England expects that every man shall do his duty and see Christopher Nolan's blockbuster film, Dunkirk, this summer.
After watching this movie, it is somewhat surprising to read that in certain places on this blessed isle, the 'Spirit of Dunkirk' is even mentioned in the same breath as Brexit, supposed evidence of what success Brits can achieve when 'going it alone'. It is said to be even a kind of justification for a forthcoming 'glorious isolationism' post Brexit. The Guardian reports that, "The Dunkirk analogy has already been trotted out by leave campaigners" referring also to a previous article penned by a Tory minister stating that, "The spirit of Dunkirk will see us thrive outside of the EU". What rubbish.
Seeing this thrilling though devastating movie and looking at the historical facts, the message you might take away from it is much greater than that, and hardly relates to 'going it alone', at all. If one can endure the first full hour of unrelenting suffering, there is a moral to the story in this highly acclaimed portrayal of one chaotic victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.
During WWII in 1940, British expeditionary forces and allied troops faced annhilation by the Germans at Dunkirk. Troops were cut off, surrounded and isolated, hence retreat across the Channel was the only hope. In the end, Operation Dynamo succeeded in saving over 300,000 men when only 30,000 were actually expected to be rescued. And this due to the sheer pluck, grit and guts of those in the flotilla of 800 boats, including British destroyers, civilian merchant ships, and hundreds of fishing boats and "little ships".
Just think now of taking your pleasure craft at least 35 miles across the unpredictable, choppy seas of the English Channel (just crossing on P&O makes me ill sometimes) and that whilst under fire from the Luftwaffe. Then loading it up with desperate, wounded, dying soldiers. What ever made those small-craft owners do it and how ever did they succeed? No wonder Churchill himself called it a "miracle of deliverance". But maybe it is not so inexplicable after all.
The explanation for survival and success is inherent in the very many human details of this moving story, not the least of which includes the moral dilemmas which inevitably abound: Who goes first? Who stays and perishes? What about the French and the Dutch who also want to live to see another day? And the fact that seven men standing can take the place of one stretcher for the wounded.
In Churchill's own words: "We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations". So, what is the point of recollecting Dunkirk in IMAX or 2D?
Dunkirk, the movie, is about many things: yes it's a testament to the courage and sheer will of the British people to survive this unexpected and near terminal set back in the earliest stages of the war. But it is especially about human beings, being human: showing courage and fear, compassion and mercilessness, self-sacrifice and self-interest, bravery and terror, mindless separative nationalism vs. humane inclusiveness, heroism and despair... the lot.
But in the end what won it, was the overriding prevalence and power of those positive aspects of every man's nature. Think about it: banding together, on air, sea and land with all the negatives present, ultimately led to their survival, to a kind of victory.
Walking out of the cinema, rattled and shell-shocked, with Churchill's words ringing in my ears, "We shall never surrender", a further grasp of this film as metaphor comes to mind. Men of all types, shapes, and sizes, afloat on the sea, bearing untold suffering, obstacles and adversity at every turn, desperate to survive. It not only poignantly reminds us of the desperation of refugees everywhere, finding hope, home or hopelessness, depending on the response of their fellow men. But it can also be viewed as a testament to something else. Whether it's working together to stop climate change, poverty, or war, this film can be seen as a metaphor for the struggle of survival we face on planet Earth and the preciousness and fragility of life thereon.
Upon the cosmic seas are we, on this troubled planet, now afloat. And what are the only saving factors? That man adheres to his 'better angels' and that we "take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures", working together for the benefit of the whole, as in any survival story.
Glorious isolationism? Studying history, science, nature, anything, you will look hard to find anything or anyone that is not connected to something or someone else, and instead works in isolation, going it alone.
President Emmanuel Macron said: "I want to make our planet great again", referring to the need for a massive, collective, global effort. And yes, for our survival. Something to keep in mind when you watch and are moved by the Spirit of Dunkirk: the living proof that indeed, no man, no nation, is an island.