England Expects (a note on, though not a review of, Dunkirk)

by Eric on July 31, 2017

First of all, let nobody say Christopher Nolan lacks a sense of humor: for the second time, he’s kept Tom Hardy under a voice-distorting face mask for almost an entire movie. I am morally certain that Nolan understands this as a wink to the audience as well as a challenge to Hardy; the director likes a little reference, even if, say, it’s an incongruous one to nineteenth-century British literature. Which is why I’m also morally certain that if you think Nolan’s Dunkirk does not include the larger narrative of British history, you’re missing the point of the movie.

Spoilers follow, I suppose.

The movie’s main character, played by Fionn Whitehead, is named Tommy, which the OED (and common literary knowledge) will tell you is a generic name for a British soldier—an underappreciated British soldier, in his best-known appearance:

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Tommy, fall be’ind,”
But it’s ” Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
O it’s ” Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind

The film ends with Tommy—having survived, often in ways unsuitable for plaster saints—reading, from a newspaper, Churchill’s speech in the Commons on the war situation of 4 June 1940: “We shall go on to the end.…” Tommy does not stop, as many quoters do, with “we shall never surrender,” but continues, with a cut to an image of a burning Spitfire before a return to his reflective face, to Churchill’s conclusion:

even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

The Empire, the new world, the burning Spitfire: the army has been rescued from Dunkirk, but the trucks, the big guns, the ammunition and gasoline, like the burning Spitfire—what Churchill called “the first-fruits that our industry had to give”—have been left on the beach, and only the new world can supply that deficit to Britain; only the Empire can fund the fight. It is Tommy who is asked to say and understand this in Nolan’s film—not the distant prime minister.

The ambivalence of the imperial legacy is present in Nolan’s film as well. Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson pilots a civilian pleasure yacht called Moonstone. The most famous Moonstone is of course Wilkie Collins‘s, a diamond plundered by a Tommy redcoat. It brings woe to its English possessors until it is returned to its rightful place in India.

Dawson has lost a son in the RAF earlier in the war; he loses a surrogate son in George, who dies on his mission after pledging to be useful. But he plunges on, defying Cillian Murphy’s shell shocked protest that a man his age should not be in the action: why not, Dawson asks, when men his age dictate the war.

In Dunkirk it is this older generation, the generation raised on empire, who are out to do what they think is their duty. Dawson does; so too does Kenneth Branagh’s Bolton, who holds the mole, stands his ground against certain death, and remains to evacuate such of the French as he might. (You might add Michael Caine, whom the keen-eared will have spotted in a vocal cameo as the voice of Fighter Command.)

Tommy, together with Harry Styles’s “Alex,” Murphy’s unnamed “Shivering Soldier,” and all the other nameless men, are at the mercy of these men who understand their duty, who carry the plundered, possessed legacy of empire—”whatever the cost may be,” as Churchill says—and who dictate the war to their purpose.



casmilus 07.31.17 at 5:18 pm

I’m not watching this because the 1958 British film was fine (starring John Mills and also Bernard Lee, better known as “M” in the Bond films). All that Hollywood could add is a lot of CGI in place of the archive newsreel clips of German bombers, and they’ll probably get the wrong models anyway.

Meanwhile on Twitter, there have already been US college Marxbros denouncing it for missing the vital role of the Red Army as the true defeaters of fascism.


Waiting for Godot 07.31.17 at 7:51 pm

I have not nor will I, as a Vietnam vet, see it. I just wonder if any of the folks who produced this film have any sense of irony.


Pete 07.31.17 at 9:22 pm

I’ve been avoiding it because a film about Dunkirk in the middle of Brexit sounded .. ideologically unsound. But this description makes me reconsider that.


Priest 08.01.17 at 12:44 am

From a comment on another blog from someone who has seen the movie, there is very little, if any CGI, for whatever that’s worth.


Gabriel 08.01.17 at 2:38 am

What a strange world Casmilus lives in, where only one passable movie can be made concerning each historic event and no more, and ‘getting the models right’ is the final arbiter of artistic worth.


