#FrancisOnFilm: Dunkirk

09 August 2017

The evacuation of British and Allied forces from Dunkirk in 1940 was a great patriotic moment in British history of which Americans have little knowledge. The story of Dunkirk is heroic: the British Expeditionary Force, the French First Army, and other Belgian and Dutch troops were cut off and driven to the coast where they were surrounded and subject to bombing and capture. Using navy ships and a flotilla of 650 small boats, the British managed to rescue 338,000 of the troops in just three days.

Christopher Nolan’s movie Dunkirk, released on July 21st and as of this writing tops at the box office, chronicles the evacuation. It exemplifies some of the signature features of Nolan’s movies: fractured time, a dissonant and disconcerting score by Benjamin Wallfisch, visual beauty achieved by a palette of darkened color and occasional flashes of light, and the brooding omnipresence of dread.

As a philosopher, I was especially drawn to how the movie portrays ordinary people acting under tremendous fear. Some are glorious, some are mean-spirited, some are anxious, and many are patient.

There’s the predictable bravery of Spitfire pilots risking their fuel running out while they try to destroy German bombers for whom the men on the beach are captive targets. There are the soldiers who do not know one another but run together to try to catch an evacuating ship, perhaps for the wounded man they carry on a stretcher but perhaps also for their own escape. There are the soldiers outside the fragile protected boundaries hiding in a grounded boat that becomes target practice for the Germans, rendering it unseaworthy—but while they are trying to get it afloat quibbling about whether a Frenchman should be thrown out to lighten the load so that the British and the Dutch soldiers might have a better chance to escape.

There are the men jumping into the sea to escape their torpedoed boat and fighting to get away from the leaked oil from the sinking ship. There are the men crowded together on the dock called “the Mole,” waiting patiently but anxiously for boats they hope will arrive before the bombs do. There’s the shell-shocked soldier rescued from the sea but unable to quell his panic. There’s Commander Bolton, played by Kenneth Branagh, staying behind after the British have been evacuated to facilitate evacuation of the French. And there’s the small boat skipper Mr. Dawson, the calm and intelligent presence played by Mark Rylance, bravely carrying on in the effort to save the shell-shocked soldier, a downed Spitfire pilot, and the oil-soaked men in the sea before the German bombs hit and explode the sea in oil-fueled flames.

In Britain, stories such as the Dunkirk evacuation are fodder for those who believe self-reliance can solve any of the problems of Brexit. For example, Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), tweeted that every young person in Britain should go watch Dunkirk.

Zoe Williams, writing in The Guardian, opines that this is exactly the wrong lesson to draw from the movie. Fellowship and the need to work together in the spirit of resilience, she says, is what the movie celebrates. Not incidentally, she also notes that the Dunkirk evacuation exceeded UKIP’s yearly in-migration target for Britain in fewer than two days.

For philosophical moviegoers in the US, the events at Dunkirk and their current political significance may seem remote in space and time. But the themes are not. As John McCain’s recent plea for cooperation about health care in the Senate reminds us, achievement of basic goods requires working together.

Dunkirk ends with the returning evacuees being offered cheers and beers. As the realization sinks in that they will not be ridiculed for their escape but will be welcomed home, a radio voice reads from Winston Churchill’s sober “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons after the evacuation. That the speech is read by an unseen voice, not Churchill himself, is yet another reminder of how it is not particular individuals alone but practical solidarity that matters “to outlive the menace of tyranny,” in Churchill’s words.