Dunkirk is a great war movie ­because it’s about people, not issues

Does history have to be about the present? I ask after seeing Christopher Nolan’s much-discussed Dunkirk, which is indeed as good as everyone says, among the best war movies ever made (he says in the heat of the moment).

The film covers events from May 26 to June 4, 1940, when 350,000 men, a large number of them French, were evacuated across the English Channel in perhaps the most celebrated defeat of all time.

Dunkirk opens with a group of troops making their way through the backstreets of the deserted city before the inhuman thud of German bullets cuts them down; only one, Tommy – played by 20-year-old Fionn Whitehead – leaps over gardens and roofs to make it to the Allied lines, where the French soldiers are grimly holding the rear behind sandbags. Bon voyage, l’Anglais, one mouths to him, signifying that it was the French Army that allowed the British to escape. Tommy then comes across the scene of thousands of men queuing on a beach, helpless against enemy fighters and wearily looking at the menacing sea. It is cinematically superb, filmed in 70mm to give that wide-screen effect, and uses almost no CGI, which is why the Spitfire dog-fights are thrilling in a way that brought out the dormant 14-year-old in me. (In reality the Channel was not this rough during June 1940, but it certainly adds to the tension.)

The film covers the land, air and sea in three separate, connected narratives. Back in Blighty Mark Rylance plays a humble Dorset man taking his small ship along with his son and young assistant; in the air Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden have just one hour’s flying time, and are hopelessly outgunned by the enemy because the decision has been made to preserve the bulk of the Royal Air Force for the forthcoming Battle of Britain.

Naturally, for a hugely grossing historical film tipped for Oscar success, Dunkirk’s meaning has been pored over by the Greater and Lesser Commentariat. In particular there has been much agonising about whether a war film about a highly mythologised national event can be ideologically correct. The question progressives often ask themselves about potentially retrograde art is: ‘‘Am I allowed to enjoy this?’’

Richard Brody in the New Yorker wrote that it was Nolan’s “tribute to the collective purpose, the national unity, the total mobilisation for a total war in which Britain’s very existence, the very existence of national culture, is at stake”. Others, however, were keen to distance the film from the heresy of nationalism: Quart magazine interpreted it as “a brilliant tribute to cross-border cooperation in a time of nativism” and suggested that “Opening a year after the UK narrowly voted for Brexit, Dunkirk is simultaneously a celebration of British patriotism and an appeal for collaboration with your global neighbours – and a reminder that the two ideals are not, and have never been, mutually exclusive.”

More comically, a reviewer in USA Today offered as a caveat that “the fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way”. Is this just one of those things people have to say to show they’re on board with the dominant ideology?

And yet it’s perfectly possible that Dunkirk doesn’t mean anything – maybe it’s not, you know, about Brexit. The film lacks any inner monologue or backstory, the characters never talk about why they are there – indeed they hardly talk at all – and the amount of dialogue on screen is dwarfed by the commentary on viewers’ iPhones, which is I suppose testimony to the director.

It is not even a war film as such, more a disaster epic with survival and escape being the objective, the tension ratcheted up by Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, all stopwatches and clanging ship pipes. Most of the soldiers aren’t heroic, they’re just doing what most of us would, trying to survive and get home.

In fact almost uniquely among great war films, it doesn’t reflect on the meaning of conflict. Saving Private Ryan was about Why We Fight; Das Boot was about comradeship even for an ignoble cause, and Downfall the sheer Wagnerian self-destruction of Nazism. These issues are entirely absent in Dunkirk, which is no worse for it. Why does art have to be about anything? More specifically, why does a film have to carry the orthodox political message – an idea the West has imported from the former Eastern bloc, where every piece of art had to express the prevailing ideology?

If there is an important theme it is the same one running through all Nolan’s films – the importance of strong fathers. His last work, the brilliant but flawed Interstellar, was about a man who travels to deep space to save a dying world, and the daughter who devotes decades to finding him; this time it is about Rylance’s stoic Mr Dawson, a softly spoken Dorset man who’s doing his bit without pleasure or enthusiasm because men his son’s age are dying. Mr Dawson is not going to blub all over the screen, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his son any less. And after the theatre of ammunition and lethal machinery has faded in the mind, what’s left is that most powerful of ideas, a father protecting his children.

This article first appeared in the August 4 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here