The Triumph of ‘Dunkirk’


….Well, bawd I’ll turn,

And something lean to cutpurse of quick hand.

To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal:

And patches will I get unto these cudgell’d scars,

And swear I got them in the Gallia wars.

“Henry V” (v.i.88-92)

In Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” Pistol and his late lamented friend Bardolph are among the common folk who accompanied their former Prince Hal (now King Henry V) in his glorious victories in France. But their low character abides. They exploit as they can the triumph of their aristocratic betters.

Contrast these would-be royal court low-lifes with the democratic soldiers portrayed in “Dunkirk.” In spite of the obvious differences, one critic claims the movie is “both an astonishing filmmaking achievement and an epic narrative failure.” John Podhoretz is certainly right on the first count; “Dunkirk” has made the pantheon of war movies. Yet his off-base attack on the film’s supposed lack of history is nothing compared with the astonishing dismissal by Dorothy Rabinowitz in “The Dumbing Down of Dunkirk.” The otherwise prescient media critic distorts the film, claiming it ignores the historical context and Winston Churchill. Snatches of dialogue make very clear what the consequences of a failed rescue are. And while Churchill the man does not appear in the film, his all-important logos does, in the movie’s most powerful moment, at the end.

Somehow these and other critics—some of whom are so ridiculously low-minded as to contend that director Christopher Nolan’s exclusion of women and minorities is problematic—miss the universal themes of war and warriors, and, most important, the souls of soldiers: why men fight. “[P]atriotic ciphers” sniffs the New Yorker. (The most sublime review focusing on the question of a warrior’s soul is the podcast of Titus Techera.) The film’s soldiers, airmen, and civilian boat owners fight the four constituent elements of the cosmos—earth, air, fire, and water—plus “the enemy” (no Nazis, no Hitler) striking like gods at any moment, turning sanctuary into a tomb.

The soldiers in “Dunkirk” are neither ciphers nor gods but humans, who can display cowardice and even treason as well as self-sacrifice, nobility, and love of country. They remain aware of the difference between mere survival and living honorably, even when they disregard it. One critic epitomizes the obtuseness: he discovered only in the closing credits that the otherwise anonymous soldier we follow is named “Tommy”! Maybe that is a count in favor of providing greater historical content, though the movie does use “Jerry” quite naturally.

In a scene comparable to the disguised Henry V speaking with Bates and Williams on the eve of Agincourt, we see our eponymous “Tommy” hiding beneath a wharf, having left the safety of a rescue ship, while above Kenneth Branagh (of “Henry V” fame and who here portrays an admiral overseeing the evacuation) reviews the grim situation of the army with a colleague: There aren’t enough destroyers, air cover is wanting, and the enemy is advancing.

But the heroes, the British private navy, come, like gods. From Martin Gilbert’s The Second World War (itself a compilation from his multi-volume Churchill biography):

At midnight on 2 June the last 3,000 British and French troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk, bringing the total to 338,226 men in seven days…. In all 222 naval vessels and 665 civilian raft had ferried between Dunkirk and the British coast. Six destroyers and twenty-four smaller vessels had been lost. Thirty-eight British destroyers, never built to carry a mass of men, had brought away 91,624. Minesweepers had brought back 30,942. Thirty Dutch motor vessels had carried 20,624. French destroyers had lifted 7,623. Hundreds of merchant vessels, troop transports and sloops brought back tens of thousands more.

Now here’s a cinematographic task for “historical narrative” critics! Though the British won a three-one victory over German planes, in the “first substantial victory of the allied air [war]” nonetheless the British Army lost 34,000 POWs to the Germans. Gilbert delivers the real history lesson:

But in many ways the most remarkable feat of all was performed by the little ships: trawlers, coasters tug boats, open boats, ship’s lifeboats, fishing vessels, river cruisers, paddle steamers, and more than six hundred small pleasure craft, which between them brought off more than 80,000 men, in groups from several hundred to half a dozen.

The film’s synecdoche for this miracle is a small pleasure craft, now become a war vessel, manned by two boys and its fiercely determined owner. They barely escape the British navy’s hamfisted attempt to commandeer it, preferring their own republicanism to its bureaucracy, and motor off to Dunkirk on their own. Dressed in tie and vest, the captain defies internal and external enemies in his dauntless mission. How, in light of this dedication, any critic could assert that the film overlooks the moral virtue of fighting a war against odds leaves one gob-smacked. To use more elegant English, and paraphrasing Churchill: Some cipher, some soul.

In all the “a-moral ‘Dunkirk’” criticism, perhaps the most revealing is that of the sometimes insightful liberal pundit Richard Cohen, who declared “It’s a war film for the Trump era. It is deaf to history.” Far from ignoring history and Churchill, as Cohen and others charge, the film in fact gives Churchill the all-powerful conclusion of these dizzying days. The statesman brings order out of what might have been viewed as random, chaotic events. “Tommy” feels this, upon reading Churchill’s Dunkirk speech (“we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender”).

In their reviews, the NeverTrump mentality of Rabinowitz, Podhoretz, and Cohen exposes itself as blindness to the struggle of our times. They view politics essentially as the activity of a royal court, as though inserting more Churchill here and there would somehow elevate the movie beyond what mere citizens can offer. Yet a lesson of “Henry V” for our times, over 500 years later, is the need for patriotic virtue in the common folk. As “Dunkirk” further shows, political success presupposes republican spirit in fighting tyranny in all forms foreign and domestic.


