Film Depictions of WW2 in the Trump & Brexit era
“This is no war of chieftains or of princes, of dynasties or national ambition; it is a war of peoples and of causes… Let all strive without failing in faith or in duty, and the dark curse of Hitler will be lifted from our age.”
Winston Churchill, Radio broadcast, “War of the Unknown Warriors”, 14 July 1940 1
Political discourse in the developed Western nations has taken a divergent path in the last couple of years. If a crude and broad brushstroke history were to be taken of the last hundred years one could easily point to a prevailing progressivism of political ideology in the West —from the right for women to vote, to the success of the civil rights movement, to the legalization of gay marriage— we have seen at an aggregate level the success of a transformative liberalisation agenda. Liberals will rightly point to all the myriad examples of western hypocrisy, and all the ways in which equality of opportunity is still very far from being realized, all of which is incredibly important to acknowledge and to continue to address, but none of which changes the fact that how people define themselves in terms of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic identity and so forth is no longer acceptable as grounds for discrimination under the law. This is a very different proposition than it was one hundred years ago and we dismiss this progress, as bumpy and inconsistent as it is, at our peril.
This trend has, at least in the near term, been put under severe pressure by the dominant populist discourse of Trump and Brexit, which instead focuses the dialogue on the benefits of nationalism rather than internationalism, on difference rather than unity, on perceived or actual loss of parochial culture in the melting pot of diversity and multiculturalism, on family values rather than social values, on the greatness of the past rather than the confusion of the present, on competition between nations rather than on cooperation between them to address pan-national issues of climate change, terrorism and immigration.
In this environment politicians have regularly called on political heroes of the past to invoke them by having them act as ventriloquist for their position, as if we could possibly know what these long dead politicians would have thought, and as if their invocation provides supreme authority for one’s position. Just look how the British press used Churchill to support either the Leave 2 or Remain 3 campaign, as if the ghost of national pride would make their case for them.
In the last few years there has been a resurgence in mainstream cinema of films set during World War 2 and in this context it is interesting to analyse what the filmmakers have to contribute to the agenda. I should point out that I do not believe that any of the films were made or intended to be either pro/anti Trump or Brexit, but rather we can look to the thematic predispositions of the films to consider how they contribute or not to the cultural and ideological debate articulated above.
A quick timeline of political events tells us that the Brexit timeline started in May 2013 when the Conservative Party published a draft EU Referendum Bill as a response to growing calls in the Conservative party for a referendum. In May 2015 the legal basis for a referendum on EU membership was established by the UK Parliament through the European Union Referendum Act 2015 and on 23 June 2016 the referendum was held resulting in 52/48 victory for Brexit. The timelines and terms of the British exit from the EU (assuming it happens) are, at the time of writing (summer 2017), still somewhat unclear. In terms of the US agenda, Trump announced his candidacy for President on 16 June 2015, won the Republican nomination on 3 May 2016 and was elected to the Presidency on 8 November 2016.
During this time period we have seen the release of George Clooney’s Monuments Men (February 2014), David Ayer’s Fury (October 2014), Morten Tyldum’s Imitation Game (November 2014), Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes (July 2015), Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid (September 2016) and Cédric Jimenez’s upcoming HHhH on the same topic, Robert Zemeckis’s Allied (November 2016), Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (January 2017), Mick Jackson’s Denial (January 2017) set in the 90s but about the fight for truth against holocaust deniers, Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest ( April 2017), Niki Caro’s The Zookeepers Wife (April 2017), Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill (June 2017), Vincent Perez’s Alone In Berlin (June 2017) and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (July 2017) to name some of the most prominent examples. We still have a number in production to be released such as Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour (January 2018) and Terrence Malick’s Radegund.
I will not attempt to analyse all of these but will dip into some and look more closely at a couple to tease out the strongest ideological messages from Hollywood with reference to the political backdrop of the films’ release.
