Survival is Victory

Screenshot from Dunkirk (2017)

Screenshot from Dunkirk (2017)

After watching Dunkirk, you’ll likely spend some time silently processing the film. The interwoven timelines, the high pressure soundtrack and the constant threat of death can easily captivate the viewer. The film is a change of pace for the director of the Dark Knight trilogy, however, it really harks back to the early triumph of Memento. It’s a return to form.

Despite what the critics are saying about Dunkirk, the strengths of the film are precisely what people are describing as weaknesses: the lack of ‘drama’, character development and proper dialogue. Of course, none of these things are really missing. What is missing is a drab Hollywood version of a love story that just happens to involve the evacuation of Dunkirk.

In many ways, Dunkirk is a return to film as a universal language. It has more in common with silent films in this regard. Christopher Nolan set out to give us a subjective account of the evacuation with different timelines passing one another by. The soundtrack is beautiful, with Hans Zimmer’s relentless build-up to Elgar’s Nimrod – the quintessential sound of remembrance.

It’s a kind of anti-war film, in that Nolan has given us a war film which breaks all the conventions of the genre. We watch as soldiers are running for their lives, cowering and with little hope of rescue. We’re mostly watching frightened young men, escaping and dying by chance. The enemy is never seen, except as silhouettes. Yet the gunfire and bombs are a constant threat.

Furthermore, this is a war film about a humiliating military defeat. If there is a sign of progress, even if the film is not perfect (but what is?), this is it: Britain in 2017 can acknowledge some of its past failures. By contrast, there has yet to be a great film about the US war on Vietnam which really portrays the conflict for what it was and liberal filmmakers like Oliver Stone tell viewers that “the first victim of war is innocence”.

Even Dunkirk’s tagline “survival is victory” stands out as a half-full statement on the defeat. The sight of young men fleeing for their lives, in some cases to a watery grave, is not some romantic portrayal of masculine violence. What the film says about Britain in 2017 has more than one dimension. It feels like a zeitgeist film and Brexit is the big question on everyone’s mind.

It’s very unlikely Nolan timed the film to coincide with the negotiations, yet it could not have been timed better. If we frame the film in this way, the evacuation has an ambiguous dual meaning: withdrawal is a defeat and a humiliation, yet the potential for victory is still ahead of us. This is not prophesy, but it does tap into something real in the public mood.

As for leftist worries about nationalist fervour, Nolan situates patriotism as emotional relief from the nightmare of war and, insofar as the film is patriotic, this understated and subtle approach to love of country tells us a lot about the nature of wartime flag-waving. The key moment being when the boats arrive to rescue the soldiers and Kenneth Branagh very nearly weeps for the audience. This is catharsis from the relentless pace of war.

There was a time when the English left toyed with nationalism. During the 1930s, the CPGB staked part of its popular front strategy to try and carve out an English patriotism reviving the old ideals of the Levellers and the Diggers. Then in the war itself, JB Priestley indulged in the same national myths and nostalgia that Churchill deployed to shore up public morale. This relationship with nationalism continued after the war too.

“More generally, at the end of World War Two the left, almost everywhere in Europe, represented the nation in the most literal sense, because it represented resistance to, and victory over, Hitler and his allies,” Eric Hobsbawm said in a lecture in 1996. “Hence the remarkable marriage of patriotism and social transformation, which dominated European politics immediately after 1945.”

“Not least in Britain, where 1945 was a plebiscite in favour of the Labour Party as the party best representing the nation against one-nation Toryism led by the most charismatic and victorious war-leader on the scene. This set the course for the next thirty-five years of the country’s history.”

Understandably, the contemporary English left has given up on the possibilities of red patriotism, especially since the right has claimed the monopoly on the national question. As a result, many progressive and liberal viewers are left anxious as they try to resist the catharsis of soldiers cheering as the boats approach the shore. But this film is very far from singing ‘Rule Britannia!’ while the boys mow down the foreign hordes.

Photograph courtesy of Warner Bros. All rights reserved.