Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and the long road of war stories from propaganda to poetry

I don’t remember much about the 1990 World War II film Memphis Belle. I recall that it was a well-executed, if conventional, movie chocked full of authentic scenes of air combat. One thing that struck me at the time I saw it that has stayed with me since is its concluding dedication.

“This film is dedicated to all the brave young men, whatever their nationality, who flew and fought in history’s greatest airborne confrontation.”

Frankly, I was shocked when I read these words on the screen in the theater. It seemed to me that the producers of the film were trying to draw a moral equation between the heroic aviators of the Allied Forces and their villainous Nazi counterparts. Fewer than thirty-five years had passed since the end of what is often considered a defining struggle between good and evil. Was it possible to present it divorced of its political context?

As the years have passed and as I have long ago grown weary of war movies that try make political statements, I’ve come to appreciate what the people behind Memphis Belle were trying to accomplish with their dedication.

This brings me to Christopher Nolan’s new film Dunkirk.

Dunkirk is a historical film about the desperate evacuation of British troops stranded on the beaches of France in May 1940 awaiting certain annihilation or capture by advancing German forces. But, in my mind, Nolan’s film is not so much a historical presentation of that event as an an abstract lament for the tragedy of war and the recognition that participants are sometimes heroes who rise to the occasion, but, more often or not, soldiers unwillingly swept up in its life-destroying wake.

Some criticism of Dunkirk has to do with its opening text which sets the stage with the announcement of a limited cast of participants. This cast list includes only mention of “British and French armies” with no mention of Germany, identified only as “the enemy.” This omission that has caused consternation in some quarters, with one critic going so far as saying that Nolan’s treatment is a dumbing-down of the historical context of the battle to suit the historical ignorance of the era of Trump.

I confess I heard about Nolan’s “oversight” before seeing Dunkirk. My first guess for an explanation was that removing mention of Germany in the film had more to do marketing considerations than with any “deafness to history” on the part of the director. These days, films have to do well in a range of international markets in order to be box office successes. Sometimes that means jettisoning unnecessary cultural baggage. I thought that, maybe, Nolan’s omission had been a mercenary one.

But now, having seen his movie, I have changed my mind, and I would like to credit Nolan for making a deliberate, if controversial, artistic decision with his choice to leave Germany unnamed in Dunkirk.

In the telling and retelling of war stories, they evolve over time. And, in the long arc of history, these stories often begin as propaganda and end up as poetry, that is if they survive at all. For example, apart from the myth of Helen, Homer doesn’t provide us with the political context that propelled the war between Greeks and Trojans in his Iliad. It is as little consequence to us as it was to him. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage lives on as the classic American war novel, not because of any political analysis it offers about the War Between the States, but because of its compelling depiction of one man’s struggle in confronting the demons of his own cowardice. The enduring reality of war is its human and not its political dimension.

I feel that by omitting mention of Germans and Germany from his film in Dunkirk Christopher Nolan is putting us on notice that his film is going to discount the political context of the war, and with that an easy delineation of good guys and bad guys, so that we can better see the Allied debacle for the timeless war story of struggle for survival and rescue that it was. I think that he makes this announcement in a way at the beginning of the film that will cause us to sit up and pay attention. And I believe he succeeds in this regard.

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