Clooney’s Monuments Men attempts a light-hearted Ocean’s Eleven type vibe to tell the true story of an Allied group from the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program as they attempt to prevent the Nazis from stealing and destroying the artistic heritage of the countries Hitler invaded. The film feels unencumbered by populist invective, being released prior to Trump’s candidacy or the formalisation of a Brexit referendum. The group of preservation officers we follow are an international team who jokingly rib each other on their national and cultural diversity but who unite to protect what they deem to be the foundations of civilization rather than the defence of any one country or nation. Frank Stokes, Clooney’s character, states, “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and that’s exactly what we are fighting for.” This echoes Roosevelt’s comments delivered on March 17, 1941 at the dedication ceremony of the National Gallery of Art, “Whatever these paintings may have been to men who looked at them a generation back — today they are not only works of art. Today they are the symbols of the human spirit, and of the world the freedom of the human spirit made … To accept this work today is to assert the purpose of the people of America that the freedom of the human spirit and human mind which has produced the world’s greatest art and all its science — shall not be utterly destroyed.” 4 The film’s tone is uneven and cannot quite manage the tightrope walk between comedic buddy story and serious high-mindedness. This light-footedness prevents a real exploration of the question of the value of art and how much the team and others should risk to protect it. But the fact that it raises the question and reminds us of the Heinrich Heine quote, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings” 5 , places the film in political alignment with an internationalist and liberal agenda.
Also released around the same time, prior to the resurgence of populism as the defining voice in British and US politics (not to mention Le Pen’s race for power in France), was The Imitation Game. Similarly, to The Monument’s Men it was open and explicit in driving a progressive agenda of tolerance, in this case associated with Alan Turing’s sexuality as well as the representation of highly intelligent women to make a massive intellectual contribution to the war effort (Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke). The film raises an interesting issue, not often recognized by the modern liberal voice, that whilst the fight against fascism was central to the cause in World War 2, it does not mean that the values the Allies were fighting for were consistent with the modern progressive agenda. I certainly would not suggest they were in conflict with this agenda either, but Churchill, Roosevelt and the Allies were a product of their time and whilst the preservation of a democratic and open society has allowed for greater rights for women, ethnic minorities and LBGT communities, it would be mistaken to suggest that Churchill fought for these values. Turing, who played a central role in the fight against Nazi Germany, was ostracized and unacknowledged largely due to his sexual orientation – democracy and its preservation does not necessarily mean the support of a progressive agenda. The film does a good job of reminding us of these apparent contradictions and makes a strong case by personalizing the travesty of intolerance of someone based on sexual orientation.
The Conservative Alternative
This brings us onto a film with a rather different agenda, Fury, which clearly attempts to depict war with a level of subjective veracity as seen in Saving Private Ryan. It was broadly appreciated and valued by critics as a result but I think the ideology the film presents is more problematic. The film purports to show the ‘reality of war’ but does this purely through the unrelenting depiction of brutality, with very little commentary on this violence or on its context.
It clearly celebrates the Easy Eight crew, whose story we follow, and implies that under all the machismo and violence that they are ‘good underneath’, which it does primarily through identifying their religiosity rather than their commitment to saving democracy. The film reveres Brad Pitt’s character, Wardaddy, despite the fact that he openly commits war crimes (execution of surrendered soldiers, advocacy of rape by his soldiers —at least the “polite” one). We, the audience, are supposed to respect him as battle hardened and his actions as appropriate to the situation.
I am not sure I agree with Truffaut’s famous quote that “to show something is to ennoble it.” The depiction of awful events is not defence of these events in itself, but Fury does not pass this test 6 , the whole narrative of the film is designed to a) tell us how horrible it all is, and b) establish that in this context Pitt’s character (and his team) are to be forgiven and even celebrated. This is propaganda at its purest. We are asked to condone atrocities. All that is required do so is to depict the horror of war and to hint that underneath it all these men are simple but good boys with little practical alternative.