MFB 08.01.17 at 6:35 am

I don’t quite get the last paragraph. Is Nolan saying that carrying on the war against Germany after Dunkirk was a bad idea? There are of course plenty who would agree with that. Or is he saying that there should have been a revolution in June 1940 to get Churchill out and put someone more democratic, such as, er, such as, um, well anyway someone more democratic and without a silly plummy accent, in charge?


casmilus 08.01.17 at 9:41 am


The only thing that useless hack Christopher Nolan could contribute is to use modern special effects to create an illusion of German and Allied airpower in place of the awkward insertion of clips, which was standard in old films. And I expect they’ll get the wrong version of Stuka or Spitfire, thus negating any point to the exercise. Beyond that will be a typically bad Hollywood history, with anachronistic dialogue and attitudes. The 1958 version is superior because it had a cast who lived at the time of the events. But the film version of “Atonement” did a reasonable job in the Dunkirk scenes it included.

See also: “Saving Private Ryan”. Great effects, but veterans who watched it could only see 90s American men in period costume.


engels 08.01.17 at 1:41 pm


dave heasman 08.01.17 at 3:24 pm

“there should have been a revolution in June 1940 to get Churchill out ”

no there should have been a revolution in June 1940 to get Churchill in


None 08.01.17 at 3:37 pm

MFB@6 – “to get Churchill out and put someone more democratic”

The Empire will have had a very good sense of Churchill’s “democratic” bona-fides even if brexiters don’t.


Ronan(rf) 08.01.17 at 4:09 pm

Im not a huge fan of war movies, particularly WW2 ones, but it’s well worth watching. And little to no CGI afaict.


LFC 08.01.17 at 7:17 pm

Like MFB, I’m not sure I entirely get the post’s last paragraph.

I tend to think some Americans, and maybe even some other people, are confused about Churchill. He was an imperialist w/ a capital ‘I’, someone who as a young man fought in Victorian imperial wars, who apparently enjoyed being under fire and in personal danger or at least found it in some way exhilarating, who showed scant concern about some matters (e.g., the bombing of German cities well after virtually all possible justifications had ceased to be applicable) that certainly in retrospect it seems clear he shd have been more concerned about. His particular talents also happened to be well-matched to the sit. Britain faced in 1940. One can acknowledge the latter w/o ignoring the other aspects and w/o hero-worshipping him uncritically the way American neocons like John Podhoretz (see the linked review in Weekly Standard) do.

Speaking of which, a glance at that Podhoretz review finds him referring to the D-Day operation/invasion as what “ensured the destruction of the Third Reich.” I wd have said the failure of the German invasion of the USSR was what ensured the destruction of the Third Reich or at least contributed v significantly to it. This gets to casmilus’s @1 ref to “US college Marxbros” [sic] on Twitter “denouncing it [i.e. the movie] for missing the vital role of the Red Army as the true defeaters of fascism.” One shdn’t expect a movie about Dunkirk to be about the Red Army, but OTOH one need not be a “US college Marxbro” to recognize the USSR’s central role in WW2.

p.s. haven’t seen the movie. No particular plans to.


Stephen 08.01.17 at 8:11 pm

I’ve not seen it, and am not likely to.

But did you see the article
denouncing it for not showing Asian or African soldiers?


Bartholomew 08.01.17 at 9:58 pm

Le Monde isn’t happy:

“Where in this film are the 120,000 French soldiers also evacuated from Dunkirk [out of the total of 400,000]? Where are the other 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against an enemy which was superior in arms and in numbers? Where are the members of the First Army, who, abandoned by their allies who thought the game was lost, nevertheless prevent several divisions of the Wehrmacht from attacking Dunkirk?
Christopher Nolan – an English father, an American mother, allegiance to Hollywood – chose to make a film in France, to spread the manna of a blockbuster there, to advertise it like hell, but in the end all to better ignore it in his film…
[this is] a stinging impoliteness, a distressing indifference.”



Gabriel 08.02.17 at 3:51 am

It seems to be endemic of our age that every single thing must either be the most risible artifact ever created or something glorious and beyond reproach; likely some extremely unfortunate combination of the remote-socialization of the internet and people screaming to their respective choirs.

