As of this writing, “Dunkirk” has been out for over a week, and so far, the reception has been positive. Christopher Nolan’s historical war drama brought in over $50 million on opening weekend, according to “Forbes,” and is sitting comfortably with scores of ninety-four on Metacritic and 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. However, no movie is without criticism, and “Dunkirk” has been receiving some in a very unexpected way: French and Indian journalist have voiced complaints about being underrepresented in the film.
These criticisms raise multiple questions. Is “Dunkirk” an accurate depiction of the battle, or is the Anglo-American director giving an overly pro-British retelling of events? Are these justified grievances or individuals finding an insult where none existed? Does the film have an obligation to be true to events, or is a discussion of historical accuracy missing the entire point? And most importantly, why is this movie receiving more criticisms than other similar depictions of the war?
Consider this your official spoiler warning.
The whole debate began with an article in the French newspaper “Le Monde.” As multiple sources, including the “New York Post” and “The Telegraph” reported, prominent French critic Jacques Mandelbaum criticized “Dunkirk” for inadequately representing the French involvement during the evacuation. Similarly, in an article in the “Times of India,” reporter Manimugdha S. Sharma criticized the film for overlooking the contribution of British colonial forces in general and Indians in particular.
Sharma’s criticism is probably the easier to unpack of the two. In his article (which, unlike Mandelbaum’s, is in English, so there’s no excuse not to read it), the critic points out that four companies from what is now Pakistan, but was then part of British India, were present as a component of the British Expeditionary Force. There were evacuated along with the rest of the British Army, though the fourth was left behind along with the thousands of others who were ultimately forced to surrender. Granted, they were arguably a small enough minority of the British army that someone could conceivably go the the entire battle without encountering them directly; still, there’s no reason the film couldn’t have shown a few.
For example, in the scene in which the protagonist is wandering around the beach looking at all the soldiers lining up by regiment, one or two could easily have been made up of Indians without sacrificing anything. Unless it would have been drastically more expensive to higher enough extras of Indian or Pakistani descent than one might expect, there was no reason they couldn’t have been included.
Mandelbaum’s criticisms, on the other hand, take a little longer to dissect. It’s worth noting that most of his review is actually quite positive, praising Nolan’s ability to transmit the feeling of fear and desperation to the audience. He said in his review, “From the sole point of view of this sensation transmitted, Dunkerque [sic] would be a success.” However, he said that as an introduction to his first major criticism of his countrymen’s portrayal.
The French soldiers’ heroic defense of the city, in which almost three thousand of their number were killed or wounded, is almost entirely glossed over. Mandelbaum also felt that most of the few French soldiers shown were depicted as “not very friendly,” and he complained that the only prominent French character was a soldier who had stolen a dead Englishman’s uniform to escape the battle. Lastly, Mandelbaum demanded to know why the city of Dunkirk, which had been devastated by German aerial bombardments, was almost completely absent from the film.
These are all fair points, although a few of them could be debated. First, there is the matter of the French being portrayed as unfriendly and/or cowardly. The first scene in the film has several British soldiers patrolling, or more accurately scavenging, the city, when a passing German plane begins dropping leaflets demanding the surrender of the cornered Allied army. Almost immediately, they are ambushed by unseen Germans, leaving only one survivor. The survivor, Tommy, jumps a fence, runs down an alley and is nearly killed by friendly fire when trying to cross the French line. Hackneyed joke about friendly fire not being friendly aside, the French soldiers didn’t come across as all that hostile. Annoyed perhaps, at the stupid Englishman who ran out into their line of fire, but given the circumstances that seems like a reasonable reaction.
The point about the sole Frenchman in the principle cast trying to sneak away from the battle is perhaps a more justified grievance. Jokes about the French being cowards are nothing new and are largely attributed to France’s decision to capitulate after the Germans took Paris. After more than half a century of jokes, it is understandable to be a little touchy about such things.
Context is everything however, and the French deserter wasn’t the only one who acted less than honorably in the name of survival. Shortly after being introduced, he and Tommy put a corpse on a stretcher to try and sneak onboard a hospital ship that is preparing to depart. Both are eventually forced off the boat anyway, so they climb under the pier in order to stow away on the next ship. By this point, it has been stated multiple times that, despite Churchill’s promise to the contrary and the distaste of several officers, the British are not interested in evacuating any Frenchmen at that time. In fact, it isn’t until the very end of the movie that the British commit to evacuating the French soldiers as well. If Tommy, who had a better chance of being evacuated the proper way, is still sympathetic after trying to smuggle himself aboard the ship, how is the unnamed Frenchman any less so?
The idea that reality and truth are not necessarily the same thing pops up often in the discussion of art and literature.
While Mandelbaum may have been exaggerating the degree of active disrespect Nolan showed toward the French people, his other complaints are quite accurate. Apart from the opening scene, Dunkirk itself is entirely absent from the movie. Columns of black smoke on the horizon are the only signs of a city undergoing heavy aerial bombardment, something that seems like a major oversight. Some of the scenes with the officers coordinating the evacuation mention how the battle is going, but the fight itself is never shown. The audience is told of the French soldiers’ desperate struggle to hold the line, but never sees it, and the plight of Dunkirk’s civilian inhabitants is completely ignored. This is an issue, and Mandelbaum is right to bring it up.
The British employed over a thousand ships in the evacuation, losing hundreds of them. According to Patrick Wilson of “History Today,” “The Navy too had paid a heavy price for its heroics. Six destroyers, five minesweepers, eight transport ships and a further 200 vessels had been sunk, with an equal number badly damaged.” The film meanwhile, gives the impression of maybe fifty to a hundred ships total. Similarly, the air battle, which cost the British and German air forces a combined total of well over three hundred and sixty planes, is in the film portrayed as having involved less than a dozen. Taking this into account, it seems that the French contribution was not disrespected, but that in an effort to tell a more personal story, some of the scale of the event was lost.
However, it’s important to remember that “Dunkirk” is not a documentary and never claimed to be. All of the characters seen in the film are fictional, being either entirely fabricated or a composite of multiple real people. Nolan, who acknowledges that the film was not 100 percent historically accurate, was trying to capture the spirit of the events rather than the events themselves. The idea that reality and truth are not necessarily the same thing pops up often in the discussion of art and literature. The goal of the film was to capture the experience of living through the evacuation, and it was most likely assumed, perhaps correctly, perhaps incorrectly, that such an experience would be much the same no matter what language the characters speak.
Is “Dunkirk” a bad movie for not including more non-English characters? No, of course not. However, they might have made an already great film even better, or at least more accurate to the events being depicted. While these omissions don’t necessarily damage the film, they still represent a lost opportunity.