I will use this critique to bring in a more recent addition to the WW2 film cannon, Hacksaw Ridge. Fury, like Hacksaw Ridge, posits itself as anti-war but actually revels in and celebrates the violence in a macho, quasi-coming of age manner. To the degree that morality finds its way into the narrative it is in the form of a simplistic view of religion as the ultimate purifier, as if believing in God validates or at least cleanses the team’s actions. Hacksaw Ridge is a text book illustration of Truffaut’s case, with such attention paid to the atrocious violence of war, but with the depiction of this in often majestic, beautiful tones – the bodies flying in slow motion around our hero as bombs and grenades explode, as if our hero found himself caught up in a John Woo bullet ballet by mistake. Truffaut proclaimed, “I find that violence is very ambiguous in movies. For example, some films claim to be anti-war, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an anti-war film. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” 7 Hacksaw Ridge and Fury are perfect examples of this unintentional hypocritical dynamic.
The Anti-War Question
There is a further question to be asked here though — What is it to be anti-war in the context of World War 2? Surely war makes a lot less sense when faced with the direct threat of a global fascist tyranny? To be anti-war in this context implies that we should not fight the Nazis out of a commitment to avoiding war at all costs? Are we to believe that a more moral outcome is to condemn all humanity to be brutalised by a tyrannical dictatorship based on fascistic racial purity of the Germanic people over all others?
My proposal, and the basis of the ideological assumptions underlying this article, is that the only thing that can, and does, justify war is the defence of the institutions of democracy and self-governance. The actions of war cannot be defended, as in Fury (or countless other films such as Platoon and Saving Private Ryan) by pointing towards their place in a process of a baptism of fire, towards a coming of age journey for the individual, a necessary journey to redemption, or a demonstration of martyrdom to show how committed you are to death. Robin Wood makes a strong criticism of Taxi Driver to this same end but I think it equally applies to these films, “while achieving nothing for an obviously beyond-help society, [the protagonist] has achieved through his actions some kind of personal grace or existential self-definition, and that this is really all that matters, since civilization is demonstrably unredeemable…I find it morally indefensible, pernicious, and irresponsible: it implies that one’s existential self-definition can validly be bought at the cost of no matter what other human beings. It also represents a debased and simplistic (quasi-Fascist) version of Existentialism, restricting it to a matter of the Chosen Superior Individual and depriving it of all social force.” 8 Indeed Fury is not the first war film to fall into this trap – there is a long history of this as a driving narrative of war films from Platoon to Saving Private Ryan. A casual reviewer on IMDB in his/her critique of Platoon summarizes this nicely stating that the film “purport[s] to be “anti-war”, but then treat[s] war as a coming-of-age ritual, a rite of passage into manhood in which our heroes endure exciting action sequences and then benefit from these experiences.” 9
The typical criterion used to determine the success of a war film is whether it “succeeds at finding humanity in the chaos of war.” [Ain’t it Cool]] I find this uncompelling in that during war both (all) sides will have people who demonstrate extraordinary courage and valour, as well as many who commit the most horrifying atrocities. It does us little good to isolate these, fall back on the simplistic (though truthful) notion that war is bad, and then demonstrate that one can find great acts and redemption within such a hellish environment. Whilst individuals have to fight wars and do their best to make sense of them, an answer to a just war, or just actions within war, cannot be found at the individual level unless there is recognition that we are fighting for humanistic ideals, the preservation of human rights, the appropriate limitation of governmental sovereignty, the protection of the rule of law. This is what was fought for and achieved in World War 2. We would not be here if it were not the case. And any other attempt to justify the horrific actions of war is doomed to failure. Crafting a simplistic anti-war message out of the circumstances of the threat that was faced by the Allies in the face of the Nazi regime and its war machine is by definition lacking something of immense importance and no amount of “realistic” action will offset this.
