Dunkirk: Anatomy of a Disaster


Christopher Nolan's new movie, Dunkirk, came out in cinemas this week, and I watched it yesterday. I can't say I was impressed. The real historical event, the retreat of the British Army in the face of the German Blitzkrieg through France in 1940, was indeed a military disaster, in spite of the defiant spin. Allied forces were comprehensively defeated in less than a month and forced to evacuate from continental Europe. The film, however, is itself something of a disaster. Eagerly anticipated and long overdue, it has nevertheless convinced me that creating a decent and well-made war movie has become a lost art.

I grew up watching old war movies. In the sixties and seventies, there were many folk still alive who survived WWII, and quite a few of them were involved in writing adventure war novels and making movies. Because the memory of the war was still fresh, carried in the memories of those who lived through it, there was no real need to make a movie about war, explaining exactly what it was or what it was like to audiences. Instead, most movies simply used WWII as a setting to tell other stories. The story was more important than the event.

The trailer for Dunkirk made it clear that this movie was about the event, more than the lives of the characters within. It was made for a young audience who have very little idea what the war was like, so it was more about explanation than entertainment. Watching the trailer, however, I saw immediately that it would focus on the myth of Dunkirk, rather than the correct history. Well, fine. Movies do that too, and most historical films fail in the history stakes. If it was well done, it would still be worth watching.

The History
In May 1940, after a sweeping advance by German mechanised forces, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force), along with the remnants of the French 1st Army and Belgium forces, were encircled and trapped in a pocket on the coast between the ports of Dunkirk (France) and Ostend (Belgium). The British government, seeing that the Battle of France was lost, was determined to rescue its best equipped and most professionally trained units to defend the homeland. The French government was equally determined to extract its trapped units so that they could contribute to the continued defence of France, which hadn't surrendered yet. The port of Dunkirk had been bombed and badly damaged by the German air force, but it still offered the best hope of getting the troops out. Three days after the evacuation began, small, requisitioned civilian boats (many with civilian crews) were pressed into service to aid in lifting troops off the long beaches and ferrying them to the bigger ships waiting in deeper water. It was slow work, however. Less than 100, 000 men were lifted from the beaches. The bulk of the evacuation fell to the Royal Navy, who eventually took 230,000 men from the harbour of Dunkirk. Because the harbour itself was badly damaged and blocked, the Navy's destroyers evacuated queues of men from the East Mole, which was itself a dangerous activity, as the Mole was designed as a breakwater, not a jetty. By the end, the Royal Navy had lost six destroyers, five minesweepers and scores of others, with many more badly damaged over the nine day operation.

While the Royal Navy evacuated troops from the East Mole, the French Navy evacuated their forces from the West Mole. It has become part of the myth (or the anti-myth) of Dunkirk that French forces held the perimeter whilst the British soldiers fled to the boats and abandoned their allies, refusing them access to their ships. The history of the event is complicated, but the basic fact is that this isn't true. British units outnumbered French units and held most of the line until they withdrew. Belgium forces held their part of the line for several days after their country was almost completely overrun before surrendering. Two British divisions were ordered to plug the gap as the Belgium defence collapsed. Priority was given by British authorities to evacuate British soldiers, and at the end, as the last French soldiers withdrew to the town, ships were sent to aid in the withdrawal of the French. Unfortunately, as French fighting soldiers arrived at the port, they found huge numbers of non-combatant French troops (40,000) who'd hidden in the town and only came out for the evacuation. Neither the French nor the British authorities were aware of these extra numbers, with the result that there were not enough ships, and many French soldiers who'd fought to hold the perimeter were left behind to surrender to the Germans. The French soldiers who had been evacuated successfully were resupplied in England, then sent back (as requested by the French) to other French ports to join their comrades in the fight. Unfortunately, soon after they got there, the French government surrendered to German occupation. There were many tragedies in the real history of Dunkirk.

The Movie
I'm not that much of a history pedant. I am, however, a story pedant. As a writer, it's in my job description. With that qualification, I can say that this movie was utter bollocks. Christopher Nolan is famous for creating the Batman Dark Knight movies, but also for Inception. I'm not really that interested in superhero movies, but I thought Inception was a finely crafted and memorable movie.

