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