Anthropoid is on the face of it a rather straightforward thriller about the team, led by Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, who were trained by the British Special Operations Executive to carry out a mission at the behest of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London. In conjunction with the Czechoslovak resistance they are to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the high-ranking Nazi official who ruled over Czechoslovakia and who was the main architect of the Holocaust. The opening shots of the film consist of actual footage of Heydrich with glimpses of his atrocities. It is a stunning opening which frames the rest of the film with an enormous sense of clarity about what is at stake. It is not an anti-war film and it does not glorify war at all. The repercussions of violence are occasionally difficult to watch, and the film references, although does not depict, the reprisals that Hitler and the Nazis undertook after Heydrich’s death, including the razing of the town of Lidice. The film makes an incredibly strong argument for the use of force to protect against the outright butchery of the Nazi machine and the people that ran it, including the critical political ramifications of the events depicted which included the subsequent British repudiation of the Munich Agreement. The British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, had signed the agreement in an attempt to appease Hitler by allowing him to annex a portion of Czechoslovakia. Churchill famously stated that Chamberlain was “given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonour and you will have war.” The rescindment of this commitment meant that if and when the war ended in the Allies’ favour, Czechoslovakia would be restored to its 1938 borders. The actions of Gabčík and Kubiš, whilst disastrous for each of them and many others in Czechoslovakia, removed the architect of the Final Solution from having any further influence on the course of history, and established international support for a Czechoslovakia within pre-war boundaries. This combination of the micro with the macro is suitably handled by the makers of Anthropoid. The upcoming HHhH looks to take an even broader historical approach, providing backstory on Heydrich and his rise to power. It will be interesting to see what this film adds to (or detracts from) the historical and political perspective on its release in 2018.
Karl Popper, the great philosopher and defender of democratic society whose war contribution was the creation of The Open Society and Its Enemies, makes the case concisely for the only appropriate use of political violence. “The use of violence is justified only under a tyranny which makes reforms without violence impossible, and it should have only one aim, that is, to bring about a state of affairs which makes reforms without violence possible.” 10
The only justification of war, and the true social or political redemption of it, is whether it is fought in the defence or promotion of an open society against a dictatorial one. The inability of most war films to make this case in a compelling manner is a typical failure within the art form. Anthropoid makes no such mistake.
It Is Always Political
Allied by Robert Zemeckis is an interesting combination of creating a movie which owes so much to classical Hollywood storytelling yet does so with cutting edge filmmaking and special effects techniques. It wears its allegiance to Casablanca and vintage Hitchcock openly but is determinedly non-political. “Whereas ‘Casablanca’ put forth a spine-stiffening anti-fascist call to arms, ‘Allied’ offers the comforts of elegant escapism. Its moral complexities and political ambiguities are intriguing rather than troubling, its ethical and emotional agonies a diversion from rather than a reflection of our own.” 11 However, ideology is never non-existent. The story you choose to tell, how you choose to tell it, what you represent and what you omit – amount to a view of the world with value judgements implicitly interwoven within the fabric, whether the filmmakers intend this or not. Probably the single most interesting aspect of Allied in this respect is the view it provides of the female protagonist. To quote Kimberly Marcela Duron, “Marianne is much more assertive in taking the lead in her and Max’s mission. She’s capable with guns, wears pants and is not restrained in her sexuality. There’s a depth to her character that far exceeds what is explored in Casablanca, where Ilsa is a quiet hero who lets loyalty and love speak for her. This is a small sign of the progress in female characterization in modern movies, where being an innocent and wholesome is no longer the only way to portray a sympathetic female protagonist.” I agree with this up to point. The key issue is that the narrative of the film ensures that Marianne, and all she represents, is annihilated. If one were being highly critical, one could argue that the film is overtly anti-feminist in that it asserts that the strong female character must be corrupt and hence destroyed. You can push this argument too far as the film goes to some pains to excuse her actions and to provide a good deal of remorse for her death, as well as offering glimpses of other strong women such as Bridget Vatan (Brad Pitt’s character’s sister) who is openly and assertively lesbian, who do not suffer the same fate. But the notion that a film can be apolitical is highly questionable.
Which brings me to the film I want to spend the rest of this article looking at, given it is the most economically successful of the World War 2 films to be released during the Trump/Brexit era up to this point and seems to have had the largest cultural impact.