Dunkirk is also memorable, but for the wrong reasons. You get a sense, from the beginning, who the real target audience is. The big deal made of the casting of Harry Styles, erstwhile member of the boy band One Direction, is an obvious attempt to bring in the teen audience. Actually, I didn't know which of the soldier characters he played, because they all looked like they'd come from boy bands. Acting ability was limited, and they kind of looked the same. The two main characters (if you can call them that) projected the sense of emotive victimhood that seems to be all the rage among reality TV audiences. And the one from a Scottish regiment spoke in an English accent, which was highlighted when he later joined a squad of rough Scots from his own unit. But he was the good guy (apparently) so he needed to retain his boy band image.

At this point, I should mention there will be spoilers ahead. If you want to watch the movie, you might want to stop reading now.

Anyway, in the movie's opening narrative, we are told that the 'enemy' has pushed allied forces to Dunkirk. At almost no point in the movie are the words 'German' or 'Nazi' mentioned. No German characters appear in the movie at all. The planes they fly might have been drones. A hazy view at the end shows a character being captured by two German soldiers (two seconds of screen time), but that's all you see of them. A 'bad' Scot talks about 'Jerries' and 'Germans' in one line of the movie, but for the most part they are erased from this history. Because the producers want to market this movie to the widest market, including the German market, so offence is kept to a minimum.

In the opening scene you witness a demoralised group of young British soldiers walking listlessly down a street in an undisciplined fashion, stealing food or cigarettes through the open windows of houses, whose occupants remain unseen. Like the Nazis, French citizens also do not exist. Suddenly (dum, dum, dum) shots ring out. We have to assume it's the Germans, and not irate French home owners, doing the firing, because you never see who does the shooting. It just comes from off-stage.

In fact, you'll see a lot of this off-stage stuff happening. And it is very like a stage play, just with a little added CGI. The trailer gives the impression of a lavish production with action and explosions, but when you watch the movie, you realise they made it on the cheap. This impression grows the further you get into it, as you will see.

So, the shooting begins, and our brave young lads immediately take cover and begin firing back.

Actually, no. What they do is run heedlessly down the middle of the street, dying one by one as they are shot in the back, and no one turns to help a comrade. Nor even dash into one of the houses they were casually looting. They just run until there is only one left (young boy-band laddie) who climbs a gate and shelters behind a brick wall. Being a member of the British Expeditionary Force (and thus likely a volunteer soldier, not a conscript) who's been involved in a long retreat after many running battles, he then shows his complete ineptitude in loading a round into the breech of his rifle, fires two shots ineffectively through the wooden gate, then, dropping his rifle, flees. He quickly discovers a very well sandbagged defensive line in the next street, manned by French soldiers. The French soldiers eye him derisively as they prepare manfully to repel the German attack. When the firing begins again, the heroic French shoot back as battle is joined, and Mr Boy Band simply runs away without a backward glance until he reaches the beach, where lines of defeated and ineffective British soldiers wait passively.

The basic message is obvious, and it's easy to catch the whiff of revisionism. The young British soldiers are pathetic and cannot fight. British audiences will not, apparently, be offended by that. Instead, they are expected to feel sympathy for these poor, poor boys who really don't know any better. Mothers and teen girls can then weep at the cruelty of war. French audiences, seemingly more sensitive to offence and less sympathetic to pity, are given a brief glimpse of steely French soldiers who would rather die than retreat an inch. Because the studios want to sell this movie in France too, and they are fussier and prouder than the English.

British soldiers throughout this movie are shown to be cowardly, thuggish or just plain incompetent. Unfortunately, when you need some of those same characters to actually carry the story, it makes it hard for the audience to care about them, except as childlike victims. Maybe that's the intention, but honestly, I found myself caring less and less for them as the movie went on, especially when I couldn't tell most of them apart. That's bad story technique. You're supposed to root for these guys, not be glad to see the back of them.

This is a movie of our times. Had it been shown forty or fifty years ago, audiences would have been disgusted. Two of our boy-band characters, desperate to get on a ship, try to pass themselves off as medical orderlies, carrying a wounded man on a stretcher, past the other waiting soldiers. Getting the wounded man onto the ship, they are then ordered off by an officer. The ship is sunk in the harbour by howling dive bombers, men try to swim to safety, and our boy-band characters hide in the pilings of the mole, passing themselves off as survivors of the sinking ship so that they can be considered first for the next ship, with nary a thought for the poor wounded guy they carried onto the ship, who, if they had left him alone, would still be on the beach, rather than drowning in the hull of the ship.

And these two are the heroes!

