Dunkirk, Brexit and the New Propaganda

PERHAPS the best description of the evacuation of Dunkirk comes in the first volume of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, Adolf Hitler, My Part in his Downfall. While on his basic training in Sussex, Milligan asks a veteran what it had been like. ‘Like, son?’ comes the reply. ‘It was a fuck up. A highly successful fuck up.’

There’s not much of that sense of that irreverent, some might say black, but nonetheless very British outlook in Christopher Nolan’s new film which is terribly square-jawed, clear-eyed, earnest and stoic. Perhaps this can be excused because it portrays the heat of the action, rather than a jaundiced recollection after the event, as in the Milligan anecdote.

In terms of pure cinema, I’m not convinced that Dunkirk quite works. It’s been described as Nolan’s masterpiece but I’m not sure I agree. I’d argue that Nolan, as a writer and director, while having brought some fascinating ideas and themes to essentially mainstream cinema, has never quite lived up to the early promise of his best film, Memento.

Dunkirk, to me, fails because it deliberately keeps the human aspect of the story at arms’ length. The panoramic sweep of the action across the Channel is reflected in the decision to never dwell for too long on one character’s experience of the events unfolding around them. One can understand the logic of this move. This was a drama bigger than any one person, Nolan is saying, but ultimately it leaves the experience of watching this film rather flat. For instance, take the example of the young boy who is left blinded and ultimately dies as a result of the cowardice of an army officer. That’s powerful stuff, or should be. But it somehow fails to make any kind of an impact, largely because the boy’s character has been so roughly sketched out that Nolan has failed to develop any sympathy for him.

The rest of the film’s characters are drawn with similarly broad brushstrokes. Mark Rylance is the quiet English Everyman stepping up to do his bit. Cillian Murphy is the aforementioned Coward. Kenneth Branagh is the honourable and dependable Officer, channelling a long (and fine) tradition that encompasses everyone from John Gregson to Jack Hawkins. And Tom Hardy is the square-jawed Spitfire pilot who’s so impossibly rugged and dependable that he makes Biggles look like the effete fop that he no doubt was.

So, what was Nolan’s intention in making this film if he wasn’t particularly interested in the human dimension. Well, for one thing it is a long-standing fault in his work to my mind. He’s great at often mind-bending concepts but I find his actual character work, his understanding of human psychology and emotion a bit on the weak side. And in Dunkirk I think his intentions are undoubtedly more cinematic. Some of the film’s set pieces are undeniably impressive and can get a clear impression of the sheer clear, blue scope of the Channel as the various characters traverse it.

This does not, by the way, mean that the film is pointless, or a shallow exercise in stylistics. We’ve all grown up with the films set in this era, many of which have easily passed the test of time, but which suffer from the limitations of the film technology of the time. There’s something exciting about seeing these kind of stories given the modern treatment. (Personally, I’d now like to see someone tackle a modern take on surviving the Blitz or perhaps a bombing run over Dresden – which would offer up some interesting moral condundrums for the 21st century filmmaker.)

But regardless of Nolan’s intention, and whether he likes it or not, the film has found itself caught up in a wider cultural phenomenon. Let’s call it the New Propaganda and it includes other recent releases such as Their Finest, Viceroy’s House, the upcoming Victoria and Abdul and perhaps even the recent remake of Dad’s Army.

What is it these films have in common, aside from being British? (Although that classification is an incredibly complicated one within the context of the internecine nature of modern film financing, but for the sake of argument, let’s call them all British.) Some of them are set in Imperial India, some during World War II. Some are dramas, some ostensibly comedies. What they have in common is, in fact, Brexit.

 The events of Dunkirk are exceptional. They might have been a retreat, a reversal, but they are also a stunning testament to the resilience, the sheer indomitability, of the English people

Dunkirk is perhaps the clearest example of the phenomenon. For what is essentially a defeat (or perhaps because it is), it’s an event that has left a deep scar on the English psyche. As it perhaps should have. (It’s no coincidence that the Brexiteers wanted to campaign for their cause by sailing a flotilla of ships up the Thames, to directly challenge the ‘Dunkirk spirit’.)

