Perhaps this is an overdue post in more than one sense. Dunkirk come out in the cinema in July 2017 and I nearly went to see it on several occasions during the summer holiday. I had certainly been anticipating this movie. With the ‘endless’ school holiday stretching before me, I should have managed to see it. However, as is usual, the holiday passed quickly, helped by a mountain of work that I had to complete before returning to school.
It was much the same situation with the DVD release just before Christmas. I bought a copy, thinking the Christmas holiday is ahead, I will watch it then. A week of illness and a week of essential school admin work put pay to that idea. Facing an impending mountain of marking upon returning to work, I found an evening in January. I knew that this last evening was essentially going to be the calm before the storm. What better way could I spend this final evening of rest, than by watching a DVD that I hoped would not just entertain, but also be useful in the classroom.
Much has been written about aspects of the historical accuracy of this movie. The hundreds of Indian soldiers, who were evacuated from Dunkirk, were not present in the movie. This was probably more excusable than the media furore suggested. The number of Indian soldiers evacuated at Dunkirk was a fraction of the total troops who escaped the trap. Dunkirk was the wrong movie to show the war-time contribution of India. This is a contribution that needs addressing in British story-telling.
The absences that really stuck out, were perhaps made more obvious by the media debate over the missing Indian presence. Totally absent were the Germans, other than a few token faces at the end of the movie and a series of aircraft. The French were also grossly underrepresented, although at least there was an acknowledgement of the colonial composition of some of their forces. I would have preferred for the actors, playing the French, to have been representing the brave French holding the line. Instead they were among the group trying to escape on the mole. Where were the French who escaped through Dunkirk? W here were the French who held off the Germans until the evacuation was complete? Dunkirk as a British story, is a half story.
One of the greatest absences were those of the British themselves. Where were they? Allegedly there were thousands of extras, yet they were used in few scenes. The beach was naked, hardly a soul to be seen. Surely CGI could have filled the beach with the thousands of souls that were evacuated each day? At times it looked as if there were a handful of actors and a very empty beach. On 30th May, nearly 30,000 soldiers were evacuated via the beach. The next day 45,000 were picked up from the harbour.
The film looked extremely flaky in this respect, in the best traditions of the 1950s and 1960s movies that would dress up Sherman tanks as Soviet T34s or Me-108s as Me-109s. Many movies seem to use the wrong equipment, and Dunkirk almost avoids drawing this accusation. There was little dressing up or dubious substitutions. A disappointing use of CGI was the Stuka dive-bombers, understandable as there are no flying examples today. This was in stark contrast to the He-111 and Me109s. The 109s were the later Spanish version, which had also been used to excellent effect simulating the original German aircraft in the movie ‘The Battle of Britain’. The He-111 was an excellent radio-controlled model. Two of the Spitfires were also marks that were in use in 1940, and the black and white belly paint scheme was also accurately shown, something missed in many dramas. It was great to see these small details as their absence can pull the nerdier among us out of a story – something that the excellent plot in SS-GB managed to compensate for after an early scene in the movie used completely the wrong model of Spitfire. Yes, I did moan about SS-GB at the time, a legacy of far too many Airfix models as a child.
Far more jarring, in terms of substitute equipment, was the use of a real destroyer. For the average movie-goer, these things simply do not matter, and as the film had mostly got this sort of thing right, it would probably escape notice. Yet, for someone who spent far too long looking at the silhouettes of Second World War warships as a teenager, something was not quite right. The gun turrets on the destroyer did not look appropriate to the period, being more like post-war turrets. A quick check on the internet showed that the film had used a post-war French destroyer, the Maille-Brez. With their usual lack of accuracy, the Daily Mail even claimed this was a genuine 1930’s British destroyer. It was a shame HMS Cavalier was not used as it is much closer to the designs used in 1940, being commissioned in 1944. There are two other British World War II destroyers still afloat, albeit one is in Canada and the other in Egypt, perhaps these could have been CGI-ed in, rather than have the Maille-Brez physically present?
The greatest absence of all was a plot. With the amazing backdrop of Dunkirk, this should not have been a criticism, yet the movie seems to go out of it’s way to avoid telling anything more complicated than a series of simple two or three part sub-plots. I cannot overlook the lack of story considering the wealth of wartime accounts that exist. Instead the movie draws out the few plodding plots, slowly overlapping them, the timelines slowly merging. Where are the accounts of the fierce defence of the shrinking perimeter? What about the many stories of different men being evacuated? How about the many stories of the French and British warships struggling under attack? Where are the many Little Ships? Instead of the many amazing stories from the battle, we got a plodding narrative that lacks pace and emotional engagement.
Overall, the movie was a great disappointment. Not only did the plot greatly disappoint me, it is of little use to me in the classroom. Dunkirk lacks the set-pieces of movies such as Saving Private Ryan. This means that the pace will not draw the attention of the modern teenager with their limited attention span in the classroom. The movie does little to address the idea of a victory snatched from defeat. This is a staple of Year 9 interpretive work. Lovely shooting of the aerial battle as least makes the movie useful for school investigations into advances in air combat. Dunkirk could also lead to a classroom debate on the contribution of non-white Empire forces, and how they are shown in movies.