One of the great achievements of Dunkirk is the bringing to social consciousness to a new generation another of the great historical stories of the twentieth century. Much like Spielberg’s accomplishment with both Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Nolan’s film has had a significant impact on popular culture and the value of this should not be understated, irrespective of the merits of the film itself. In both Spielberg and Nolan’s cases the critics and media have played up the film’s authenticity, reporting on veterans going to the cinema and, for better or worse, feeling like they have been transported back to the events they lived through. 12 Christopher Nolan set out consciously and explicitly to create an apolitical film, “the film doesn’t attempt to be comprehensive. We don’t deal with the politics of the situation. We don’t deal with the larger worldview around it…”. 13 You will be unsurprised to read that I believe he failed in this regard but the politics, especially taken against the backdrop of a nationalist versus internationalist political debate around Brexit and Trump, are interesting and complex rather than obviously partisan. Much like how both Brexit Leavers and Remainers claim Churchill as their own, Nolan himself recognises that Dunkirk acts as something of a Rorschach blot, 14 allowing for multiple interpretations and a good degree of ambiguity. All very well, but great art cannot be judged purely on how ambiguous its meaning is – total ambiguity which accommodates all meanings is, by definition, meaningless. If anyone can interpret a work any way they please and each interpretation is just as worthy as any other, then you have failed to create anything of meaning. I think Dunkirk is more interesting than that, it is more specific about its meaning, but this does not resolve itself in any easy way to a partisan view on Brexit as many journalists and political figures have tried to claim 15 It is not striving to do so and would date itself very quickly if it were too overt about its anachronistic allegiances.
probably to its credit. 16
Nolan’s attempt to create something apolitical when dealing with the Second World War is not without its own problems from an ethical perspective. As I write this piece President Trump is busy demonstrating to the world his inability and unwillingness to denounce in unequivocal terms the neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups that converged on Charlottesville on 12th August 2017, instead making a case of moral equivalence between these fascist groups and everyone else that stood against them that amounts to “it takes two to tango”. In this context Joshua Levine’s (historical advisor on Dunkirk) question to Christopher Nolan is extremely pertinent, “Because this film will be seen by a lot of young people who know nothing about the Second World War at all, is there an obligation to underline who the Nazis were?” 17 A question I think Nolan never satisfactorily answers other than suggesting he would find the task too daunting and hence he depicted the Nazis as a faceless enemy. Joshua Levine creates an answer to his own question in Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture, “Chris Nolan may want his audience to feel as baffled and uninformed as the young men under fire for a place on a boat home, but as the author of a history book on the same subject, I do not. I want to paint a vivid picture of the event, offering readers rather more clarity.” 18
Indeed, the lack of political context of the film renders its dedication at the end of the film somewhat underwhelming. It reads, “This film is dedicated to all those whose lives were impacted by the events at Dunkirk.” Without appropriate political context it is not necessarily clear to uninformed viewers that this dedication is essentially offered to everyone! Again, Levine is not lacking in this need for utter clarity on the enormity of the event, which cannot be understood just by a “realistic” depiction of a few participants. “Had these soldiers been killed or captured, Britain would surely have been forced to seek a peace settlement with Hitler, history would have taken a far darker course, and we would all be living in a very different world today.” If indeed living at all.
So given the above what do we look out for in terms of _Dunkirk_’s representation of the evacuation and the political and ideological implications this has? I think this comes down to how the film, in broad strokes and in details, presents a view on whether the war was a battle between nations vying for supremacy (nationalism) versus a battle between all those fighting for democracy (internationalism) against fascism. The war was of course both these things – how could it not be? How are individuals from different nationalities depicted relative to each other, and knowing the broader context and history of the evacuation of Dunkirk, what does Nolan choose to include and, critically, what does he exclude?
