landlords of respectable public houses to refuse to allow soldiers on the premises.”
Even with high unemployment it was hard to recruit enough men to maintain the small standing army, and the navy resorted to literally kidnapping people. While this looks hypocritical to outsiders given the Empire – and it is – it’s worth remembering the benefits of the Empire were seen exclusively by the middle and upper classes. The working class received none of them.
As a result, there’s a real lack of military tradition among most English people, and along with the famous insularity of British culture this all means their attitude towards war is unfailingly defensive. There is no enduring popular British art depicting historical military victories, for example. The battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo almost never turn up in fiction, and D-Day is never depicted in British WWII films. Only one popular British war film is about an entirely successful military operation (The Dambusters). The rest are either POW stories (The Great Escape, The Colditz Story), tales of survival (The Battle of Britain), or stories of failure (A Bridge Too Far).
The most enduring piece of heroic British war art is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, a poem about a brigade of cavalry who charged to their pointless deaths due to a communications screw-up. The courage of the men is presented as something to be remembered and celebrated for all time, despite being entirely futile:
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
British people also have a lack of knowledge about British military successes. If you ask them to name WWI battles they’ll come up with Ypres, the Somme and Gallopoli, but not a single victory. It’s the same with WWII. Dunkirk is a story of retreat, and the Blitz, rationing and the Battle of Britain are about survival, while the war’s latter half is largely forgotten. To most Brits, everything after D-Day is just ‘and then we beat the Nazis’.
How did the myth of Dunkirk come to be? The earliest versions were created immediately following the evacuation, to inspire the populace in the aftermath of a disastrous military campaign. Its two greatest influences were Winston Churchill and JB Priestley, a BBC broadcaster at the time. Churchill was instrumental in framing the retreat as a triumph. In his speech to the House of Commons, while noting that “wars are not won by evacuations”, he described “a victory inside this deliverance.” He focused on honouring the military for the evacuation’s success, and while acknowledging the help of the little ships, he emphasized the importance of civilians taking jobs in factories to replace the abandoned armaments. This outlook was repeated by newsreels and the press.
Priestley however emphasized the role of the little boats, creating the populist narrative of Dunkirk. He described the “fussy little steamers” evacuating troops from the beaches, and while they were almost all operated by navy crews, he focused on them as a symbol of the British people, their usual “crowds of holiday passengers”. He presented this as the central message of the story, describing how children in the future would learn “how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious”.
The idea that the rescue succeeded because of ordinary citizens selflessly sailing into war came from American WWII literature. Paul Gallico’s short story The Snow Goose, published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1940, depicts the protagonist’s part in the evacuation as a way of redeeming himself and rejoining society. The story describes ordinary Britons “putting out. . . in answer to the government’s call,” and launching “every tug and fishing boat or power launch that could propel itself.” It became a popular children’s story, and helped define how children for the next few decades learned about the war. Hollywood helped shape the myth as well. The hugely successful 1942 film Mrs Miniver, about a British family during the war, shows the heroine’s husband leaving to join the civilian fleet in his boat.
Notably, no British wartime accounts of the evacuation credited the French for its success. In fact, they often blamed French cowardice for the defeat, in contrast to a uniquely British resilience seen as responsible for the evacuation’s success. The French saw everything as the result of British cowardice.
In this respect Nolan’s film is unusual. In fact, it is the only British depiction I’ve seen which even mentions the French, and I must confess I did not even know there were French soldiers at Dunkirk before I heard of the film. Their involvement is downplayed though. We see only three depictions of French soldiers: a squad defending the city who nearly shoot a British soldier before letting him through with an acerbic “Bon voyage l’Anglais”, a group of soldiers attempting to queue-jump onto a ship, and finally a soldier disguising himself as British to try the same thing.
None are demonized, and the last is portrayed very sympathetically, but they play a very small part in the overall film. Only one of the ten main characters is French, and he gets all of a single line. You’d never guess from watching that French soldiers made up a third of all the forces at Dunkirk.
The depiction of Britain alone is otherwise very traditional, presenting the evacuation as a crucial turning point in history. When laying out how dire the situation is, the British Admiral tells his officers “They’re not stopping here… Britain’s next, and then the rest of the world.” This positions the evacuation, and Britain’s survival, as being the one thing standing between the Nazis and world domination.
The film takes the People’s War very seriously. Most of it is spent building up the situation on the beach as utterly hopeless, and the appearance of the little ships is shown as a miraculous deliverance. An entire third of the film focuses on a single civilian boat owner rescuing dozens of soldiers at sea, and when the little ships show up at the beach the Commander takes the time to talk to several of their owners, emphasizing the theme of ordinary Britons coming together and sailing into war.
We also almost never see any of the ships crewed by sailors. At the beginning Mark Rylance’s boat is being requisitioned when he leaves in it, and there are a few sailors manning sailboats in the background towards the end, but any time the film focuses on one boat or its crew it’s crewed by civilians.
