Max Hast­ings

Dunkirk a film di­rected by Christo­pher Nolan Alone: Bri­tain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: De­feat into Vic­tory by Michael Korda

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Dunkirk a film di­rected by Christo­pher Nolan

Alone: Bri­tain, Churchill, and Dunkirk:

De­feat into Vic­tory by Michael Korda. Liveright, 525 pp., $29.95

Christo­pher Nolan’s epic movie about the res­cue of the Bri­tish army from the beaches of north­east­ern France in May 1940 has be­come a world­wide box of­fice suc­cess. This is splen­did news for its mak­ers, and can do no harm to Amer­i­can, Tai­wanese, or for that mat­ter Ra­jput au­di­ences. In the eyes of some of us, how­ever, its im­pact upon the Bri­tish peo­ple is calami­tous at this mo­ment in our for­tunes.

Dunkirk con­tains no for­eign­ers ex­cept a few un­der­stand­ably grumpy French sol­diers. It is a Bri­tish tale that feeds the myth that has brought Churchill’s na­tion to the cliff edge of de­par­ture from the Euro­pean Union: there is splen­dor in be­ing alone. This was most vividly ex­pressed at the time by King Ge­orge VI, who wrote to his mother: “Per­son­ally I feel hap­pier now that we have no al­lies to be po­lite to & pam­per.” One of the Bri­tish of­fi­cers who es­caped with his bat­tal­ion via the beaches greeted news that the French had sur­ren­dered on June 17 by ex­ult­ing mind­lessly to his com­rades in the mess: “Thank heav­ens they have, now at last we can get on with the war.”

Michael Korda, for decades a cel­e­brated New York pub­lisher, was born in Bri­tain in 1933; his fa­ther was Vin­cent Korda, one of three Hun­gar­i­an­born broth­ers who were cin­ema wizards of their day. Now he of­fers two books for the price of one, in­ter­weav­ing a his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive of the events of 1939–1940, cli­max­ing with Dunkirk, and a suc­ces­sion of vivid frag­ments of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. He de­scribes the flow of Jewish refugees through the North Lon­don homes of his child­hood: “They had the haunted look of peo­ple who have just wit­nessed a bad ac­ci­dent, peo­ple with ag­gres­sive charm and for­mal man­ners who had grown up with the Kor­das in Túrkeve, or had been to univer­sity in Bu­dapest with Alex, or loaned him money, or worked with my fa­ther on film sets in Vi­enna, Paris or Ber­lin.”

Va­ca­tion­ing in France in the sum­mer of 1939, as the world tum­bled to­ward catas­tro­phe, he re­calls his ac­tress mother con­stantly repris­ing the comic hit song of the day “Tout va très bien, Madame La Mar­quise,” which tells of an aris­to­cratic wo­man on hol­i­day who calls home to check that all is well and hears from her ser­vants of one catas­tro­phe af­ter an­other, each de­scribed as “a lit­tle incident, a noth­ing,” cul­mi­nat­ing in the sui­cide of her hus­band and the in­cin­er­a­tion of her château. Korda writes: “Even as a boy of six, I ob­served that ev­ery­body in France talked about la ligne Maginot rev­er­en­tially as if it were a holy ob­ject.”

He is very funny about his fam­ily’s ex­pe­ri­ences em­bark­ing on the film That Hamil­ton Wo­man, which even­tu­ally be­came one of Churchill’s fa­vorites: his fa­ther, as set de­signer, failed to grasp that this was a tale of Ad­mi­ral Nel­son. Sup­pos­ing it to be about Gen­eral Welling­ton, he be­gan to cre­ate a back­drop for the Duchess of Rich­mond’s ball in Brus­sels be­fore Water­loo.

Once the Euro­pean strug­gle be­gan in earnest with the launch of Hitler’s blitzkrieg, Korda writes, “my mother, when she thought about the war at all, had the cheer­ful con­vic­tion that ev­ery­thing would work out well in the end be­cause it al­ways had for Bri­tain, ex­cept for the war against the Amer­i­can colonies, and that was too long ago to mat­ter.” He dis­cerns among Bri­tain’s mod­ern Brex­iters the mood that he him­self wit­nessed af­ter Dunkirk.