One of the films defining attributes is its depiction of the lack of heroism of the evacuees. With the “notable exception of Farrier, Tom Hardy’s character, who is ultimately a bit of a super hero,” 19 Dunkirk offers the audience very little in the way of omnipotence fantasy. The protagonists are scared, xenophobic and make most of their decisions based on pure self-interest and preservation, even if this means sacrificing others. Examples are numerous but include Tommy and Gibson opportunistically grabbing an injured soldier, not because they care about his wellbeing, but because carrying him might allow passage onto an evacuating boat, cutting to the front of the line. Cillian Murphy’s Shivering Soldier refusing to turn back to Dunkirk after being rescued to help his fellow soldiers and inadvertently killing a boy who was there to help him. Alex accusing Gibson of being a German spy in order to either kill him or leave him to die of the boat in an attempt to reduce the ships weight. Unlike Fury the film implies that we are not supposed to respect this as morally appropriate action in the circumstances, nor is the film overly judgemental. Instead it drives home the rather pathetic nature of individuals in such circumstances, to be neither condemned nor condoned but simply pitied. Furthermore, Dunkirk succeeds admirably in establishing that outcomes at both the military and national level, and the individual level are not guaranteed – the universe is indifferent and non-partisan as to who succeeds and who dies. In Nolan’s words, he wanted, “to not allow destiny or fate to be constructed, to be about punishing the bad or rewarding the good… I wanted fate to feel arbitrary.” 20 Those looking for jingoistic, patriotic depictions of individual superiority, heroism, God given support, and self-sacrifice have a lot of wading to do through this film to find it. The actions of the two main RAF pilots and of Mr Dawson, as well as Tommy’s anti-xenophobic defence of Gibson against the goading and threats of Alex and the rest of the soldiers, are able to stand out as truly heroic in this context and have larger impact as a result.
Nolan also stated that, “the film to me is not about individual heroism; it’s about collective heroism. You can have a bunch of people who are acting primarily in their own self-interest and very small in their concerns and really worrying about how to get from A to B. But, overall as a community, there’s something that’s taking place that’s very admirable, and that tension I think is interesting.” This interaction between the individual and the collective is rather superbly managed by Nolan’s obsession with intercutting and using film editing technique to warp time (in space in Interstellar, in our dreams in Inception, in our memories in Memento and Batman Begins 21 in our sleep deprived psyche in Insomnia). The intercutting of the three elements of the story in Dunkirk (The Mole, The Sea, The Air) and their eventual convergence is masterly for two reasons. Firstly, the intercutting between the parallel stories feeds each strand independently and has an exponential impact on the whole. The sense of scope, of what is at stake when the timelines converge, creates a genuine sense of awe. Inter-subjective consequences and the compound effect of the circumstances across the coalescing stories becomes an implicit thematic element of the fabric of the narrative. Secondly, it reveals that the narrative has been constructed, making the film reflexive, drawing attention to itself as a representation. This is Nolan at the height of his powers demonstrating immense control over the medium.
Where the film has come in for some overt political criticism is in its lack of acknowledgement of the role the French played in the evacuation, 22 which in history was definitively not a side story. A full third of all evacuees were French and it was the French rear guard that held the Germans at bay on the ground long enough to allow for the evacuation. Whilst this is referenced in passing, both at the beginning of the film when Tommy is sneered at by the French who nearly shot him whilst escaping the Germans on the streets of Dunkirk, and by Colonel Winnant telling Commander Bolton, “The French’ve been forced back on the western side” but are still holding the perimeter “for now”. But the sheer scale of the French numbers and their contribution is never really felt in the film, as if they were a footnote in what was really a British event. Seemingly small numbers of French are turned away by British soldiers as the try to board vessels, being told, “No French! Non Français – Seulement Anglais! English only, you’ll have your own ships!” Indeed, even when they are called out directly by Commander Bolton nearer the end of the film as the last British troops evacuate and he steps back from the boat onto the mole, “I’m staying. For the French,” it is a rather condescending attribute of the film to imply that Bolton is acting so heroically and with such self-sacrifice to stay behind for the French when they have been holding the defensive line on his behalf the entire time!