The issue of uniting across class boundaries is prominent too. The ordinary foot soldiers are shown as working-class boys, Mark Rylance’s character is the embodiment of British middle-class self-image, and at the end the upper-class officers are seen benevolently offering the last remaining working-class soldier we see a ride on their boat.
All this may not seem nationalistic to an outsider. The film tries hard to avoid political matters, framing itself as a story about the immediate rescue and nothing outside of it. In an interview, Nolan said, “What that ruled out for me immediately was getting bogged down in the politics of the situation… We don’t have generals in rooms pushing things around on maps. We don’t see Churchill. We barely glimpse the enemy.” But the version of the story he tells is a deeply politicized nationalist narrative as old as the war itself, and the film can’t escape from that.
Which aspects of the myth of Dunkirk are culturally important changes with the British political situation. With the rapid disintegration of the British Empire in the post-war years, and especially after the Suez Crisis, it was clear our international domination was at an end. Faced with growing feelings of irrelevance, the myth of Britain Alone gave the country a sense of reassurance that it could go on without its colonies, even through the economic crises of the seventies.
The myth of the People’s War took on a new significance in the sixties. As rising standards of living blurred class boundaries and weakened the established class system, it was often invoked as an ideal of British society coming together in the absence of traditional social structures.
The romantic isolationist myth would later be invoked heavily by Margaret Thatcher as a major part of her nationalistic worldview, and as a justification for avoiding strengthening ties with Europe. Her generation had been captivated by Churchill’s vision of Britain’s past during the war, and she believed that if that past could be brought into the present, its glories could be recaptured. In a 1988 speech in Bruges, she said:
“We British have in a very special way contributed to Europe. Over the centuries we have fought to prevent Europe from falling under the dominance of a single power… Had it not been for that willingness to fight and to die, Europe would have been united long before now—but not in liberty, not in justice.”
With Brexit, the Dunkirk Spirit has yet again returned to the foreground. In an article for The Telegraph criticizing the pace of Brexit, Allison Pearson wrote, “if Operation Dynamo, over the course of eight days in 1940, could rescue 338,226 soldiers from beaches under heavy German gunfire, using a fleet of 800 ‘Here’s one I made earlier’ boats, then just how how [sic] long a ‘transition period’ do we need to take back control of our borders and our laws?”
But it must be said that while the myth of Dunkirk is a distorted and somewhat pompous view of history, it wouldn’t have caught on were it not in some way true. For all Britain’s harsh and divisive class politics, there’s a remarkable sense of national solidarity in the face of foreign threats.
British patriotism is largely unconscious. No-one’s heart flutters at the sight of the Union Jack, or the tune of God Save the Queen, but the feeling of belonging to one’s country is incredibly strong and can overwhelm the usual class prejudices. Before 1940 British people neither knew nor cared about Europe. Fascism was thought of as a purely Italian phenomenon, and Jewish refugees turned away out of fear they’d steal British jobs. The period between the declaration of war and the retreat from Dunkirk (during which Poland was invaded) was known as the ‘Phony War’, because to British people it seemed like nothing was happening.
But after the evacuation the country took one look across the channel and instantly closed ranks and readied itself. After Dunkirk there were no serious attempts at organising a peace deal, and no-one tried selling the country out Vidkun Quisling-style. Anti-war pamphlets could be sold openly in the streets, as everyone knew no-one wanted to read them. Whether this is genuine solidarity or simply hating foreigners more than each other is up for debate, but as Orwell put it, “It is the same quality… that repels the tourist and keeps out the invader.”
It’s no coincidence 2017 saw the release of three Dunkirk movies. [One of them, Their Finest, was given the Best Dunkirk Movie Not Called “Dunkirk” award in VyceVictus’ National Board With a Nail In It year-end review! – Ed.] Brexit is fueled by the nationalism and xenophobia skyrocketing in Britain since the 2008 recession, and in such times people inevitably look back to romanticized depictions of their country’s past.
Britain’s nostalgia for the war is one of the main manifestations of modern British self-image. Particularly among the older generation, who either lived through the war or grew up in its aftermath, the country’s actions are remembered as the purest embodiment of the British people’s spirit in the face of adversity. It’s only natural those memories would resurface when they feel threatened.
While Britain’s part in the war is well-known, its continuing influence is not and I feel Dunkirk can do a lot to rectify this. It can help explain to audiences worldwide why the British mindset is the way it is. Why Britain has never gotten over WWII. Why the country will vote to blow its economic brains out.
“Dunkirk: The Defeat That Inspired a Nation” by Alice Palmer
“The Lion and the Unicorn” by George Orwell
The Living Dead (1995, dir. Adam Curtis)
“For Brexit to work, we need Dunkirk spirit not ‘Naysaying Nellies’” by Allison Pearson