Some commentaries have accused the film of being English exceptionalism but this, I think, misses the point. The events of Dunkirk are exceptional. They might have been a retreat, a reversal, but they are also a stunning testament to the resilience, the sheer indomitability, of the English people. It’s a moment in their history of which they can be justifiably proud. And there’s nothing wrong with celebrating that and this film does just that, and does it incredibly well.

But Dunkirk also did much to form the British character for the next 70-odd years and beyond. It left them with a profound feeling of isolation, that they were the only thing standing between the world and the oncoming waves of fascism. That, and the subsequent slow disintegration of Empire, would end up being the primary forces that formed Brexit. The ambivalence towards Europe that is now reaching a head now has definite roots in the events of 1940, in a defining moment that was simultaneously a brilliant victory and a crushing defeat, a schizophrenic paradox that haunts the English to this day.

Dunkirk, the film, and the others mentioned above are tapping into something of that ambivalence. Or rather into the attendant nostalgia. As Brexit unfolds, there’s a growing need for reassurance that the right decision has been made, that it’s all going to OK. This is why we’re seeing a rash of films that lionise the Blitz spirit, or seek to reframe Indian colonialism in terms of a cute-and-cuddly, benevolent paternalism. It’s a desperate need to see a pre-EU Britain, which is understandably seen as the template for what will come after, as being a good and healthy place to be.

This brings us to a couple of important points. The first is that unlike in say the war years there’s no Whitehall department directing all this, commissioning movies of a particular ideological bent. No, it’s more a serendipitous (depending on your point of view) tapping into the spirit of the age. This is something that happens in cinema now and again. American cinema of the early to mid 1970s, for example, has a distinctly cynical and downbeat feel that is a largely unprompted reaction of Vietnam and Watergate. But it’s often indistinguishable from the sense of directed ideology that propaganda cinema can provide. (This all depends, of course, on your definition of ‘propaganda’ — the extent to which you consider pre-determined intention to be a factor, or whether falling within the scope of a particular ideological outlook is enough of a qualifier).

The second point that’s worth bearing in mind is that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with propaganda cinema as such. Perhaps a worthwhile comparison for Nolan’s Dunkirk is Noel Coward and David Lean’s In Which We Serve. IWWS is a piece of naked propaganda, based loosely on Mountbatten’s early war career. There’s much wrong with it, particularly the horribly dated class-based condescension of Coward and his wife (played by Celia Johnson), but there’s also much to commend it, even all these years later.

In Which We ServeThere are a great many reference points between the two films. The first is Dunkirk itself, the events of which also feature in IWWS, as the ship around which the film is based, the HMS Torrin, is despatched to the evacuation. There are others, of course. Both also have the tropes of the decent working class hero, the coward who loses their nerve, the pathos of those who don’t make it.

IWWS doesn’t have a message beyond the need for unity in wartime, the celebration of a country pulling together. The closest the film has to an actual villain is Richard Attenborough’s sailor who loses his nerve in the heat of battle. It is this sense of celebration, in the focus on the small moments away from the battle that give the film its lasting power – John Mills’ gentle courtship of Kay Walsh in train carriages and cafes, Coward’s snatched moments with his family, Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy’s obsession with the bulbs in his garden – and are what make it still a worthwhile watch today. They, in fact, chronicle a way of life that has now completely gone. (Coward and Lean’s other main collaboration This Happy Breed is memorable for the same thing.)

In IWWS, Coward and Lean effortlessly achieve what Nolan reaches for but doesn’t quite manage, the human cost, and the human value, at the heart of events such as these, no matter how vast and world-changing they might be. Compare Attenborough’s nerve-losing sailor with Cillian Murphy’s equivalent. It’s no reflection on either actor that one elicits our sympathy and the other does not. And it’s nothing to do with screen time either – Murphy actually gets more than Attenborough – but in the writing. Nolan is more interested in spectacle. Not that Lean is any slouch in that direction either – this is the director of Lawrence of Arabia, after all – but he is still careful to put in the character work, which is something that Nolan seems to put less effort into.

