I was looking forward to the movie Dunkirk. If you know me at all, you know I’m a history nerd and World War 2 is an area of particular interest. There aren’t that many big budget WW2 movies being made these days, so of course this one had my attention. Many friends were thus surprised to see my short assessment of Dunkirk after catching a Sunday show at the IMAX theater here in Seattle.
Dunkirk hot take: if you want Churchillian propaganda writ large, you’ll like it. If you want something that resembles history, skip it.
Many of these friends also saw the movie and found it well-crafted and emotional. Some pointed out an article about a Canadian veteran of the evacuation who said, “It was just like I was there again.” If a man who was there had that reaction, what was my problem exactly?
Beware, spoilers follow!
The movie is well-shot and dramatic. It does a good job of making you feel the fear of being on the beaches, dodging bombs and hoping you can make back across the channel to safety as the German grip tightens. In that way it’s quite effective and if you haven’t read more deeply about Operation Dynamo, you can be forgiven for thinking that movie paints an accurate picture of how it played out. My problem though is that it doesn’t.
Here’s the story you will come away with from the film Dunkirk. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are trapped on the beaches. There is something called a mole that larger ships can dock at but they can’t get close to the beaches because the water is too shallow. There aren’t that many larger ships helping with the evacuation. The Royal Navy has held them back. Those that do come are bombed or torpedoed. The RAF has sent over a few planes but not enough. Very few soldiers are being evacuated. But then, a call goes out. The little ships mobilize. Plucky civilians take their yachts and pleasure craft across the channel. They can make it to the beaches. Hurrah and huzzah, the day is saved!
Now this is a movie purportedly about the operation as a whole. It is strange then that for most of its running time you see not even one soldier get back to England. We are shown one larger ship that seems to sail away successfully. The Germans sink every other one. The Royal Navy looks completely inept. The RAF not much better. Their contribution is entirely represented by one flight of three Spitfires.
The reality of Operation Dynamo was starkly different. This was an incredibly complex and difficult operation and the Royal Navy and RAF both deserve more credit for its success than they are given here. 70% of the troops evacuated left from the harbor (most via the mole) on larger ships. 39 Royal Navy destroyers took part. Yes, 8 of the more modern destroyers were pulled back part way through, but hundreds of larger navy ships transported troops home. The little ships, most of which were crewed in full or part by Royal navy men or reservists (the Canadian veteran above was one of them), were largely used to ferry troops off the beaches to waiting destroyers and transports. The call to civilians only went out part way through the operation and the numbers of troops the little ships brought home was small, less than 10% of the total. 16 Royal Air Force squadrons flew 3500 sorties during Operation Dynamo, though much of their fighting was over the channel and thus not visible to the waiting troops. While all this was going on the French were fighting to hold the Germans back. The Belgians too for the first few days of the operation. The British lied to both nations about their intentions. With the exception of one brief scene at the beginning, none of these battles beyond the beach are shown.
Most of the myths about Dunkirk go right back to the war. Churchill himself pushed the little ships narrative and you can certainly argue that building what became known as the Dunkirk spirit was important for the morale of a nation reeling from an unexpected defeat. It isn’t 1940 anymore, however, and there’s no reason to be furthering wartime propaganda in a 2017 movie. This is my fundamental problem with Dunkirk.