By Aaron Miller
Director Christopher Nolan’s latest work, “Dunkirk,” which is currently playing at theaters in Columbus, is a visually stunning film. Although the Battle of Dunkirk took place in May and June 1940, the film has an important message for our modern world.
Without giving away too many spoilers, Dunkirk follows the struggles of the British Expeditionary Force to escape from the beaches of France during World War II.
Many people are probably not familiar with the Battle of Dunkirk. Like Verdun, the Somme and Gallipoli from World War I, or Stalingrad and the Battle of Wuhan from World War II, Dunkirk is a critical historical event that continues to carry a tremendous amount of cultural significance for the nations involved. In other words, it is an event, like many of our Civil War battles, that takes on almost mythical proportions.
Nolan, who is probably most famous for directing the Batman trilogy starring Christian Bale, recounts how British soldiers faced annihilation while they were trapped on the beach after the fall of France in 1940.
As the German army tightened its grip around the desperate British soldiers, the only hope for escape was crossing the English Channel. As they waited for evacuation, British soldiers endured bombings and strafing attacks by the German Air Force. There was little cover on the beach.
Ultimately, more than 300,000 Allied soldiers escaped the beaches of France. Their rescue ensured that Britain would live to fight another day. Had the operation at Dunkirk failed, Germany might have invaded and conquered Britain. Without Britain in the war, it is possible that Germany could have won World War II. Although the soldiers escaped, the British army still left behind invaluable weapons, vehicles and equipment.
During a time that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called “The Darkest Hour,” Britain would stand alone as the only major power fighting Nazi Germany. The British refused to surrender or to make peace with Adolf Hitler. After Dunkirk, British civilians endured bombing raids during the Battle of Britain. Britain fought alone until the German army invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. During this time, many Americans favored neutrality. It would be nearly 18 months after Dunkirk until the United States entered World War II.
I think that the most effective historical movies go beyond recounting bygone events to explore human nature or larger issues, as well as provide a nuanced commentary on the past. Besides an impressive and dramatic retelling of the Battle of Dunkirk, Nolan’s film has a timely message.
“Dunkirk” lauds the altruism, virtue and self-sacrifice of the soldiers, sailors and airmen.
They put aside fear as well as their differences to fight for a common cause. The British Expeditionary Force was on the continent to defend foreign countries, to stop the German invasion of Western Europe. In a desperate move, the British used cargo ships, yachts and fishing vessels to rescue their beleaguered army. Civilians manned many of these craft. I find this to be one of the most interesting, and heroic, aspects of “Dunkirk.”
The virtues celebrated by “Dunkirk” are, unfortunately, missing in the current national political climate. Instead of insults and pettiness, we need altruism and to focus on working together. In his recent return from brain surgery, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., urged his colleagues to put aside their squabbles, ignore the din of political commentators and find compromise to solve problems.
The British soldiers and civilians understood the gravity of the crisis. They knew the importance of their mission. It was not about glory, glamor or vanity. Instead, it was about survival, rescuing another person and perhaps saving the world in the process. We still need that commitment from our leaders today.
“Dunkirk” also reminds us of the power and importance of eloquence. The movie features Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. Although Churchill may have been far from a perfect leader, his eloquence in the face of real danger inspired rather than divided.
Aaron Miller is one of The Republic’s community columnists and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. He has a doctorate in history and is an associate professor of history at Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.