“Wars are not won by evacuations,” Winston Churchill cautioned. The year was 1940, and all that stood between the Nazis and their drive to European domination was the English Channel.
For a few tense days, the fate of Europe lay in the hands of a new Prime Minister, a few hundred boats, and a handful of clunky Spitfires. Surrounded on every side by German troops elated at the fall of France, Allied troops waited in the cold water off the coast of Dunkirk. World order had never seemed so fragile.
It is interesting, then, that in 2017, as the wellspring of World War II movies won’t seem to run dry, the latest obsession is neither the end-of-war heroism of American saviors, nor the horrors of concentration camps. No, the WWII story on everyone’s minds in Hollywood concerns a moment of inglorious retreat.
Two new films—Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan, and Darkest Hour by Joe Wright—are expected to draw large box-office crowds this year. Major events from the Second World War, with their black-and-white moral universes and Tolstoy-like grandeur, tend to make for compelling cinema, but films about the early days of World War II lack the military heroics of, say, Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line.
The recent popularity of this period, I think, resonates with a growing fear among Western democracies that “the center cannot hold” (to quote Yeats), that mere anarchy is just around the corner. Speaking in Poland earlier this month President Donald Trump said “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?”
At their best, films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour depict military conflicts as they are, not as we wish them to be. Dunkirk in particular stoops to the level of the common soldier as few war films have before. The German army is a distant presence in Nolan’s film, and all the drama lies in the struggle of troops against turbulent seas, man-made machines, and time.
At their worst, films about World War II paint the war in grand narrative strokes and conceal the dirty, chaotic business of logistics. Supply lines and defensive maneuvers may win wars, but they have rarely (until now) made for compelling cinema.
On the moral justification for waging war, too, we run a dangerous risk in thinking that Western powers were ever unified on the question of how to preserve the West. Though World War II is often seen as a “good” war, political leadership in both the United States and Britain—even in 1940 when Nazi control was at a high-water mark—was deeply divided over whether to wage war or make peace with Hitler.
Given the political and organizational complexity of all wars, we should not accept Hollywood’s presentation of World War II as a cut-and-dried affair. Dunkirk was not a decisive triumph of democracy over totalitarianism, of the home front against the battlefront; Churchill’s choice to stand up to Hitler did not make him an underdog challenger.
These two films take opposite perspectives toward war. Darkest Hour tells the story of Churchill. Here we find a view of Britain’s war as Shakespeare’s Prince Hal would have us see it, that “the arms are fair, when the intent of bearing them is just.” But in Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan offers the soldier's perspective. Here, humans are powerless to change the course of human events. In Dunkirk, survival is a matter of empty fuel tanks, leaky boats, and rough seas, not realpolitik or grand strategy. As Shakespeare’s Pistol says to Fluellen in Henry V, a soldier’s life is at the mercy of “giddy fortune’s furious fickle wheel, that goddess blind, that stands upon the rolling restless stone.”
Restless stones indeed. In May 1940, the situation in Western Europe kept rolling out of control, as historian Antony Beevor depicts masterfully in his book The Second World War. Paris had fallen decisively to German military power (a “colossal military disaster,” in the words of Winston Churchill), the Italians had recently brokered an alliance with Hitler, and thousands of Allied troops lay cornered by Nazi forces.
In a meeting of the War Cabinet in late May, it became clear that rescuing the British Expeditionary Force—numbering some 185,000 men, Churchill called it the “whole root and core and brain of the British Army”—was essential to halting the Nazi advance. That evening, Belgium surrendered to Nazi control. With the United States still out of the war, the evacuation from Dunkirk, codenamed Operation Dynamo, was now more important than ever.
With the evacuation from Dunkirk, Churchill was playing for time, staving off peace talks with Hitler. While some cabinet members wanted peace negotiations, Churchill was convinced Hitler’s terms would reduce the British Isles to a “slave-state” ruled by a puppet government. Saving the British troops would not only solidify Churchill’s precarious political position, it would ensure that Britain would be able to fight on alone.
Over the BBC, the Admiralty called for volunteer vessels—yachts, river launches, cabin cruisers—to come to the aid of 200 Royal Navy ships. These small boats were mostly manned by “weekend sailors”—notably one C. H. Lightoller, who was the senior surviving officer aboard the Titanic. Over 400 of these craft assembled at Sheerness and then Ramsgate before making the dangerous crossing to Dunkirk. As one sentimental Dunkirk promotion reads: “When 400,000 men couldn't get home, home came for them.”
Meanwhile, on the beaches, the Allied troops waited in panic as the Germans closed in from all sides. Luftwaffe bombers with sirens screaming flew overhead “like a flock of huge infernal seagulls” as men scattered in all directions. In a chapter on Dunkirk, Beevor gives voice to one Lieutenant Elliman who, as anti-aircraft guns filled the air with deafening blasts, described the scene:
The first attack was most unnerving. You felt so completely exposed on the beach. For a time some of us huddled under the hull of a wrecked steamer, but as nothing happened for some time I called in all my men, and formed them up in a queue again for fear we should lose our place.
Smoke rose in columns through the sky as the town burned from German bombs. Oil tanks belched thick black clouds, and abandoned vehicles clogged the city streets. Officer morale, already low after the fall of France, sank even lower to the point of hostility. Many were drunk from beer and wine (the water mains were broken), and the French and British soldiers turned on each other.
The British troops, unaware that the Royal Air Force was engaging the Germans inland, cursed the RAF as they cowered on the beach. Fortunately, the full force of the German bombers was diffused by the soft sand dunes, and more soldiers died from strafing attacks than bombs that day.
In early June, Churchill learned that all British divisions, as well as more than half the French First Army, were behind defensive lines. Dunkirk was not only a stroke of strategic luck—it immediately injected energy into a flagging British national spirit. Hitler believed erroneously that a British retreat across the Channel would destroy their chances at victory.
Instead, the miracle of Dunkirk rejuvenated the British war effort by giving the country a renewed sense of hope. Churchill’s famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech was delivered to Parliament just days after the successful evacuation, and the Cliffs of Dover, where many of the rescued troops landed, became a symbol of British military prowess akin to Waterloo.
Glorious victories and tragic defeats lay ahead for the Allies, but these have already been catalogued by the silver screen. With Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, moviegoers may find themselves trying to square the circle by turning a panicked evacuation into a military victory. But history—at least the Dunkirk kind, ruled by “giddy fortune's furious fickle wheel”—resists our best attempts to understand the meaning and purpose of war.