Dunkirk the film is the latest framing of a long-told story, writes Gary Sturgess.
Human beings are coded for narrative: it is how we make sense of the world. The psychologist, Donald Polkinghorne argued that ‘the self is ultimately nothing but a dense constellation of interwoven narratives’—the stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories that others tell about us.
And while there is an infinite variety of stories, tale-tellers seem to work with a limited number of plots. English author Christopher Booker maintained that there are only seven basic stories, which are told and retold in a multitude of ways—overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth.
Great stories, the ones that persist, re-work these basic themes. In a newspaper interview several years ago, Barnaby Joyce explained the presence of The Odyssey on his bookshelf: ‘It’s about coming home’. It is not difficult to imagine why a story about homecoming might have particular meaning for a federal politician.
Pygmalion worked as a play, and then as a stage musical and two highly-successful movies (My Fair Lady and Pretty Woman), because it drew upon one of these basic themes. In the original play, George Bernard Shaw used this storyline to make a deeply political point about British society (something that has largely been lost in the retelling).
Families tell stories. Some are passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter. Others are newly discovered. The popular SBS television program Who Do You Think You Are? is about the recovery of lost family stories. The program works so well because it is, itself, a carefully constructed journey of discovery.
Great stories—the ones that are told and retold—touch upon elemental truths and great family stories work because they resonate collectively with the group. My father’s family were farmers and graziers who migrated north from Victoria to New South Wales and eventually into south-east Queensland with the break-up of the large squatting runs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
They loved Australian author Steele Rudd’s yarns about life on a small family property in south-east Queensland because they spoke, with comic exaggeration, of their own struggle to survive. One of my great aunts told me that her father—who eventually walked away from his dairy farm—used to read On Our Selection to the family: ‘he’d be laughing so much the tears would be running down his cheeks’.
When my father came to tell the stories of his youth, he borrowed Steele Rudd’s laconic style, but he did more. The yarns that he told about reckless horse rides to and from school, about rounding up and branding cattle with his dad, were a collection of small polished stones, each one buffed and reshaped over the years through repeated telling.
They were spare, with all of the facts necessary for the listener to follow the storyline, and nothing more. The tempo shifted, with dramatic pauses and accelerated endings. And more often than not, they concluded by making a point, always with a sardonic tone.
These stories were true, for the most part, but they had been altered over time to enhance their narrative power—which increased the likelihood of them being retold and thus surviving. The selfish meme.
Nations also tell family stories. Some of these are adopted by the people through the work of one remarkable storyteller—think of Shakespeare’s Henry V, for example. But others acquire the status of a myth without any obvious chronicler. (I use the word ‘myth’ here to mean a story about origins rather than a false belief.)
The story of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940 acquired mythological status almost overnight, not only for the people of Britain, but for English-speaking peoples right around the world.
This myth has survived largely by way of oral tradition. There have been books, it is true, but remarkably few films. The first, released in June 1942, was Mrs Minerva, made by Americans for Americans following their entry into the war. It dealt with life on the home front, with Walter Pidgeon (a Canadian actor) taking one of the ‘small ships’ across the Channel. It was wartime propaganda, and it showed the world what Hollywood could do with that genre. Joseph Goebbels described it as having a ‘refined powerful propagandistic tendency [that] has up to now only been dreamed of’. It won six Oscars that year, including best film.
The British did not make a movie about the evacuation until sixteen years later (Dunkirk, 1958), in the aftermath of another inglorious retreat that followed the Suez Crisis. More understated than Mrs Minerva, it was meant to reassure the British about their ongoing place in the world.
Dunkirk followed one of the most fundamental rules of the Dunkirk myth in portraying the evacuation from the perspective of the common man. There were brief appearances by General Gort and Admiral Ramsay, but the principal roles were reserved for privates and corporals, a merchant seaman in a pub and a motor garage proprietor.
This film defined the four basic stages of the evacuation narrative— the chaotic retreat to the coast; the patient wait on the beaches as defenceless men are strafed by Stukas; the miraculous arrival of the ‘small ships’; and the perilous voyage home.
It was to be half a century before another film would touch upon the subject. Atonement (2007) wasn’t really concerned with Operation Dynamo (the name officially given to the nine-day evacuation), but Joe Wright’s five-minute tracking sequence which followed James McAvoy through the chaos on the beach was a cinematographic masterpiece which deserves to be included for that reason alone.
This was followed in 2016 by Their Finest (which had a Danish director)—a film about the making of a propaganda film about Dunkirk, which unsurprisingly played with the mythical dimensions of the story— plucky volunteers in a ‘small ship’ which never actually made it across the Channel.
And finally, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which has just completed its run in the cinemas. (Nolan has a British father and an American mother, and spent his formative years in both countries.)
It is difficult to explain why we have had two films about Dunkirk in quick succession, with another about Churchill’s role in the preparations for D-Day. Some have suggested that they reflect on Britain’s latest retreat from Europe, but it is difficult to see how Nolan’s movie either challenges or reassures in the midst of the ongoing debate over Brexit.
In many ways, it is a conventional film. Nolan’s Dunkirk traces the fate of three individuals over the course of several days, by land, sea and air—a young private (named Tommy) living by his wits as he tries to find a way home; Dawson, the owner of a small motor launch who makes his own way to Dunkirk, returning (as required by the myth) with a boat full of exhausted soldiers; and Farrier, the pilot of a Spitfire, who sacrifices his plane and his freedom to save some of the men below.
The Spitfires are a notable addition to the story, reflecting recent research which has shown that, contrary to the criticism at the time and for many years thereafter, that the Royal Air Force let the soldiers down at Dunkirk, British aircraft (and particularly the Spitfires) played a vital role in keeping the Germans at bay.
