The country must thank Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk – it’s a timely gift to the nation, writes Alec Marsh
It might have been hard in the age of the smart bombs and thermonuclear-devices that can destroy cities in the blink of eye to make a lone Stuka dive-bomber a thing of ultimate terror. But in Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has achieved that. And some.
But the dive-bombing of the beaches is but one of many important moments in this beautifully-sketched story of the battle, which is pleasingly free of glorification and gratifyingly low on the sentimentality count.
Instead Dunkirk scores high on stiff upper lip, and the only real notes of celebration is a ‘well done’ or two and a pat on the shoulder. For anyone over 40 this potent mix of emotional repression, duty-fixation and stoicism probably chimes home.
My maternal grandfather did not go to Dunkirk, but according to family legend he almost did. He had a boat on the East Coast in Essex, so not very conveniently located for Dunkirk to be honest, but I suspect that well before he could have slipped his moorings my grandmother would have torpedoed the idea. She was always very adamant that she didn’t want him going off and getting himself killed.
His motor yacht, however, was not altogether dissimilar to that skippered by Mr Dawson, Mark Rylance’s character in Dunkirk. And certainly, just like Mr Dawson, I’m pretty sure that my grandfather never went to sea without his tie on – Stuka dive-bomber, or no.
As a result of this historic near miss on my family’s part – and it’s a similar story for many, I dare say – Dunkirk and the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ was never very far away from the cultural context of my childhood. When you know someone who was actually there – or even in my case wasn’t – it alters your perception significantly. Then if you write this large across a society with hundreds of thousands of people involved, it sticks.
But that was then – the last Dunkirk film was in 1958, and it was a hit in Britain – and my childhood was three or more decades ago: naturally the young of today do not know about the brave ‘little ships’ that went over the sea to collect our soldiers stranded on the beaches. The grandfathers who went to North Africa or France to fight in 1940s are now nearly all used up; the grandmothers who made jam or worked in munitions factories leading the home front, and who remember the Doodlebugs and more importantly the horror of not hearing them are largely gone too. In 1980 to be old meant being born in 1905; now you can be old if you were born in the late 1930s.
And as a result, what was orally held in our society and was remembered is now moving into what is written, or disappearing for good. Like you I had these stories first hand – or you may even have been there yourself if you’re only of our older readers. But for a growing portion of the population the only interface they have with Dunkirk is in history books or more likely, historical films.
Which is why Christopher Nolan’s instant classic is an important testament. It will doubtless be shown in schools to pupils of history in due course. More than this, though, the film is essential for the country: and no less because we are increasingly living in a YouTube world where if someone can’t watch it, then it didn’t happen or doesn’t exist for them. So this a visual record – albeit one that is a finely crafted work of fiction – is also a monument to the nation, no different in their ways from the London Eye, Marble Arch or Nelson’s Column. If it were possible, Dunkirk should be put on the empty plinth of Trafalgar Square. Or given a knighthood. Certainly, Christopher Nolan deserves a significant ‘well done’ and a pat on the shoulder.
Alec Marsh is editor of Spear’s