About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

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19 responses to “The Triumph of ‘Dunkirk’”

  1. I beg to differ. No character development, no historical context (how many of the younger generation this movie is aimed at will know what it was about?). My reaction:

    All told, this was a noisy large-screen extravagance with little redeeming value, aside from the sad but gallant story that has been told better, and here has to be pieced together from the collage of scenes, which though slickly done, make the viewer struggle to figure out “Where are we now?”

    More on “Dudkirk” here:

    Yes, it was told better, in 1958, in a real “Dunkirk”:

    “Dudkirk” (2017) versus “Dunkirk” (1958):

    Interestingly, the earlier film showed no RAF aircraft, on which director Nolan spent much time in the new film. Why? Because the RAF, which performed valiantly though vastly outnumbered, was almost completely invisible to the desperate army on the beach.

    /L. E. Joiner

    • Good point about the ignoramuses not taught by our academies needing more context. But for those of us who know a great deal about WWII and Churchill and Dunkirk, it could be enjoyable to just focus on the very human drama of the citizen everyman in his many roles and responses to incredible desperate circumstances and overwhelming odds.

      • Reasonable point, but then why no story, no one we get to know? Tubby Binns and Charles Foreman in 1958’s “Dunkirk” have more to tell us in a few minutes than two hours of bombardment, drowning, and unrealistic dogfights do in the 2017 “Dudkirk.”

        In point of fact, fewer and fewer of our citizens know much if anything about WWII. This comic-book pastiche will do nothing to remedy that ignorance.

        /L. E. Joiner

      • I googled the history of the Dunkirk evacuation for context. That was easy

      • “comic book pastiche”? The movie I saw was neither of those things. It did what few movies set against a backdrop of an historic conflict do – it takes the talking heads out of the narrative and has instead the frenetic, disjointed and frequently absurd and incomprehensible minutae experienced by “grunts” and their immediate superiors on the ground far away from pipe smoking and cigar chomping decision makers. It reduces the “enemy” to being a cypher because, in most cases, a soldier never sees his opposite number or the sniper who takes him out with a lone bullet. It is, in some ways, an absurdist anti-war movie more akin to Catch22. But comic book? How is it anything like the tedious superhero movies the cinemas are awash with? And Pastiche? Do you even know what the word means? The simple fact that the director utterly eschews the usual conventions of war movies demonstrates that it is not a pastiche of anything. I applaud the makers for avoiding pastiche and for resisting any suggestion they should dumb down the narrative to spell out slowly and loudly what the context of the incomprehensible violence is. To any Brit or Canadian or Australian et al Dunkirk requires no elaboration or exposition for context (should movies about the Alamo all involve tedious exposition to help out non-Texans?) As others have said – do some reading and enjoy the movie for what it is – don’t review it and denigrate it for what it isn;’t and for what is never set out to be.

    • Thanks for the VDH link. ” Military history, whether written or visual, requires a mixture of both strategic and tactical narrative with first-hand “face of battle” portrayals of those doing the actual killing and dying. Dunkirk is good on the latter count, and completely wanting on the former.” But this would be a different film, not Nolan’s intent.
      BTW, the RAF’s invisibility was brought out in the film by angry soldiers turning on a rescued pilot.
      Thanks too for your links; I’ll look at them shortly.

  2. Like It did any good in the long run.

    A negotiated peace in 1940 would have been the best outcome
    ..retained the Empire, avoided bankrupcy amd most probabl no mass immigration(and all that goes with it)

  3. Nevertrumpers are really good at missing everything. (At least the ones who aren’t solely motivated by pedophile ring extortion.)

  4. BEST Review of the movie I have read. Thank you for publishing it. The NeverTrumpers continue to try and frame everything in terms of what they see as the failure of Trumpism – They seem to forget that it is our sons who do the fighting for them–not some Royal Court. I wish they would stop. I used to like reading their work. Grateful for this review – I love a film that gives credit to the soldiers (like my son!) and the sailors – credit where credit is due.

  5. Insightful and remarkable counter-review.

    “In their reviews, the NeverTrump mentality of Rabinowitz, Podhoretz, and Cohen exposes itself as blindness to the struggle of our times. They view politics essentially as the activity of a royal court,…”

    Yes. They do view as A Royal Court.

    Now let’s make them the Jesters who’ve overplayed their hand and be rid of them.

  6. A Stuka dive bomber suddenly appears and death is impersonal. A real authentic war movie for World War II and the current wars.

  7. Soldiers didn’t give a damn or even understand what Churchill was saying. Dunkirk was from a soldier’s eye view. The retreat was disorienting and frightening.

    • Churchill delivered his “…We shall fight them on the beaches…we shall never surrender…” speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940 – the last day of the Dunkirk rescue operation.

  8. To get a better understanding of the Dunkirk withdrawal, it was told much better in the BBC TV 2004 3 hour docu-drama. Also the1958 John Mills movie.

  9. Yawn. Old stuff. Watch the original “Mrs. Miniver”. Same story with better actors.