In another scene, a young soldier stranded on the upturned hull of a sunken ship is rescued by a civilian pleasure boat, captained by a proud, elderly man and his son, with a seventeen year old cabin boy in tow. The soldier huddles in the corner, refusing to speak or even look up. The cabin boy asks the old man, "Is he a coward?" and the old man answers sagely, "No, he's just shell shocked." When the huddled soldier discovers that the boat is heading towards Dunkirk, not away from it, he gets angry, tries to wrest the wheel from the old man and knocks the cabin boy down the ladder. The cabin boy fractures his skull, goes blind then dies of his wounds. At no point in the film is any real animosity shown to the soldier for being such a wanker. The old man quietly forgives him, like the cabin boy was of no consequence anyway. Should be able to purchase a dozen more in Portsmouth, I'm sure.

I'm sorry, but audiences of the past wouldn't have tolerated this. The characters portrayed in this movie are not the young men of the forties, but modern millennials: self centred, self pitying and unable to cope with any difficulty without the sense that they are entitled to something better. There's no grit or fortitude in them, and the old man's attitude (and the movie's) is that they are meant to be forgiven, soothed and looked after. Rather than be booted off the boat and told to grow a backbone.

Funny Physics
Kenneth Branagh stars in the movie as a naval officer supervising the evacuation, and he brings a sense of gravitas to the film. Not much, but it's all you're going to get. He's a good actor, but the film could have done with a lot more like him.

Another established actor involved is Tom Hardy of Mad Max fame. If you didn't know who he was, you wouldn't think he was famous, because he struggles to make something of his ridiculous role. He plays a Spitfire pilot, but, if you know your military history and understand something of fighter tactics, you'll be stunned by the comical showing of the RAF in this movie.

It certainly made me laugh.

We witness three Spitfires flying towards Dunkirk, flying in an absurdly tight formation. I say three Spitfires, because that's what you see on the screen, but you only see two of the characters flying them. The flight leader speaking on Tom's radio (in a voice that sounds remarkably like Michael Caine's) remains off-stage, like the advancing Germans. He disappears later when his plane is seen in the water, shot down. Or rather, his voice does. Anyway, he instructs his flight to ascend to Angels One Five. This is RAF-speak for 15,000 feet. The planes remain about 500 feet above the water, however. To any fighter in WWII, height was everything. From on high, you cruised at a faster speed and could dive down on enemy aircraft for an effective kill, while avoiding being 'jumped' yourself. But not in this movie. The Spitfires remain at low level the entire time. Conveniently, so do the Germans. In the entire movie, the RAF is represented by these three Spitfires, and the German Luftwaffe, apart from stock shots of dive bombers howling down on the harbour, is represented by a single He 111 bomber escorted (from behind!) by three Me 109s. In the movie, you are treated to Tom Hardy firing unlimited rounds of ammunition that mostly miss their target, even when the target is right in front of him at incredibly short range. Then we come to the pièce de résistance, the dramatic moment when Tom has to save a ship full of evacuated soldiers from the He 111's bombing run. To prevent the men from dying, he has to try his hardest to shoot the bomber down before it can drop its bombs.

The drama, though forced, is not convincing. This is made worse by the non-linear storyline.

Let me explain. Because Mr Nolan is a very clever man, he decided upon a non-linear storyline that jumps back and forth in time. So you see Tom Hardy flying over a boat early in the movie, then much later in the movie, the characters in the same boat see the Spitfires flying over them. Because of this, you are never sure at what point in the timeline anything happens. The timelines are supposed to converge at the end, but it means that, from different viewpoints, you essentially see the same scene happening several times in the movie, just from alternative angles. It doesn't take long to realise that there aren't that many different scenes or key character moments in the movie at all, just the same ones over and over. Which is why it all feels so cheap and contrived, regardless of how much money they were supposed to have spent.

So we get Tom Hardy, in probably his weakest acting role, trying to get us to care about whether or not he can shoot down the bomber in time. Except he doesn't try to make us care, he simply drives his plane like a taxi. And the moment is repeated and drawn out until it becomes boring. Will that one bomber ever reach that one ship? Will you have lost the will to live by the time it does?

But it gets worse, because as Tom tries his hardest to catch up with the bomber (He 111 max speed: 310mph. Spitfire Mk 1 max speed: 360mph), the fighter escort appears and starts shooting at him. He veers off and the bomber drops its bombs on the ship, causing it to capsize.

The drama is not over yet. With all the men still in the water or on the sinking ship, there is a chance to save them from certain death as the bomber goes round for a second bombing run. Can Tom try once again to save the day?

