….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.