One of my favourite WWII stories is that of Dunkirk. It happened early on in the war, in 1942. On the mainland of Europe, the Nazis were rapidly advancing on the Allied armies, until they were all stuck at Dunkirk in France. They only had a few days until the Nazis came for them and killed them all, but since they were at the sea, they had nowhere to go. And that started off one of the greatest evacuations in history: the British first sent out army boats, and later recruited “little ships” – normal boats – to help get the Allied soldiers off the beaches. The Germans sent their bombers and fighter planes to give them as much trouble as possible, so the British sent out their own RAF pilots to fight. In the end, 338,000 soldiers were saved.
It could easily be called a miracle: normally, the sea would have been way too rough to get the soldiers on board. But Winston Churchill, Britain’s prime minister, issued a national day of prayer, and the sea was calm. Not only that, but there was a storm in Flanders, which prevented the Germans from taking off in their planes! This was an episode of great bravery and of heroes, who gave their lives to save those of others. It would make sense, then, to place the spotlight on these people, the ones who helped others, or, at least, to show the story of the normal soldiers: maybe not heroes, but still hard and steadfast. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), however, doesn’t focus on these people. He focuses on the cowards, the ones who shoved others aside to make sure they, personally, got home.
The film follows various characters, and thus gives us a glimpse of all sides of the evacuation: we have Mr. Dawson and his crew, who use their little ship to help; Tommy Atkins is a young soldier trying to get off the beaches; and there are two pilots up in the air protecting everyone underneath. Something that immediately stuck out to me was the movie’s subtitle: “Hope is a weapon, survival is victory.” Clearly, the protagonist’s main goal was going to be survival. This turned out to be true – sadly so. Although there are indeed heroes in this story, it is the main protagonists who use others. Tommy Atkins shows this early on when he and a fellow soldier pick up a wounded man and cart him off to a hospital ship. This seems nice, but the way the movie portrays it makes it very clear that Tommy has recognized the fact that the ship is a quick way off, without having to wait in line. He is using a wounded man to gain access to a ship he shouldn’t be on at all.
Later, Tommy is stuck in another boat with a soldier called Alex. The boat is about to sink, and Alex decides to solve the problem by forcing another soldier off, which would certainly kill the man. Tommy protests, and in the end this happens:
Alex: One of us has to get off so the rest of us can live. If you wanna volunteer?
Tommy: F— no. I’m going home.
Alex: And if this is the price?
Tommy: I’ll live with it. But it’s wrong.
This seems to be the point of the entire movie: if other people have to live for you to survive, then c’est la vie, my friend. Tommy and Alex never face any repercussions for this instance of malicious cowardice. In fact, they arrive back in England and are showered with praise and free beers. Meanwhile, none of the heroes of this movie has a happy ending: one of the pilots gets taken prisoner by the Germans in direct consequence of his selfless act and the other isn’t given any recognition of his bravery when he gets home. The soldier who risks his life to save others drowns, and the commander who stays behind for the last troops is never seen again.
But now you might say: okay, but isn’t it like that in real life too? Don’t bad people get good things and good people get bad things? It’s only realistic. That’s true, but it’s also about how the movie treats it. In Les Misérables, the two worst people in the book eventually become rich and go to America to be slave owners. But the way the book portrays this shows: it shouldn’t be like this. Whereas this movie gives you this sense of it being right that Alex gets a happy ending and the pilots don’t. It tells you that Tommy and Alex deserve these beers that are being shoved at them, that they did something well.
Another thing I hear: the Dunkirk movie wasn’t about any of this, it was just about the experience. That’s why the characters were so one-dimensional. You’re not supposed to focus on the moral implications. To which I say: it doesn’t matter what a movie director wants to convey, it’s what he ends up conveying. And actually, Nolan also said this movie was about the community coming together to help each other. He showed that with the little ships coming to help their boys but he also added in a scene where the soldiers try to kill each other so I’m not sure what he’s even trying to say anymore. And with a tagline “Survival is victory”, the people who don’t survive are the losers of the movie. All I know is what the movie did say, and that is that if you need to kill someone else to survive, it’s okay.
Another objection I hear a lot is: it’s easy for you to judge, but wouldn’t each of us do the same thing? Honestly, I don’t know whether I would be any okayer than Tommy at not letting other people take the fall for me, but even if I would be the Alex of my story, that wouldn’t make it right. If someone who smokes tells you it’s bad to smoke, that doesn’t make him wrong. And guess what? I have never killed a person on purpose so I am in a perfect position to judge here.
The reason this message upsets me so much is that it’s the same mentality people back home had when they stood aside, watching the Nazis murder their Jewish neighbours. It’s what caused people to stand by and do nothing as a woman was hurt by an attacker in a subway just a few weeks ago. The moment you value your own life above that of someone else, you will not bother to help others if there is any chance things might not turn out well for you. Soon enough, people will become complacent and stop caring about others’ hurt and wellbeing. In a society where everybody would rather just stay quiet instead of speaking out and actually doing something, injustices and crime will prevail. In a country where people say: ‘I’ll live with,’ nobody helps anybody and everyone is hurt.
It’s a real shame this movie has such a bad message, because it has great potential. They didn’t use any greenscreen and some of the little boats were actually the ones that went to Dunkirk. The camerawork is great, and the music was very stressful. There’s a ticking clock in it and this one part where it sounds exactly like your heart beating in your ears after a bad scare. And, of course, there are hunky dudes everywhere. This had the makings of a pretty great movie. But in the end, it doesn’t matter whether the parcel is wrapped in dusty or shiny paper, if the thing inside it is worthless, nobody wants it.