Ummm, no, not really. The ship is already sinking, and men are dead. The He 111 only had one payload of bombs, so it's not clear why it would try another run. But still we are treated to another will-he-won't-he moment as Tom dials it in tries his damnedest to get that bomber with his strangely slow Spitfire and his awful accuracy.

And then, after crawling to within ten feet of the bomber, he shoots it down, whereupon it promptly dives into the sea near the sinking ship and ignites the spilled oil from the ship's engines, burning many of the survivors alive.

If you've never seen a war movie before or read about the conditions suffered by combatants, then maybe that seems like a dramatic moment of horror. Personally, it looked about as convincing as the puppet theatrics in Team America.


But Team America was meant to be a comedy. And don't even get me started on the scene where a 10mph plodding motor yacht swerves to avoid the strafing cannon fire from a 356mph Me 109, simply because the elderly captain (yes, the same guy who forgives the wanker for killing the kid), stares at the plane and judges the right moment when he knows the pilot will press the gun trigger to turn to one side. Very slowly. According to Wikipedia, several media blowhards called this one of the greatest war movies made to date and 'deeply moving'. I have no idea what they were snorting when they wrote that. Maybe they were the same people who called The Hurt Locker a realistic depiction of the war in Iraq (hahahahahahahahahahahaha).

The Wikipedia entry on the film is great fun, by the way. Especially where it cites the movie's historical accuracy:
"It is true that destroyers and fighter planes were withdrawn from battle, as the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force would have been the sole defence of Britain in case of an invasion."
Actually, only six of the most modern destroyers were held back from the closing days of the operation to preserve them for the future. The rest of the destroyers, mine sweepers, torpedo boats, etc, continued till the end. The toll, however, was so high that the Royal Navy abandoned daylight evacuations and continued only at night - which is why the fighters were likely withdrawn, because they couldn't operate at night. With that kind of inaccuracy doing the rounds on Wikipedia (and at school, according to what my son has been taught), it's no wonder we're forgetting our history.

But surely I'm being too critical, and too cruel, of what is basically just a movie?

No, it deserves everything it gets, because the next scene is a real face-palm. Tom Hardy has, finally, shot down the German bomber and barbecued half the survivors in the water. And now, having hung in there as long as he could (all that repetition takes time) he is finally out of fuel, and his engine dies. The propeller stops, and the plane glides.

This is easily the most amazing moment of the movie. WWII fighters were not like the light aircraft we are familiar with today. They were beasts. Basically, designers used the biggest, most powerful engine they could get away with, added as many machine guns and ammunition as the thing could take while still flying, and stuck on a pair of wings. These things were temperamental muscle planes, relying on brute force to get through the air. When the engine stopped, they were about as aerodynamic as the average house brick.

But not Tom's Spitfire. He must have had the special, top secret modification that essentially filled his airframe with helium, because he stays aloft for what seems like forever. He glides over the sea, he glides over the beach. He never seems to lose height. And because the time line in the movie is all mixed up, the next scene shows a ship loading evacuees at night. After which we return to Tom floating (I can't call it gliding) in broad daylight, giving the impression that he's still flying without power the next morning. The man is magic. And he must be, because suddenly we cut to a scene where Kenneth Branagh looks up in horror to see a dive bomber about to attack a ship in the harbour. Oh my God, what can be done? Will anyone save us from this calamity? Next thing you know, the dive bomber trails smoke and crashes into the water, and Tom's gliding plane, having turned 180 degrees, swoops over. Did he shoot down the dive bomber? We don't see it, but apparently he did, because everyone is smiling and cheering, including Kenneth, following the director's instructions dutifully ("Now I want you to look really happy, Kenneth darling"). And onward Tom flies. Having completed another impossible manoeuvre. It was like watching a mind altering drug trip. Deciding to land on the beach, the plane finally, finally, loses height. But, oh no! The undercarriage won't lower. What will Tom do?

Big yawn. The plane's better off making a belly landing on sand. But hey, Tom's cool and unbothered, and wants the wheels down. So he begins to crank the manual handle as the ground gets closer and closer. And would you believe it, he gets the wheels down just in time as the plane touches down on the sand and rolls beautifully to a safe halt. Amazing, hey?

The greatest war movie of all time? Give me a break.

The movie is in cinemas now. Hopefully, I've saved you the bother of watching it. I should have gone to see Despicable Me 3 instead (which is probably what this movie should have been called).

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