Casmilus, you appear to be someone who approaches every piece of art (even popular art) with a very specific and idiosyncratic list of criteria it must meet to please you. You are certainly not alone in this. Forgive me if, as a professional artist, if I find this a very sad state of affairs.


Peter T 08.02.17 at 4:03 am

It seems that the film does not have anything interesting to say about Dunkirk, or Britain at the time, or anything much at all. In that it joins a long list – the blockbuster film on Stalingrad did not have anything to say about that battle, or war, and 300 was most notable for the fact that Brad Pitt looked, as a colleague remarked, quite nice in a skirt.


MFB 08.02.17 at 6:39 am

Peter T, aren’t you talking about Troy?


Meredith 08.02.17 at 7:39 am

Saw it yesterday with some hopes it would be good, after seeing the review headlines. It mostly irritated the hell out of me (and my husband — we both grew up on WWII stories from combat veterans, including his father, a US Army sgt. in the Battle of the Bulge, and my uncle with purple hearts from Peleliu and Okinawa — though Uncle Dick refused to talk about any of it, so I had to learn from other sources). Even I know enough about military practices to recoil at the stupidity of numerous scenes. (A group of men being shot at? The film’s opening. Don’t run down the middle of the street together in a group!) Pretty soon I realized, okay, this is all “symbolical.” That’s why no one had to feed those drones lined up endlessly on the beach awaiting rescue ships. I tried to accept that. But why were these same army men so indifferent to their comrades washing up dead on the beach? You don’t have to be a U.S. Marine lieutenant (as my uncle, a pianist and music prof was) to care about your own dead, anyone’s dead. And the wounded! The movie in numerous scenes has fellow soldiers not bothering to check on who among the casualties might still be alive. I mean, there was just so much of this crap in the movie that it became clear that ignorance of military (human) practices wasn’t at worked but something else. Something “symbolical.” Hell if any of us could figure out what was being symbolicizied. We had some ideas, none of them interesting. (Yeah, British toff officers bad. Tommy not good but not bad, either, because why? Only hero is upper middle class, who might be me, but — well, I didn’t feel vindicated.)

My husband and I were watching with a friend, the over-50 son of a career RAF who is also a digital sound guy. From our post-film conversation I learned about spitfires vs. hurricanes and such, each with its virtues depending on situation. He liked the soundtrack (but not much else). I thought the air battles the most arresting part of the movie. I think I was captivated in part because my grandfather was a WWI pilot who was saved from having to fly in Europe because he had been head of the team that developed the first ground-to-air-to-ground radio communications. That knowledge made me fixate on the air radio communications in the movie (yes, we all recognized Michael Caine’s voice). My grandfather was in D.C. ready to be shipped off (things were desperate enough that he would actually have to fly in Europe) when Armistice was declared. My mother was born on Nov. 28, 1918.

You want an American Dunkirk, Hollywood style? Here’s one. Sentimental as it is, I love this movie’s way of focusing on the underdog. (I grew up with the accents, and the people, here. Salt of the earth — or rather, the sea.)


Peter T 08.02.17 at 11:59 pm


Sorry, yes, that was Troy. Of course, any picture about Troy can do what it wants, since Homer was making it up too.


engels 08.03.17 at 12:36 am


LFC 08.03.17 at 1:44 am

thanks for that link @20 — a good op-ed.

If there are problems w/ how WW2 is remembered in the British public mind, the same can certainly be said of the U.S. Some months ago, tired of hearing refs in an ‘oldies’
radio show to “the 75th anniversary of WW2” (it was vague on whether 2016 or 2017 was meant), I sent them an e-mail saying that 2016/17 was the 75th anniv. of U.S. direct involvement in WW2, and reminding that the war itself had started earlier both in Europe and Asia and was not coterminous w the years of U.S. involvement. My email was read and appeared to have a small effect, not a huge one, on how the references were made in subsequent programs. Sending the email was a rather quixotic thing to do, but I decided I had to do something b/c it was driving me nuts.


js. 08.03.17 at 3:37 am

A bit off topic, but Yasmin Khan (author of the piece linked by engels above) is very good. Read this recently and it is very good.


casmilus 08.03.17 at 4:38 pm

French forces also had colonial troops in the front line of course, for example the 102nd North African division that was right in the thick of the main German attack on the Meuse.


drveen 08.05.17 at 3:33 pm

Thanks Meredith @18 for all points, and a yes, sentimental, but fine video. Brought back a lot of memories of that week in NYC.


christian h. 08.05.17 at 9:50 pm

I’ve been trying to figure out why a film about Dunkirk would be made, now – and haven’t been able to answer that question.


Stephen 08.06.17 at 7:04 pm

Casmillus: the limited sources to which I have access say nothing about the existence anywhere in France of a 102nd North African division, and indicate that the main German attack across the Meuse was directed against the 55th and 71st French infantry divisions, with a valiant but unsuccessful counterattack by the 3rd Armoured and 3rd Motorised French divisions. There was a 3rd North African division stationed elsewhere on the Meuse, but their involvement seems to have been restricted to withdrawing after the breakthrough. I am not an expert on this subject: perhaps you could enlighten me.

Also, NB, the fighting at Sedan was rather a long way from Dunkirk.


bruce wilder 08.06.17 at 10:12 pm

@ christian h.

Time magazine: “Why did you make this movie now?”

Christopher Nolan: “This tale is about the idea of home. It’s about the desperate frustration of not being able to get to where you need to be. We live an era where the idea of too many people piling onto one boat to try and cross difficult waters safely isn’t something that people can dismiss as a story from 1940 anymore. We live in an era where the virtue of individuality is very much overstated. The idea of communal responsibility and communal heroism and what can be achieved through community is unfashionable. Dunkirk is a very emotional story for me because it represents what’s being lost.”


harry b 08.07.17 at 6:18 am

From the Guardian piece engels linked to:

“The film forgets the racialised pecking order that determined life and death for both British and French colonial troops at Dunkirk and after it.”

Well, the fact that Farage liked it shows that people can read whatever they want into a movie (Al Stewart once had a hit single about gun running in the Basque country and Zimbabwe, because no-one listens to the lyrics!!). But while other sentences suggested that the critic did see the film, that sentence suggests that she didn’t. It notes the fact vividly and disgustedly.

The Yasmin Khan piece in NYT is excellent. Don’t let it put you off the movie though: its a riff off the movie, but not about it. This sentence in particular:

“The myth of Dunkirk reinforces the idea that Britain stood alone”

is only sort of true (Dunkirk’s no myth, but some myths around it do try to make that out. Worth noting, though, that in 1940, although Britain did not stand alone, the British empire pretty much did and, as Singh implies, the world would have been in an even more dodgy state if Britain hadn’t had an empire behind it — and, in saying that, I don’t ignore that fact that it was the fault of the appeasers themselves that Britain stood alone!). But, whatever, the film does not reinforce the idea that Britain stood alone, which is one reason why the French like it (even the Le Monde piece is positive).


Neville Morley 08.07.17 at 6:59 am

Possibly pedantry, but calling Dunkirk a ‘myth’ doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s untrue. One definition of myth that I find useful is “a traditional tale with secondary, partial reference to somethingbof collective importance” (Walter Burkert). Dunkirk has become a kind of traditional tale, insofar as there is a story that gets retold in more or less the same form, largely or entirely separate from academic historiography; and it is certainly taken to express or epitomise important things about British character and Britain’s place in the world. What happens when someone takes this material and deliberately reshapes it, drawing on the power and associations of the story but not necessarily following all the conventions, is something else – as Greek tragedy played with the substance of the old myths…


engels 08.07.17 at 7:05 am

I should probably say that I haven’t seen it and don’t plan to, but I have seen Nolan’s batman films, which I thought were borderline fascistic. I agree with Christian that it needs to be understood as part of the zeitgeist.


Salem 08.07.17 at 12:39 pm

Dawson actually says something far more ironic:

Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?


James Wimberley 08.07.17 at 1:47 pm

Le Monde is IMHO unfair about the downplaying if the French Army. The FM starts with a Tommy running from the (throughout invisible) Germans through a stout barricade manned by polilus. At the end, the phlegmatically heroic RN officer is left on a pier planning the evacuation if the French. This happened, though the French command insisted on repatriating the troops (without most of their equipment) to ports in Western France, where they were caught up in the by then inevitable surrender. They would have been useful in Britain.

The film is about a formative British legend. The bias is reasonable, especially as the heroism is muted not rah-rah.

Nolan’s decision not to use CGI has the effect of downplaying the intensity of the air fighting. There are only a handful of Spitfires still in fln flying order, mainly in Texas. A handful of planes can only suggest the hundreds that actually fought over the beach.


bruce wilder 08.07.17 at 3:37 pm

I did see it, and I may see it a second time (when it is much cheaper to do so). Nolan is among the most prominent “auteurs” of post-film-school cinema, film-makers who are deliberately and self-consciously and artistically manipulating the peculiar grammar of movies, not just re-making sequels as vehicles for toying with special effects.

He has created an immersive experience of sorts, but a very gentle one for a war movie: this is not Saving Private Ryan. This was not about the horror of war in its blood and guts. Nor about heroism nor the great doings of nations at war. It seems to be about the more slight and startling horror of surviving, with the help of strangers. The enemy are never seen, except insofar as desperation makes the enemy within visible. Even death, frequent as it must be in the context, is kept always out of focus, in the receding distance, or just off to the side, out of the field of vision.

What connects this movie to the zeitgeist is not its content or narrative choices, so much as the various reactions to it. The OP is spot on with regard to a certain sort of historian’s disappointment. The piece engels @ 20 linked, as others noted, is excellent.

I have not seen how the French are reacting. Someone upthread said Le Monde was positive. It is more than 70 years and almost no one alive remembers; this may be the greatest mercy for France. France had the material capability to win the war in October 1939, but morally it was destined for a national humiliation the depth and scope of which we cannot imagine. Nationality is maybe not part of us in that way now. The 100,000 or so French evacuated from the Dunkirk beaches had to go back within a few weeks to surrender, capture and occupation . . . again, the private soldiers many of them serving out the war as industrial pressed labor. France in 1940 was conscious of being scarcely more than half the size of Germany; France today balances Germany. France in 1940 had been engaged with increasing political intensity for 20 years on preparing a martial defense and in the trial of arms it failed catastrophically, materially and morally. (Churchill cribbed Clemenceau for his rhetoric of grim determination; plenty of people at the time would have been aware of this — whether anyone saw it as ironical plagiarism I do not know.)

The nostalgia for the Myth of Dunkirk as Little England standing alone has a lot to do with the effect of that same 70 year expiration date on historical memory. It is our myth as a heritage, not as a salve. We do not need the Myth of Dunkirk to serve the purposes it did for a nation that lived it nor can we understand the depth of contradictory feeling that must have attended the salvage of such a national catastrophe. The BEF in early 1940 was arguably the best equipped army in the war and in six weeks it was stripped nearly naked. After, Britain had to cash in its Empire to survive. Materially and just as important ideologically, Britain gave up Empire — more than a little grudgingly to be sure.

That Britain had an Empire to pawn may seem “lucky” in retrospect. It is good that the critiques now should continue the work of erasing racialist blindness. But, in 1940 Britain discovered that Empire and its military establishment was to a large extent a source of false, hollow strength. Britain did not suffer the debilitating collective dishonor in its own collective eyes that France did. It stumbled, but fell back onto the moral strengths of Little England as much as on the liquidation price of empire, the empire having no moral strengths to offer. The British stranded on Dunkirk beach found survival and salvation in going Home.

The art of this movie offers the point-of-view of an Everyman — an English stock character since before Pilgrim’s Progress — surviving to go home. As art, I think the movie worth experiencing, and as historical narrative, an interesting gambit in our time.


Cervantes 08.07.17 at 3:52 pm

I must say that was awfully presumptuous of Winnie. I am quite sure that in 1940, the United States was no longer part of Britain’s empire beyond the seas.