What is perhaps more interesting about this lack of acknowledgement of the scale of the French role is that ironically the evacuation and support of the French is a rather fantastic story in British history. In Churchill’s magnum opus, The Second World War, he spends a very large portion of the chapter on “The Deliverance at Dunkirk”, describing how he flew to Paris mid-evacuation as a sign of his commitment to the French to ensure they were given equal access to the evacuation plan. Directly quoting at length from Churchill:
I emphasised the urgent need of getting off more French troops. To fail to do so might do irreparable harm to the relations between ourselves and our Ally… The British Army would have to stick it out as long as possible so that the evacuation of the French could continue. (p268)…it was decided to hold the British sector until midnight June 1-2, evacuation proceeding meanwhile on the basis of full equality between French and British forces. (p269)… the French up to the present had had no orders to evacuate. One of the chief reasons why I had come to Paris was to make sure that the same orders were given to the French troops as to the British… I intervened [to Admiral Darlan] at once to say that the British would not embark first, but that the evacuation should proceed on equal terms between the British and French – “Bras dessus bras dessous.” The British would form the rearguard. (p270)… We had been prepared to carry considerably greater numbers of French that night than had offered themselves… One more effort had to be made… On June 4 26,175 Frenchmen were landed in England, over twenty-one thousand of them in British ships. Unfortunately several thousand remained, who continued the fight in the contracting bridgehead until the morning of the 4th, when the enemy was in the outskirts of the town and they had come to an end of their powers. They had fought gallantly for many days to cover the evacuation of their British and French comrades. They were to spend the next years in captivity. Let us remember that but for the endurance of the Dunkirk rearguard the re-creation of an army in Britain for home defence and final victory would have been gravely prejudiced (pp272-273).
It is hard to take a nationalistic, ‘Britain First’ agenda from this. And whilst some of this is referenced in passing in Dunkirk, it is certainly not well represented. Indeed it is somewhat undermined as per the exchange between Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant:
Colonel Winnant: What about the French?
Rear Admiral: Publicly, Churchill’s told them bras dessous. Arm in arm. Leaving together.
Colonel Winnant: And privately?
Rear Admiral: We need our army back.
What a curious choice to make in the film? To have the soldiers imply that they did not follow Churchill’s stated depiction of historical events. One could argue that in an attempt to create a more realistic state of affairs, the men on the ground are depicted as less altruistic or reciprocal than their Prime Minister, but by making this change it creates a foundational shift in the politics of the film. Nolan’s attempts to be apolitical are crumbling at this point – he is making statements with a degree of cultural import as a result of the inclusion of this ‘correction’ to Churchill’s own historical record.
Dunkirk has also been taken to task on its historical accuracy of its lack of depiction of Indian and French forces. 23 An article in Slate by John Brioche makes a compelling case for this being a critical miss by Nolan, “There were four companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps on those beaches. Observers said they were particularly cool under fire and well-organized during the retreat… their appearance in the film would have provided a good reminder of how utterly central the role of the Indian Army was in the war. Their service meant the difference between victory and defeat. In fact, while Britain and other allies were licking their wounds after Dunkirk, the Indian Army picked up the slack in North Africa and the Middle East.” Again, filmmaking is never apolitical, especially about a major historical event. In this case what has been excluded, consciously or not, changes and diminishes an understanding for the viewer of what happened at Dunkirk. Quite a failing if the intention is to represent the event with a large degree of veracity.
The only overt political context Nolan offers is at the end of the film when Churchill’s famous speech is recited by Tommy in order to try and make sense of what it is he and the British Expeditionary Force have just been through, nervous about the reaction the people at home will have about their retreat from battle. Importantly the final words of the film are also the final words of that speech, that in time we hope that, “The New World, with all its power and might steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” To end the film on this quote is to undermine any kind of simplistic nationalistic isolationist agenda. Churchill’s words are a plea for help from the US to enter the war as the UK cannot likely succeed alone. The open and explicit acknowledgement of the UK’s dependence on an international community to protect its fate and that of western civilisation is the most explicit argument for the ideological message of Dunkirk being viewed in terms of the survival for democratic civilisation as much as for the survival of the British nation. It is this ending, intercut with RAF pilot’s sabotage of his plane and arrest by the Nazis on the beach who have now broken the back of the remaining defenders at Dunkirk, that lends credence to Manohla Dargis’ suggestion that, ““_Dunkirk_” is unambiguously in the service of a sober, sincere, profoundly moral story that closes the distance between yesterday’s fights and today’s. 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.” 24
Churchill unequivocally saw the war in terms of the fight for democratic civilisation, with the UK at the vanguard of this, against the forces of Fascism. When Roosevelt was finally enabled, against the isolationists in Congress, to enter the war after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, he too was clear that this was not primarily a nationalistic agenda, but a fight for freedom – his four freedoms; of speech, of worship, from want and from fear – and the defence of these was the only justification for waging war, but it was justification enough to risk everything.
