The acting was wooden, the script banal, character development non-existent and the two hours of mindless patriotism quite sickening. Leaving aside some clever camera work, this film has very little to recommend it. It was, in fact, no better than the originals (1942 &1958), both produced as morale-boosting pieces of propaganda. This latest offering on the Dunkirk story also comes across as a piece of cinematic propaganda but the question then arises; propaganda for what?

Separating fact from fiction is never easy in history and in the final instance all history can only ever be a collection of subjective assessments. Every nation loves to tell itself its own warm and comforting stories and we should never forget also that it is the winners who tend to write history.

But not many, I suspect, would dispute that the business of getting the defeated and trapped British Expeditionary Force off the beaches of Dunkirk using a flotilla of small private craft was something quite remarkable. Even German historians would, I think, concede the point. Being hemmed in on the beaches by the advancing German Army whilst being continuously strafed by the Luftwaffe, the BEF looked to be in a dire even terminal situation. The imagination of the British War Office, the heroism of the rescuing British seafaring community, and the stoicism of the trapped British army needs to be acknowledged. But this Christopher Nolan film offers it audiences no ambiguities, no moral conundrums and no historical context.       

So, what is the historical context? The narrative that Britain loves to tell itself is of a proud island nation, backs against the wall, standing alone against the oncoming Nazi tyranny. Britain, as the story goes, is the bastion of world democracy holding out against a fascist dark age. But the reality might just be a little different. Just ask the subjugated peoples of Britain’s global empire. At the time of Dunkirk, Britain was in the business of maintaining its global empire by means of brutalising its subjugated citizens, smashing the industries of those countries that might have competed with Britain’s own domestic industries, and of course, raping each and every country of its natural resources. Britain’s empire was a ruthless commercial enterprise indifferent to the sufferings and aspirations of the indigenous populations. Across Africa, the Caribbean and Indian subcontinent, and stretching from Ireland right across to Australasia, the British Empire showed no mercy, no humanity, no compassion. It was as ruthless and barbaric as slavery itself.

Now obviously, Nolan’s film did not set out to produce a comprehensive history of the fag-end days of the British Empire. Nor could it. The subject would be too vast for any one single film. But it surely could have given some suggestion as to the underlying nature of the Second World War with all its inter-imperialist rivalries, many of which dated back to the First World War and beyond. And when all is said and done, Germany was merely trying to get itself a bigger slice of the imperialist action. They wanted what Britain already had – a global empire to exploit and plunder.

So what was the point of this ‘new’ offering on the Dunkirk story? And why the recent plethora of films about Churchill and the British monarchy?  Is it just a coincidence or is there something more deliberate behind this relaunched nostalgic narrative? Who’s putting up the finance for these films and who is their intended audience? I can’t help wondering if this sudden return to world war two and all that goes with it, is not some attempt to bolster the cultural underpinning of the Brexiteers. An attempt perhaps to equate Britain’s war time exploits to the new reality; Britain standing proud and alone, battling it out against a hostile world. A fearless trading nation in fear of no one and strutting the world like in the days of empire. We defeated the murderous Hun – not once but twice and we can do it again. As for the French and the rest of those Europeans – well let’s face it, they’re all a bit spineless, a bit flaky, and not to be fully trusted. That’s always been the underlying narrative and with Brexit all of a sudden it starts to become explicit.

But once again, the reality might be rather different. The European Union, despite currently being firmly in the hands of the bankers and big corporations, has arguably been a force for good. Progressive social, civil and environment legislation has dragged a continent bedevilled by fascism and the remnants of feudalism, into the sunny uplands of modernity. It has held the peace, just, for over seventy years and the notion of the European nations going to war against each other, Balkans apart, looks increasingly remote. That’s no small achievement in itself.

With Brexit in full flow it may well just set off centrifugal forces in Europe that no one will be able to control. But the Brexiteers want to hear nothing of this counter narrative. It’s the Dunkirk/ Churchillian spirit for them and nothing else will do. They will love Nolan’s film because it is one dimensional and invites no counter argument. Especially the one about Imperial Britain’s insistence of punishing democratic Weimar Germany for the crimes of Imperial Germany – an absurd policy that may very well have led to the revival of German militarism and the subsequent military debacle on the beaches of Dunkirk. But Nolan is just not interested.

End JPK Copyright, 9/8/17

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