Doug K 08.07.17 at 8:42 pm

Meredith @ 18, agreed, that was initially much my response as well. The air fight scenes are ludicrous and I may have lol’led – long shots dwelling introspectively on cockpit interiors, while in a real dogfight that much time without responding to the enemy would have you killed. Or was that supposed to be a sort of extended dream-time ? Shooting down a diving Stuka from a gliding Spitfire is not remotely plausible.

Certainly there is no irritable reaching after fact and reason here, so this may be better viewed as a form of screen poetry, just as Neville Morley says. Re-telling this myth in these days does raise some interesting questions around empire and how to resist an apparently overwhelming fascist victory.

We saw it yesterday because my wife wanted to see it. The story of the civilian boats was entirely new to her, which was astonishing to me, raised as I was on a diet of British boy’s magazines in the 60s (subscribed to Beano and Tiger). On the other hand I’ve forgotten a great many things I once knew, used to know a lot of things about Hurricanes and Spitfires for example. Perhaps this is just one of those, and being a woman immigrant in Trump’s America has driven it out of mind.

I had not planned to see it because of the Dark Knight movies, figured it would be full of auteurial conceits which would annoy me. In the event parts of it were excellent – once disbelief was suspended, really enjoyed being in the Spitfire cockpits; the Stukas, bombardments, and the horror of the shellshocked and torpedoe’d were convincing; also appreciated getting the last paragraph of the Churchill speech for once. If you want a movie with a plot, sequential events, and gestures toward realism, the 1958 one casmilus mentions will be far better. The Nolan movie does have some interesting things in it though, repays thought. I may even go see it again in glorious 70mm.


Doug K 08.07.17 at 8:56 pm

as harry b says,
(Al Stewart once had a hit single about gun running in the Basque country and Zimbabwe, because no-one listens to the lyrics!!)

always one of my favorite Al Stewart songs, echoes both of Joseph Conrad (Arrow of Gold) and personal experience.. and similarly it is unlikely that anyone is going to notice the boat people in this movie (as per the excerpt bruce wilder posted, thank you bruce).


harry b 08.07.17 at 9:50 pm

Haven’t seen the Batman films, to my great regret, even if they do seem fascistic. Generally I’m unsophisticated about interpreting films and books (and, even more so, art) — I tend to be very literalist in my readings. So I know that’s a limit on my understanding. But, it irritates me when people are so unliteralist that they ignore the plain text in front of them, while understanding that they are sometimes seeing things that I can’t. And, in general, averse to interpreting films I haven’t seen and books I haven’t read (or at least tried to read — maybe there’s something to The Fountainhead that can’t be gotten from 3 failed attempts to get through it….


LFC 08.08.17 at 4:00 am

cervantes @34
I think you’ve misread the Churchill passage:

…then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until … the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old (emphasis added)

Obviously he’s not saying the U.S. is part of Britain’s empire; rather, saying that the Empire will fight on “until the new world” (in this context, the U.S.) enters the war.


Val 08.08.17 at 11:58 am

Funny I had never really thought about this in just this way till I wrote that last comment, but my mum’s first husband and my dad’s twin brother both died in WW2. I had always, all my life, just sort of assumed that everyone of my generation had been affected by WW2, but I guess that’s probably fairly bad.

I’ve said before here that both my parents were strongly anti-war, and I am also, but I’d never quite made that connection before, exactly.


alfredlordbleep 08.08.17 at 11:29 pm

LFC @12
. . . but OTOH one need not be a “US college Marxbro” to recognize the USSR’s central role in WW2.

Niall Ferguson’s TV serial The War of the World (2006) brought the Red Army’s contribution home to Americans who, for example, hadn’t heard of the battle of Kursk or Ike’s conceding Berlin to the Soviets to spare American lives (80,000 is one figure given for Soviet losses in taking the city) etc. etc.


Cranky Observer 08.09.17 at 1:17 am

If any CT’ers are planning to see “Dunkirk” this weekend I recommend an IMAX theater if one is available. If not, choose the showing with the largest screen and sit so that the edges of the screen are at or just past your field of vision (somewhat closer than most film types usually sit). It is intended as an immersive viewing experience (no pun intended) and is better if viewed that way.

(but not in 3D. I’m a big anti-fan of 3D in any case, but this movie was not shot to support 3D)

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