I hope to have created a little illumination as to why Dunkirk has been viewed as something of a Rorschach blot, not because it is totally ambiguous in its meaning, it is not. It is nuanced, complicated and internally inconsistent in its political outlook. It leaves out any decision making about what we want the future of our democracies in the US, UK and Europe to look like. The burden of responsibility for that is all ours.
What can we expect of cinema?
Monuments Men and Imitation Game almost feel that they are from a bygone era now – free of the stresses and strains of the anti-progressivist agenda now taking a foothold in modern politics. The reactive forces now at work, from both the left and the right, against internationalisation and unable to defend the institutions of the open society, find voice in the likes of Fury, a defence of abuse in times of war, and Hacksaw Ridge, unable to resolve its anti-war rhetoric with its obsession with the aesthetics of violence. Allied find itself implicitly in a tug of war between the liberal and the reactionary, and Dunkirk is unreconciled to its inherently political narrative and what position it wants to represent about the great evacuation. Anthropoid stands out as politically aware of its setting and with a depiction of a moral case for the use of force, as traumatic and fraught with unintended consequences as this is.
If fascism can be defined as any ideology that posits the inherent superiority of one group of people over all others, and that this gives this group the right to strive for self-realisation by the subjugation or at the expense of others, then it would seem to me that this is a fight that requires eternal vigilance and struggle. It was not defeated forever in 1945. The proto elements of this ideology have found their way into mainstream consciousness in the Brexit and Trump era. Cinema, as a cipher and conduit of political ideas that can reach a global audience, has played and will play a role in representing the period in history 70 years ago, that defines the best of patriotism and of internationalism, of democratic superiority, and of the triumph of social and individual freedom.
Cinema can help to change the world. This might be for the worse, as per Leni Riefenstahl’s contribution to Nazi propaganda about which Albert Speer wrote, “_Triumph of the Will_ seduced many wise men and women, persuaded them to admire rather than to despise, and undoubtedly won the Nazis friends and allies all over the world.” 25 Or for the better, as per David Puttnam’s recollection of the comments by Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko who told him that, “lots and lots of copies of The Killing Fields were shown compulsory in schools all over the Ukraine. Every kid in the Ukraine has seen this film… Do you realise that during the orange revolution there was never any discussion, at any point at all, about a civil war… because we knew what civil war did. We saw what happened in Cambodia [from The Killing Fields] and it was not going to happen in Ukraine. And you suddenly realise the incredible power of cinema.” 26 This loses none of its power despite the fact that years later, after Yushchenko’s presidency, the Ukraine has clearly suffered desperate internal strife catalysed by Putin’s Russian intervention.
In holding a mirror up to the medium and its makers, we can learn from, amplify, and help to clarify the meaning specific to the art form. Cinema cannot escape the realities and complexities of the world any more than we can. What cinema can do is create images about what better and worse world’s look like and make these tangible for us. We need movie making to help us imagine these alternatives, to make real the lessons of history, to test our ideological assumptions and preferences. Films allow us to exercise the muscles required for making ethical decisions —identification with a multitude of characters and empathy with those different from ourselves. What the filmmaker does with this power and how he or she helps us to make sense of world and its shifting vectors requires intellectual as well as emotional participation in the narrative and its meaning. Our ability to be critical is as central to getting value from art as it is to political discourse. The populist agenda of today’s politics rails against the ability to deploy rational criticism – experts are no longer required. We have seen this story before. Cinema can help remind us of the consequences of such thinking.