Monday, August 7, 2017


Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk emerged as the most popular movie ticket in the world on its opening weekend.  Dunkirk is a hit that has now grossed over $200 million worldwide.

This came as a surprise to many who had predicted that the film would only appeal to 50+ white males.  When I saw the movie on its opening weekend at the Cinerama theatre in Seattle I was seated between a black kid on one side and a woman with her Asian boyfriend on the other.  You can't really have a mega-hit movie with very narrow demographic appeal these days.

Winston and Union Jack
As a historian I find it encouraging that people in the 21st Century are still interested in the events of the past.  Dunkirk took place in 1940 and was central to the British experience of the war but is less well known among Americans.  Nor was Dunkirk either glorious or a victory.  As Churchill said (quoted effectively at the film's conclusion): "Wars are not won by evacuations."

What does explain the tremendous popularity of this film?  Why should an English retreat still have the power to capture new generations of movie-goers.  Nolan's film-making technique deserves enormous credit.  He paints the Dunkirk disaster with vivid colors and portrays the human misery that defined the event.  Harry Styles' legion of young fans has broadened the film's appeal.  Nolan's film is short on dialogue, short on plot and Nolan refuses to place the viewer into any kind of historical context.  Nolan, however, excels at presenting visceral and emotionally compelling action about the horrors of modern warfare.

If you seek a more conventional telling of the Dunkirk story there is always the 1958 Black and White Dunkirk (  This film stars John Mills and Richard Attenborough.  It also features the fine actor Benard Lee who played "M" in many Bond films.  It is a good telling of the Dunkirk story that does provide historical context for the events of Dunkirk.

An Army is supposed to provide defense and protection for a nation's people.  At Dunkirk it was the people who came to the rescue of their army.  The mosquito fleet sailed the Channel to bring their boys home.  Prior to Dunkirk, Britain remained a divided nation.  Many Britons were unsure what to make of the Phoney War or "Sitzkrieg" that endured from the fall of Warsaw in September 1939 until the invasion of France and the Low countries in May of 1940.  Dunkirk brought Britain together in much the same way that Pearl Harbor brought Americans together.

Afghanistan Memorial, WA state
The "All Pulling Together" unity of World War II is today a distant memory.  We are divided politically and in many other ways.  Over 300 million Americans pursuing happiness (or misery) in their own individual way.

Moreover, there is today in the West a disconnect between the people and the defense forces that fight and, sometimes die, to preserve their liberties.  Only around one percent of the American population serves in the military or defense industries.  Thousands of lives have been lost and trillions of dollars have been spent fighting the War in Afghanistan but the media pays scant attention.  The war in Afghanistan is now the longest running war in American history.  Senator McCain is right to point out that, "More than six months after President Trump's inauguration, there still is no strategy for success in Afghanistan."

The success of Nolan's Dunkirk is a sign of our deep nostalgia for the Unity and certitudes of World War II.

Christopher Kelly is the co-author with Stuart Laycock of America Invades, America Invaded, Italy Invades.  He edited An Adventure in 1914.

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TG said...

Chris, that is a nice review a film that I've been looking forward to seeing, and while I have never drawn the parallel, I would agree that Dunkirk galvanized Britain in a analogous manner to Pearl Harbor unifying the United States.

While you were quote of McCain is accurate, I would propose turn if you: is McCain wasn't so busy being a turncoat, RINO, that wedding-liberal bitch, mr. Trump might have more time to focus on a plan in Afghanistan. Additionally, should Mr. McCain bother to look around for a written "plan for success" from the previous administration he will search in fucking vain.

The last paragraph is, of course, just wanted my opinion, I could be wrong.

Steve said...

Good blog!

I watched the movie with my 2 boys, 11 and 15. They LOVED it! My youngest seems to have a fascination with history and key historical figures and events.

I tend to agree with you on all counts!

J Hooper said...

A three-quarters thumbs up for Dunkirk. An eye-level, slice-of-time telling of the story is certainly at the heart of Dunkirk's appeal. Which, as you said, makes the film broadly compelling.. However, for those who know the context and scale of the story, execution of the movie was much too thin. I've read 'film' was used instead of digital cameras in order to achieve a more vintage feel. Dunkirk' beaches were a crowded, debris strewn mess. Digital/CGI technology may have helped better convey the epic scale of the event. Finally, to your point about Afghanistan - I had to remind a friend recently President Trump inherited the wars from Mr. Obama, not Bush; an important distinction.

Unknown said...

How does the so-called Phoney War or "Sitzkrieg" compare to the otherwise extenuated war in Afghanistan that was damningly precipitated by a massive civilian causality count of 3k?

That aside, a beautiful tribute by a native: