“Wars are not won by evacuations,” Winston Churchill famously told the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, hard on the heels of the improbable rescue of over 300,000 stranded British and French troops from a formerly dull Channel port dramatically encircled just then by Adolf Hitler’s all-conquering Wehrmacht. But three-quarters of a century later, winning Oscar nominations could obviously be a different story. Well, at least in technical categories like art direction, sound editing, photography, and so on.
Those were the whiz-bang elements of Christopher Nolan’s summer epic Dunkirk that couldn’t be faulted even by viewers as bemused as I was by the movie’s post-millennial hollowness: its allergy to any ruminative sense of the past, its almost nonexistent interest in human beings. To anyone with an emotional connection to World War Two as the fairly consequential affair boomers were raised to believe it was, a movie about the Dunkirk evacuation so flagrantly unconcerned with Dunkirk’s historical significance was bound to seem perverse. Audiences unfamiliar with the subject could exit their local multiplex feeling pleasantly befuddled about which war this was, if not serenely unaware the saga had any basis in fact at all — and this was clearly a deliberate choice on Nolan’s part.
As he never tires of saying in interviews, including the lengthy one that opens Joshua Levine’s abject Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture, Nolan took creative pride in paring down one of the signal events of twentieth-century British history and folklore to its supposed essence as a “survival story.” He was so set on omitting the real thing’s presumably antiquated, potentially alienating military and political specifics that the generic “enemy” imperiling his cast of thousands was never even identified as Nazi Germany. But setting aside quarrels with the director’s priorities, shouldn’t a survival story at least feature characters whose fates arouse our interest and apprehension? Personally, I couldn’t have cared less which of the unengagingly floppy-faced stick figures on Nolan’s beach lived or died.
One reason Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture makes for melancholy reading is that its author clearly does care about the stick figures’ real-life originals. Levine’s well-regarded earlier book, Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk, landed him a job as Dunkirk‘s historical adviser, which plainly thrilled him more than it should. So he’s produced a tie-in book whose occasional real merits as documentation (lots of good anecdotes from survivors that you wish had turned up in Nolan’s screenplay) keep on being undermined by fawning mentions of the movie. Most depressing of all is an early chapter called “Quite Like Us” dealing with 1930s youth culture in Britain, Germany — and, incongruously, the United States. That’s apparently Miller’s idea of helping to attract millennials to theaters by assuring them that great-grandpapa could have identified with Harry Styles, and now — lucky them — they can identify with both.
The irony is that Nolan’s Dunkirk isn’t interested in provoking that kind of identification anyway. Curiously, however, his film — no matter how ahistorically minded — isn’t the only one to exhume Britain’s precarious situation in June 1940 for 2017 moviegoers’ delectation. Last April brought us Their Finest, a comic look at a wartime government film team charged with making an upbeat propaganda flick about the Dunkirk evacuation. On the slate for November is the considerably more ambitious-looking Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Churchill during those same days. Its director, Joe Wright, is probably cursing Nolan for stealing his thunder, but Wright actually got to Dunkirk first in a famous sequence from 2007’s Atonement. Back then, however, it didn’t have much to do with the rest of the movie – and now hallowing the U.K.’s “darkest hour” is the whole point.
What explains this sudden fascination? The Brexit vote occurred much too recently to have already goaded filmmakers into revisiting World War Two’s first acid test of British self-reliance: a military disaster whose white-knuckle salvage of a badly beaten army to fight again was so paradoxically pride-inducing that “the Dunkirk spirit” is still a byword in Merrie Olde. But the zeitgeist works in mysterious ways.
No one could have guessed beforehand that the story of the last epochal moment when Britons gave up on the French and were harassed by the Germans would seem timely seventy-seven years later. As Michael Korda observes in Alone: Britain, Dunkirk, and Defeat into Victory, it was 1940 — and Churchill — that taught the British public to feel “not only good but heroic about bad news.”
Korda does manage to work in a facile mention of Brexit on his book’s next-to-last page, but that shouldn’t be any surprise. In both the complimentary and pejorative senses of the word, “facile” is his middle name. A renowned editor at Simon & Schuster for many years before he turned memoirist, novelist, and all-around literary putterer-about, his current self-reinvention as a military historian can’t help but provoke stupefied envy from those of us who aren’t in a position to professionalize our hobbies so handsomely. That Dunkirkiana is unexpectedly in vogue this year could mean he’s also prescient, but more likely it just proves Korda was right to call his first book about his own fabulous family Charmed Lives.
Nonetheless, Alone makes a nice antidote to Nolan’s studied indifference to the era’s politics and the messy military debacle that led up to the Dunkirk evacuation. Korda also finds room for a slew of ancillary topics, including his own memories of June 1940, when he was six-going-on-seven and his father and uncles — Austro-Hungarian expatriates turned British filmmaking royalty — were engaged in their own baroque and voluble version of “Keep Calm and Carry On.” These autobiographical vignettes work surprisingly well, partly because the Kordas did enjoy a rather special vantage point on history in the making. In the midst of preparing for the Battle of Britain, Churchill himself made time to contribute bits to the script for his chum Alex Korda’s That Hamilton Woman – a movie that starred Laurence Olivier as naval hero Horatio Nelson, designed as propaganda to help lure the United States into the war.
Among Korda’s earlier biographies of military chieftains –- Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, T. E. Lawrence –- the only one I’ve read is 2008’s Ike: An American Hero, which struck me as flimsy, hand-me-down stuff compared to a study as authoritative as Jean Edward Smith’s Eisenhower in War and Peace. But Alone, though it’s every bit as dependent on synthesizing other people’s books — he’s done no original research, so far as I can tell — is a far richer and more convincing production, partly because hero worship doesn’t dominate the agenda. Even Churchill is simply one of the more arresting characters in a drama enlivened by its variety of dimensions and perspectives, from dazed individual soldiers recalling their lurching retreat to the Channel once the Germans broke through to the Cabinet’s rising panic as the crisis took shape.
Korda is at his most appealing in his attentiveness to the different sets of sensibilities and values in play at each level and the distances between them. Like the born cosmopolitan he is, he’s especially acute and often amusing about the clash between French and British mind-sets that played such a large part in the speedy Allied collapse once, after eight months of uneventful “phony war,” the German war machine sprang its brilliantly conceived trap of luring them into Belgium before Guderian’s panzers swarmed out of the Ardennes to cut them off. If the French high command was slow to catch on that the thrust was aiming for the Channel ports instead of Paris, Korda explains, one reason was “the French habit of assuming that Paris was at the center of the world.”
No less mischievously, when describing the endless files of soldiers waiting to be evacuated from the beach, he can’t resist saying, “If there is one thing the British are good at it is queuing.” This sort of wryness doesn’t detract from the emotional impact of the overall picture he builds up; if anything, it’s Korda’s simulation of “the Dunkirk spirit.” Besides, if you’ve read a whole lot of military historians whose work surpasses his in depth, you’ll know how rare it is for any of them to show even a trace of his wit.
Korda’s eye for the telling detail also lets him mine the best nuggets from everything he’s read on the subject. (Downright poignantly, one book he not only relies on extensively but singles out for praise is Levine’s Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk.) Among his best finds is a memoir called Through Hell to Dunkirk by one Henry de la Falaise, who witnessed a lot he later recorded vividly as the French liaison officer to the British 12th Lancers — a venerable regiment only recently converted from cavalry to armored cars. But some British officers still traveled to war with their horses, including King George VI’s younger brother, the duke of Gloucester, and the BEF’s commander, Lord Gort. It somehow sums up the whole British debacle, if not the proverbial end of an era, that both men’s elegant mounts ended up “shot on the quayside” at Boulogne when their orderlies couldn’t figure out how to embark them.
For my money, Korda does better than Nolan at commemorating the keystone of Dunkirk’s mythology — the civilian “Little Ships,” from Thames pleasure steamers to cockleshell private craft, that streamed across the Channel to help bring off the troops when the Royal Navy summoned their help. To some extent, the “romantic legend” Korda calls it is just what it is, as the Little Ships’ role was vastly exaggerated to inspire the British public. But even so, exaggeration isn’t the same as fiction, including the gratifying fact that one yacht joining the fray was skippered by Charles Lightholler, the second officer of the Titanic once upon a time. By contrast, one of Nolan’s more confounding dramatic decisions was to have his movie’s representative Little Ship (with Mark Rylance at the helm) never reach the beaches at all.
Whether from glibness or haste — here and there, Alone shows signs of having been rushed to the printer with minimal editing — Korda does make a few bonehead mistakes of his own. Military pedants will roll their eyes when he refers to the French army having “three armored corps,” since divisions are clearly what’s meant. Rather more bizarrely, he claims that being “devoutly Catholic” helped make Charles de Gaulle eccentric “in an army in which clericalism was controversial,” which not only misuses “clericalism” — surely not the aptest term here — but ignores the French officer class’s long tradition of conservative, often anti-republican Catholicism, from Trochu to Boulanger.
As always, the effect of spotting errors like these is that they make readers wonder how many others we’ve missed. But to my eye, at least, Korda has gotten most of the important things right –- including, above all, what Dunkirk meant. That hardly makes Alone a classic, but if you’re curious about everything Nolan’s movie left out, this book will stand you in good stead.
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