This com­par­i­son seems valid. Boris John­son, Liam Fox, Michael Gove, David Davis, Iain Dun­can Smith, Ja­cob Rees-Mogg, and their mis­be­got­ten Tory kin daily as­sure the Bri­tish peo­ple that once we have cast off the

shack­les that bind us to Europe, car­avels laden with the spoils of free trade will bring gold, frank­in­cense, and myrrh to our is­land; as an added bonus, the sun will shine ev­ery day. Watch­ing Dunkirk, I half-ex­pected For­eign Sec­re­tary John­son to ap­pear in lieu of Win­ston Churchill, promis­ing to hurl back the Hun­nish hordes led by An­gela Merkel, and to show no mercy to such knock-kneed Pé­tain­istes as France’s Em­manuel Macron.

The irony, of course, is that Churchill him­self never saw any­thing in the least glo­ri­ous about stand­ing alone. In May and June 1940 he moved heaven and earth—even fan­tas­ti­cally of­fer­ing Paul Rey­naud’s govern­ment po­lit­i­cal union with Bri­tain—to per­suade France to stay in the war rather than sign an armistice. When the Nazis in­vaded Rus­sia in June 1941, Churchill em­braced the tyranny of Stalin, morally hard to dis­tin­guish from that of Hitler, and greeted the Rus­sians as com­rades in arms. The fore­most ob­jec­tive of his premier­ship was to woo the United States into bel­liger­ence.

No man un­der­stood bet­ter than Churchill that while Bri­tain might some­how avert de­feat, with­out fighting along­side friends it could not con­ceiv­ably aspire to vic­tory. Only ne­ces­sity and a supremely coura­geous will­ing­ness to defy rea­son, which many Bri­tish politi­cians and gen­er­als felt un­able to share, caused him in June 1940 to pro­claim his coun­try’s deter­mi­na­tion to fight to the last. Our most em­i­nent liv­ing his­to­rian, Sir Michael Howard, who lived through that era rel­a­tively early in his ninety-four years, ob­served to me re­cently: “The great les­son of my life­time is that all dif­fi­cult prob­lems and chal­lenges are best ad­dressed with part­ners and al­lies.” This is the wis­dom that the mod­ern Brex­iters seek to tram­ple. They find the “Dunkirk spirit” re­fresh­ingly brac­ing, which Churchill cer­tainly did not. “I can­not say that I have en­joyed be­ing Prime Min­is­ter v[er]y much so far,” he wrote wryly on June 4, 1940, to one of his pre­de­ces­sors, Stan­ley Bald­win.

And so to the Nolan film. It possesses many of the virtues and vices of Steven Spiel­berg’s epics, wrapped in a Union flag in­stead of the Stars and Stripes. It looks ter­rific, though it is nois­ier than any bat­tle I have ever at­tended. It con­tains some ad­e­quate act­ing, rem­i­nis­cent of the si­lent movie era, be­cause the stars de­liver few co­her­ent lines, be­ing merely re­quired to look staunch, stressed, and in­domitable at ap­pro­pri­ate mo­ments.

The film opens with un­seen Ger­mans fir­ing on a group of Bri­tish sol­diers in the de­serted streets of Dunkirk, killing all but one, Tommy (Fionn White­head), whose ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing the en­su­ing week, on the beaches and off­shore, form a prin­ci­pal theme of what fol­lows. At in­ter­vals be­tween be­ing bombed and strafed by the Luft­waffe, Tommy and var­i­ous com­pan­ions board ships in hopes of es­cape, only to find each in turn stricken. Nolan of­fers some ex­tra­or­di­nary sink­ing scenes: Tommy’s es­capes make Leonardo DiCaprio’s mis­for­tunes aboard the Ti­tanic seem tame stuff.

Mean­while the Royal Navy has com­man­deered a host of small boats from the har­bors of the South Coast and dis­patched them to aid the evac­u­a­tion. One boat owner, named Daw­son (Mark Ry­lance), sets forth with his teenage son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Car­ney), and a young helper named Ge­orge (Barry Keoghan). Their first en­counter with the war comes when they res­cue a trau­ma­tized sol­dier (Cil­lian Mur­phy) from a float­ing hulk. He is so ap­palled on find­ing that they are head­ing for Dunkirk, from which he has just es­caped, that he tries to seize con­trol of the boat, hurl­ing Ge­orge onto a ladder be­low, which his head strikes with fatal ef­fect—a mawk­ish mo­ment. Mean­while in the air, there are spec­tac­u­lar scenes as three Spit­fires duel

Fionn White­head as a young Bri­tish sol­dier in Christo­pher Nolan’s film Dunkirk

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