Dunkirk (2017) has been favourably received by the critics and it has done remarkably well at the box office. At the time of writing, it has brought in over US$500 million, five times the reported cost of production, making it one of the cinematic success stories of the northern summer.
We must be clear, however, that neither the movie nor the myth are good history. Like my father’s polished stories, Dunkirk has been smoothed and rounded, making it easier to keep in the pocket and pass around.
The evacuation of 338,000 men over nine days while under relentless attack from the enemy is worthy of the term ‘miracle’. When Operation Dynamo was launched on the 26 May, the First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, thought that they had two days before the evacuation would be terminated by enemy action, and they might be able to uplift as many as 45,000 men.
But the authorised version of the narrative, as recounted by storytellers in pubs, in books and in cinemas, leaves out significant parts of the history. It is a partial account, for example, because it confines itself to Operation Dynamo—the evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk over the period from 27 May to 4 June. In fact, the last of the evacuees were not removed from the south of France until 14 July, and the total uplift was around 580,000.
It does not speak of the 140,000 French, Belgian, Polish and Dutch soldiers evacuated in the course of Operation Dynamo. Or the 80,000 British and French troops who were taken prisoner. Or the men who were summarily executed upon their surrender.
The ‘little ships’ lie at the heart of the myth—around 200 of them still survive, and in the intervening years, they have come to be regarded as national treasures.
In the mythological account of Operation Dynamo, it is the ‘little ships’ that bring the boys home, and their presence at Dunkirk is often seen as largely a matter of self-organisation. In Mrs Minerva, Walter Pidgeon did sail as part of an organised convoy, but he was there because of a conversation in a pub. In Nolan’s Dunkirk, Mr Dawson strikes out on his own, in defiance of the coordinating efforts of the Royal Navy.
In truth, the British public were largely unaware of the Dunkirk evacuation until it was well underway, and the private yachts returned to England with only around 1,000 men (although yachts operated by naval crews probably carried another 4,000).
The ‘small ships’ were crucial to the success of the operation, and their arrival did come at a crucial stage of the evacuation, but that was not by accident, and their importance lay in ferrying men from the beaches to the larger vessels lying offshore, not in bringing them home.
The vast majority of the Dunkirk evacuees were repatriated by the Navy in large ships, although around 74,000 returned in merchant vessels—ferries, packets and cruisers—and another 50,000 in private ships under the command of naval personnel.
A more representative example of the ‘not-so-little ships’ was the Medway Queen, a former pleasure cruiser with paddle wheels, some 60 metres in length, which had been requisitioned for war service in September 1939 for use as a minesweeper. She took seven trips to Dunkirk between the 27 May and 4 June, bringing back around 7000 troops, although the numbers are contested.
She was under the command of a naval lieutenant, but most of the crew were merchant seamen, conscripted when she was taken into service. The ambiguous status of the Medway Queen and her crew is typical of Operation Dynamo, and of the war itself—the traditional boundaries between military and civilian, and between voluntary and conscripted had become rather blurred.
The precise numbers are unknown, but over the course of the three operations—Dynamo, Cycle and Aerial—and in the evacuation of civilians from the south of France, the merchant navy carried away more personnel than the Royal Navy. Churchill acknowledged their contribution, but the work of the merchant mariners at Dunkirk has rarely been mentioned. John Masefield wrote of this neglect in his 1944 poem ‘For All Seafarers’:
You were salvation to the army lost,
Trapped, but for you, upon the Dunkirk beach …
Unrecognised you put us in your debt;
Unthanked, you enter, or escape, the grave;
Whether your land remember or forget,
You saved the land, or died to try to save.
In its focus on the common man, the Dunkirk narrative also leaves out the massive planning and logistical exercise that was the key to its success. It is not difficult to understand why Christopher Nolan would want to focus on ‘Tommy’ rather than Bertrand Ramsay, the Rear Admiral in charge of Operation Dynamo who worked day and night for a week to bring it all together.
But miracles on this scale don’t just happen. The small ships did not turn up at Dunkirk because of a spontaneous outburst of national pride. They had been tracked down by the Small Vessels Pool of the Royal Navy, and a great deal of effort was necessary behind the scenes to ensure that they were serviced and staffed.
Given the time available to Ramsay and his people in the Dynamo Room beneath Dover Castle, it was a remarkable success, albeit necessarily makeshift. The day before Operation Dynamo was launched, the head of the Inter-service Topographical Department did the rounds of London’s travel agencies, collecting brochures which described the French beaches in some detail.
Nolan makes a brief concession to this huge organisational effort in the pier master at Dunkirk, played by Kenneth Branagh, although Commander Bolton seems to carry this huge burden on his own, isolated from his superiors in London. At one point, he wistfully observes that you can almost see England from where he is standing on the mole.
In fact, there was a great deal of communication between London and Dunkirk, and significant movement of liaison personnel back and forwards. The individual on whom Branagh’s role is said to be based—Captain William G. Tennant—was the Chief Staff Officer to the First Sea Lord in London. He was dispatched to Dunkirk on 26 May, on the eve of Operation Dynamo, to serve as Senior Naval Officer there. And he was accompanied by a naval shore party of eight officers and 160 men, to assist in the organisation.
This is not a criticism of Christopher Nolan. We need the storytellers as well as the historians, although we must also be capable of distinguishing between the two. This is especially important when it comes to the stories we tell of ourselves as a nation. These stories matter because they define what it means to be British or American or Australian—to paraphrase Polkinghorne, our national self is a constellation of interwoven narratives.
None of us wants to believe that our national identity can be handed over to the button moulder to be melted down and recast at will. But if we are not to sink into cultural senility, we must retain the capacity to weave new stories into our collective identity and to reframe the old ones. This will not happen without some discomfort, and it cannot happen without a robust