In July of 2017, Christopher Nolan released what may be his greatest film to date, Dunkirk. This was a really moving film replete with great cinematography and it is no wonder it has received such praise and accolades. It isn’t slow or ponderous and events kick off almost immediately. The music used throughout often meant to mimic a ticking clock as time is an important theme, Dunkirk is after all about soldiers, sailors and airmen racing against time to escape from France before the Germans get to them first. On the topic of Germans, however, it must be noted that never do we hear the word ‘German’ uttered. Nor do we hear any slurs like ‘hun’ or ‘jerry.’ And we also do not hear the word ‘nazi.’ All the audience hears is ‘the enemy.’ It should also be pointed out that we do not actually see any Germans until the very end and even then, it is very brief. All the audience really sees of the enemy is their planes, bombs and bullets maim and kill.
Other interesting aspects concerning Dunkirk, is how it features an almost unknown cast outside of Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh. Moreover, women, though shown here and there as nurses, do not feature prominently; that is the extent of their role. There is no love interest or even a minor female character, let alone a lead one. Nolan was evidently going for realism as opposed to a simple cash grab flick which try their best to appeal to both men and women and as such make sure to have a romantic subplot for female viewers. Dunkirk also features little dialogue, because, I believe, the emphasis here is not so much what people think or say, but about them surviving.
While I think it is fair to say Dunkirk has received near universal acclaim that does not mean every reviewer enjoyed it. Apparently, some were upset at the lack of overt political overtones and clear mentioning of who the enemy was. David Cox even disparaged at the lack of CGI! Cox also disliked the acting and I suppose he has a point in that there was not much in the way of character development. He seems especially critical of Tom Hardy, but I actually thought his character was one of the better ones. A veteran pilot who perhaps because he is jaded and battle-worn simply does his duty with little feeling and emotion. Cox and others were upset also that there were no lead female characters.
Other critics were less interested in the acting, lighting, production, special effects, etc., but in the racial origins of the actors. Most of these criticisms come from South Asian commentators like one Yasmin Khan who wrote a negative review for the New York Times. In her piece, Khan notes how two and a half million South Asians fought in the war, but the vast majority were not in European theatres. If this movie had been about the Burma Campaign and had failed to show South Asians than I would fully agree and understand. Why, I would even understand if this had been about the North Africa campaign, although even then there is no reason an Occidental film can’t be homogenously European. No one ever gets upset about lack of diversity in films from Asia or Africa.
Khan ends her piece with,
“The myth of Dunkirk reinforces the idea that Britain stood alone. It is a political tool in the hands of those who would separate British history from European history and who want to reinforce the myths that underpin Brexit. A YouGov poll in 2014 found that 59 percent of those surveyed in Britain thought the British Empire was something to be proud of. Today there is a willful distortion of the empire in the British public mind, a strange determination to misremember it. An informed history of both World War II and the empire is necessary if we want to understand modern Britain. But in post-Brexit Britain, some are more interested in turning back the clock.”
Given most have been impregnated with liberal views and values to some extent, and that the empire was used to spread liberalism, I would not be surprised if that 59 percent were proud of the empire’s liberalism. Quite frankly, tokens like Khan should love the empire given it spread ideas they claim to hold. But, more importantly, we see in this quote, how for Khan and many others like her, the problem with Dunkirk is that it has not been politicized in ways that they accept. Because Dunkirk isn’t explicitly anti-Brexit and because it chooses to focus on European soldiers – who made up the bulk of Allied troops in this and other campaigns in the European theatre of the Second World War as other critics of the racial casting have admitted – it is potentially dangerous and subversive.
Writing for the Guardian, one Sunny Singh also condemns Dunkirk and for essentially the same reasons as her co-ethnic Khan. However, Singh, unlike Khan, also mentions non-Whites other than her racial fellows. In Singh’s critique we see how she, unlike Khan, mentions blacks as well (there were a few black faces in the film, as Singh notes, but they were in French uniforms), but there really was no point. I highly doubt she cares whether or not blacks were shown as her real concern comes from the lack of her fellow South Asians. By throwing in other non-Whites into her article, however, she makes it seem as if she is concerned about ‘racism’ or historical accuracy (which obviously it can’t be because as has already been mentioned there were few non-Whites at Dunkirk) instead of just wanting her own people to take precedence. For Singh, multiracialism is necessary lest it leads to her people being singled out. In her article she writes how she worries Dunkirk is a hearkening for a monoracial future. As many ‘coloured’ faces as possible is necessary to stop film-goers from somehow developing such an opinion.
They can’t just enjoy the film as a study of man’s reaction to tribulation and of civilians as well as soldiers coming together to help out their comrades in arms. Western movies today are obliged to have non-Whites when the same standards are not applied to other film industries around the world. One of course can argue that the West today is more racially diverse (but no amount of diversity seems to be enough for recent productions out of Hollywood as can be evidenced by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign), and even the creators of historical pieces seem compelled to make their productions multiracial. Take for instance The Hollow Crown, a BBC series based on Shakespeare’s many biographies. Shakespeare may have taken many liberties, but he wrote about real people and obviously Margaret of Anjou was not mulatto. Although, even then throwing in non-Whites to please liberals and their tokens is not enough, as was the case with Dunkirk.
On the other hand, we have reviewers trying to turn this film into some pro-mass migration feature,
“The casting of Dunkirk is near perfect. From Hardy to Keoghan, from Rylance to Harry Styles, the pop star who plays one of the young soldiers, the picture is filled with great English faces. But to call them characteristically English faces is wrong. Remember, they’re supposed to be the faces of men who lived more than 75 years ago. Today, the face of England—like that of France or any other European country—is much more racially mixed. Love of country comes with no color or birthplace attached. Nolan doesn’t address that idea directly—the story of Dunkirk is almost exclusively about white men, something that can’t be changed after the fact. But his approach opens out to it implicitly. Late in the film, a British commander played by a stalwart Kenneth Branagh, knowing that nearly all of his own men have been rescued, makes an executive pronouncement: He will not leave stranded French soldiers behind. His England, even then, was part of a greater whole, and that made him no less English.”
Zacharek seems upset that Europe wasn’t flooded with POC in 1940, but she hopes that Dunkirk can be twisted enough by the likes of her for audience goers to view it through the same liberal internationalist lens as her. Of course, White Englishmen wanting to help White Frenchmen should hardly lead one to the conclusion that Branagh’s character wants to see England be turned into some third world dumping ground for any and all, but Zacharek hopes against hopes that indeed this is the case. Earlier in the film, it should be noted, the French were held back from boarding the leaving ships as they are for English only. If England was part of a greater whole, then still it was one where it’s own people came first and foremost.
Generally speaking this is a patriotic film, especially when Churchill’s famous ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ speech is read, but Dunkirk is about more than just patriotism. One perhaps could say that patriotism is not even the primary theme, as Dunkirk is about the general will to survive and of men looking out for themselves and those they care about. For example, when one soldier newly evacuated to England says, “all we did was survive,” the elderly man handing out blankets to the evacuees replies with, “that is enough.”
In many ways Dunkirk is a sad film when one thinks of how useless and unnecessary a war 1939-1945 was. Indeed, the same goes for the First World War, the Boer War and most of London’s overseas adventures after the defeat of Napoleon. How much blood was spent in the name of empire only for that empire to not just fall apart (as all empires do), but to implode in on itself. England has now essentially become a rundown little police state ever hampered down by failing welfare agencies; where not only the English, but also the Scots Brythonic peoples are being replaced with England’s former non-White subjects.