Go see “Dunkirk”… It’s not history, but it’s good!

There you have it, in my “bottom line up front” method of driving home a point. If you have not seen “Dunkirk” by now, then you should.  Well worth the price of admission.  An hour and forty-five minutes of good entertainment… on a historical subject of note.

But I’d not call it history.  And I don’t intend that as a swipe at the movie, the director, the actors, or such.  And I’m not going to give you some list of historical inaccuracies.  If I were, we’d start with the use of ex-Spanish aircraft powered by British engines, with yellow noses (as a scale model builder, I have to pause and “stitch count” here… the yellow recognition colors were not adopted for another month or so in the run-up to the Battle of Britain) to portray Nazi fighters and bombers. Or the Spitfire Mk. Vs, which was not in service until 1941.

However, in a world awash of CGI, I actually like the notion of using something real to stand in.  And, in a similar way, I don’t really have a problem with characters based on historical figures, but not quite set to the historical template.  It’s OK.  It’s a movie.

Rather, when I say it is not history, I’m referring to the format.  This is not a movie scripted to tell the events from a historical perspective.  Viewers of the movie are expected to have all that scoped out before taking to the cushy theater seat.  There are no white-lettered prefaces, narrator descriptions, or scenes that take us to the Prime Minister’s office.  The only situational introductions offered are a few leaflets thrown into view (which one character quickly gathers up for use as “materials”) and a few chats between officers on the Mole.  That’s all we really get of the “big picture.”  You, the entertained, are expected to show up knowing all the background as to what Dunkirk was all about.

And that, I offer, is refreshing in a way.

Historical subject, to be sure.  But Dunkirk, to me at least, was more “story telling” in the classic, perhaps sociological, sense.  It’s the story that in days before movies and radio shows would be shared around the community as part of legend, lore, and those little bits of shared experience that brings commonality to a society.  It is… to be blunt… a story about “us”  – with the “us” in this case being those who live on the island inhabited by a people who insist they are the center of the known universe… em… England.  In short, Dunkirk is a “tribal” story.

And there’s not a darn thing wrong with that!

I stepped out of the theater impressed with a subtle, but overwhelming, thread.  That being the turning of the characters from concerns and thoughts of themselves towards a efforts to support the collective goal.  At the start, we have soldiers doing everything to just get onto a boat, any boat.  We have sailors concerned with ships being sunk.  We have pilots concerned over their fuel.  And, civilians concerned about giving up control of their property (a boat) to the government… or young men worried about making an impression.

Yet, as the separate time lines unfold, we find characters moving away from those self-centered concerns.  They make sacrifices.  They embrace actions for the common good.  And, that happens with most of the major characters sharing space on a little boat…. I see what you did there Christopher Nolan!

On the other side of this “story telling” what are we shown of the “enemy”?  Well, the Germans are there.  But they are not there.  Instead, Germans are represented by bombs, shells, bullets, torpedoes, and airplanes.  Yes, a diving Stuka is pretty much a Nazi trademark.  But we never see faces, until the very end. And even then just fleeting views in the gathering darkness.  This is a classic element of those old tribal legends.  The enemy was just a prop. A counterpoint to the humanness of the “us.”

And again, there’s not a darn thing wrong with that! Indeed, it is these defeat-into-victory experiences which temper and strengthen a society.  Not something to be shunned and shunted aside.  These are the very things we should have at the fore.  These sort of things bring us to the essence of a society.  And I dare say, even help us connect beyond our little fold of society.

So what if I can’t call it “history”?  Dunkirk is a good movie.  The value of this film increases with the knowledge, of the subject, one carries into the theater. Likewise, that value continues to grow with the more time contemplating the subject afterwards.

“Tribal stories” work that way.


Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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