The evacuation of Dunkirk is a period of British and military history that we still have trouble parsing to this day. Watch enough World War 2 documentaries and you’ll see how even the most eloquent and knowledgeable experts struggle to discuss the event in terms beyond victory and defeat. We prefer our depictions of war to be on cleaner terms, with the lines between both elements clearly defined and easy to moralize. We like winners versus losers, and even the devastating cost of war should be preferably packaged in a way that makes it seem all worthwhile, regardless of the damage. The argument has been made numerous times that cinema can never truly capture the horror of war or do so without glamorizing it, because film is an inherently entertaining medium. War looks great on the big screen, all carefully choreographed explosions and mind-boggling blood effects and soaring violins that capture the emotion of the moment. It’s no wonder we all flock to it.
By some stunning coincidence, the past twelve months have seen the major releases of no fewer than three films centered on the Dunkirk evacuation: Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, and of course, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Each film has its critics, but overall they have all been very well received, with the latter two hot contenders for the coming awards season. Before they were even released to theatres, it was all but accepted that such stories would do well with those awards bodies. War films are good for Oscar gold.
The biggest bait of them all has to be Darkest Hour, specifically that leading performance by Gary Oldman as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It’s not just the role that wins awards; it’s the role that speaks for the nation, that provides us with such lofty expectations. The story follows Churchill has he ascends to the highest office in the land following the resignation of his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. Dunkirk is about to be evacuated, all hope seems lost as German forces dominate Europe, and his closest advisors insist the only way forward is to negotiate peace with the Nazis. The film is not as good as the sum of its parts, but you can’t help but wonder, as you watch it, if it could have been any other way. It hits every beat of the ‘inspirational war history’ drum, as expected, and with no surprises along the way. Gary Oldman’s performance is exactly what you think it’s going to be, while Wright’s direction is more focused in showing off every trick he knows than servicing an admittedly serviceable script. Indeed, he doesn’t seem all that interested in his leading man, even as the script heralds Churchill as a figure of immeasurable greatness. When Oldman gives that iconic speech that inspires a nation, you wonder what all the fuss is about.
Taking on Churchill is no mean feat. It seems like every British actor of vague respectability has played the role (and as John Lithgow showed in Netflix’s The Crown, even the Americans can give it a damn good shot). It just seems like the kind of thing you do once you’re a certain age in this industry. Oldman has been astounding in many roles, from Sid Vicious to George Smiley, but his Churchill is lacking. At times, he dotters around like a senile old coot who shouldn’t be left alone for too long, and when he gives those grandstanding speeches we know so well, the cadence and verve just isn’t there. Everyone knows what to expect with a Churchill performance - every actor seems to have a Churchill in their arsenal, like it’s an Elvis or Trump impersonation - and Oldman delivers all that you think he will. Separating all that history and culture from the performance itself is another matter altogether, but the film doesn’t really let him be anything beyond a symbol. This is not a film, or a director, all that concerned with Churchill or Dunkirk: Instead, it wants to evoke an icon. It works overtime to imbue the story, as scant as it is, with heft and nobility. In one wildly misjudged scene, where Churchill walks among the common plebs on the London Underground, the film abandons all notions of the Prime Minister being a mere mortal and positions him as an idol to fawn over. The lowly working classes practically fall at his feet, and an adorable moppet of a child insists that he never surrender or negotiate peace with the Nazis. They’re all too full of that good old Blighty spirit to imagine such things.
The faults of Darkest Hour feel all the more obvious following the stratospheric achievement of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Somehow, the critical and commercial smash has become something of an underdog in this unusual awards season. People seem keener to talk about what they imagine the film is like and what it represents than what it’s actually about. It’s easy to dismiss Nolan, a fiercely talented film-maker with a frequently over-zealous fan-base and a major blind-spot for writing women. The notion of him taking on a war movie, that most masculine of genres, had many rolling their eyes. Yet the film represents a new peak for his career, and some of the best film-making of the decade and more. Beyond the sheer technical dazzle of it all - the beautiful cinematography, the detailed practical effects, the panic-inducing score, and so on - there is a strong beating heart that punctures many a myth of the pain of war.
Churchill famously said of the evacuations, ‘we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.’ Dunkirk understands that keenly, and it’s a story that shows a long, tiring and ceaselessly tense battle for survival. The boys of Dunkirk - for they really are boys more than men - scramble for something, anything, that will get them off those beaches. They fake injuries, they pick a dying man off the beach and hope they’ll be able to accompany him on the medical ship, and they pretend to be people they aren’t. In any other war movie, they’d be billed as the cowards, but here, Nolan has complete empathy for their fight. Surviving is enough, and it will always be a good enough reason to keep going.
When that Churchill speech is finally given, read aloud from a newspaper by one of the evacuated soldiers, there is no triumph in his voice. The words are just words, not weaponised to their greatest effect as Darkest Hour tries to emulate. They’re merely second-hand platitudes that do nothing to calm the boys. All it does is remind them that the war isn’t over, and that they will inevitably be sent back out there. They may not make it back a second time. To never surrender is one thing when you’re drinking champagne every day; it’s quite another when you’ve been on the beaches.
Oft-forgotten from last year in this glut of Dunkirk movies, Their Finest offers a more feminine approach to the topic. Scherfig’s romantic drama - a lighter affair with plenty of fizz and an encouraging spirit that plays well to general audiences - focuses on the Ministry of Information’s efforts to make a movie of the Dunkirk evacuation that will inspire the masses. It’s a rousing movie about the beauty of rousing propaganda, and spinning a good yarn when the truth is less than satisfying. Darkest Hour tries its hardest to evoke the magic of good rhetoric but it’s Their Finest whose love of cinema and its bag of tricks that pulls it off best. The kind of film we Brits would describe as ‘handsome’, Scherfig’s story has plenty of room to comment on the film-making world as much as the war its protagonist must depict for audiences. Overall, it’s less concerned with Dunkirk itself than how history is used for various reasons - to inspire, to educate, to encourage political upheaval - but that’s what makes it such a stirring watch: It can’t help but be rather meta about the whole affair. Out of the three movies, it’s also the only one with any real concern as to how women contributed to the war effort. Women are present in all three films, but they’re active in Their Finest.
Fidelity to history is not a driving concern for any of the three movies discussed above. Dunkirk comes closest in that regard but even then, it’s more a film of sensation than documentation. Their Finest captures the feeling of good propaganda, and makes you cheer for it, while Darkest Hour fights to be more than its icon but has no meat beneath the dazzle. Our history is a mantle to be worn with responsibility and understanding, but that’s seldom the job of art. All we can ask is that the pain not be forgotten, and that entertainment be more than just that.