Nolan has a deserved reputation as an innovatory director, from the use of IMAX cameras to the mind-bending effects of Inception to the fragmented narrative of Memento, but Dunkirk’s problem is that it just isn’t experimental enough. It’s possible that he felt more awed by the source material than he perhaps should have. IWWS did not quite have that burden of history upon it – its burdens were a bit more immediate – but it did have a message to impart. Dunkirk, for all its technical brilliance, does not really know what it wants to say other than be ‘about Dunkirk’. You might argue that’s enough but I’m not sure I’d agree.

There’s a point to be made here about the often innovatory side of propaganda. There are many movies of the war years that transcend their original function to provide become significant art. IWWS probably does not wholly qualify. Narratively speaking, it’s often quite a pedestrian film and the central conceit of the survivors of the sinking of the Torrin flashbacking through their lives as they cling to the wreckage is something of an arch and theatrical one.

But let’s take a look at some contemporaries of Coward and Lean, also working within the framework of ‘cinema to aid the war effort’. Any serious examination of British cinema really has to begin with Powell and Pressburger — they are probably the greatest film artists the UK has ever produced — and many of their most impressive works fall quite clearly within the remit of ‘war propaganda’. A Matter of Life and Death, for example, was clearly designed to encourage the US to enter the war, as well as to minimise the British antipathy to the concept. But it is also a work of magic, ethereal beauty and incurable romanticism. And it’s one of those works of art that everyone should see in their lifetime.

But for me Powell and Pressburger’s greatest work is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The unpromising title comes originally from a popular cartoon strip of the time, although that is largely where the similarity ends. (The term ‘blimp’ is probably lost on most modern viewers, but think of Ballard Berkeley’s Major in Fawlty Towers and you’re just about there.)

From ostensibly a movie adaptation of cartoon strip, P&P created a finely wrought and romantic examination of the English character at war and peace, from the Edwardian age to the Second World War as it follows Clive ‘Sugar’ Candy’s military career from the Boer War to semi-retirement (and humiliation, in his eyes) in the Home Guard. Funded in part by the War Office, Whitehall soon began to have second thoughts about the film and Churchill himself tried to have it suppressed.

You can at least partially see why. Something that Powell and Pressburger excelled at was creating antagonists, often Germans, who were rounded, nuanced and wholly human characters. This is fine after the war in films like 1956’s Battle of the River Plate but it was a different matter during the war where unambiguously evil but still compelling Nazi villains like Eric Porter’s Ernst Hirth in 49th Parallel were more the order of the day.

The main German character in Blimp is no Nazi but he is possibly the most sympathetic character within the film. Often P&P’s secret weapon was the actor Anton Walbrook — who puts in the most incredible performances in the likes of 49th Parallel, The Red Shoes and here, in his best performance as Theodor Kreschtmar-Schuldorff. His weary acceptance of his new status as a German refugee at the local police station, for example, is one of the best monologues ever committed to celluloid.

It is perhaps understandable that the War Office might be uneasy at such a nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of the Enemy but what I suspect really stuck in their craw was the Roger Livesey’s portrayal of Candy himself who, especially in his later years, is a thinly veiled representation of if not Churchill himself then many of the values of the ‘Bulldog spirit’ that he at this time chose to embody.

It should be noted that Churchill (or his ideas) are not being attacked here. (Candy is always ‘dear, lovely Clive’.) But they are being engaged with critically. The idea that the Allies won the First World War through an adherence to fair play and gentlemanly conduct is clearly debunked in the form of the brutal South African Van Zijl. Worse still, Theo makes a speech to Clive, laying bare some home truths to Clive that can only really be seen as a criticism of the myths that Churchill had been attempting to sow through the British character. For a piece of ostensible propaganda, it’s less uncritical flag-waving and more an early example of realpolitik. It’s also probably the most nuanced, articulate and intelligent piece of British cinema ever.

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