There are pillars of smoke climbing over Dunkirk. There are people who have fled war on ramshackle boats, there is pain and there is death.
The scene is not May 1940 but April 2017 in the Grande-Synthe refugee camp by Dunkirk. Hundreds went missing after a night of fire. A year earlier I spoke to an aid worker who said his charity were banned from erecting better structures than flimsy wooden shacks.
The British tabloid press frame these people as an invasion more akin to the Wehrmacht than to the Dunkirk survivors now immortalised in Christopher Nolan's new blockbuster. They did the same in 1938; the Mail warned of German Jews "pouring" in through the "back door", and Spanish children brought here were the lucky ones not left fending for themselves in the Basque mountains (even though the Kindertransport is an argument deployed by refugee advocates now.) Nigel Farage has harnessed the Dunkirk legacy and yoked it to his narrow agenda.
But Dunkirk is more than a simple patriotic war story; it is a strange tale and the place it holds in our wartime mythology deserves examination. There are no shortage of British victories in the war to be lionised. Yet the tanks that pushed Rommel from Africa, the battleships protecting Atlantic convoys, even the D-Day landers, are squeezed from prominence by a romantic fixation on the defeats and near-misses of 1940: the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and the Dunkirk fishing boats.
Why celebrate a military defeat that required the strongest navy on Earth to corral fishermen in order to stop the British Expeditionary Force's annihilation? Why celebrate an event that left a few fighter squadrons defending the mainland before the carpet bombing of our cities? Perhaps it's a national obstreperousness that likes to focus on when Britain stood alone, not having to acknowledge their later dependence on American paratroopers and Soviet tanks.
It's possible that this fixation is something more, a desperate yearning to be the underdog. The underdog is not a role Britain gets to play - it had an empire that outgunned all opponents while pillaging and subjugating its way around the world.
Dunkirk provides an escape route to a different Britishness. It's palatable to the Mail because it's draped in Churchill memorabilia, but it speaks to something deeper than wartime kitsch. It's about the courage and solidarity of ordinary people, and their ability to succeed where the powerful fall short.
In observers it sparked a strange sentimentality - American author Gallico's contemporary novella, The Snow Goosehttps://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/19/winter-reads-snow-goose-paul-gallico, begins with the kindness displayed by a little girl toward a wounded goose on the Essex marshes and closes with the kindness of a lonely artist in a lighthouse toward soldiers trapped on the beaches; compassion that ultimately costs his life. Gallico appreciated that this was more than a simple battle story.
Nolan's film captures the sense of "miracle" at Dunkirk. The language of the battle is steeped in apotheosis; salvation and deliverance. But it's not Mons in WWI, where soldiers told tales of angels protecting them above. The real life plot twist is that the miracle is granted by ordinary men and women coming together. It is a rare war story where warriors are not the agents, but helpless subjects rescued by civilians. It upends everything we believe about war and that is what makes it such a compelling tale.
Nolan (and also Hans Zimmer, who has scored some of the most raw and honest portraits of WWII in Band of Brothers and The Pacific) understand this to an extent The long, languid, graceful shots juxtaposed with jarring cuts and screeching gunfire are all set to an eerie score that lends the film an otherworldly sense. It's part action film and part arthouse, the kind of account that could only be provided with sufficient distance from the war. The recitation of Churchill's speech at the end comes across incongruously: it is stirring, but remains insufficient.
But the retelling of Dunkirk falls short, for Nolan is an uncompromising reactionary. He's most recently known for The Dark Knight Rises and its mawkish scenes of police saving us from pastiches of revolutionaries (released in the US during the Occupy movement). His subject the triumph of the little people - but if there is a theme to his work, it's that "the people" can never be trusted. Here we still see far more soldiers than we do boat people.
In real life, a beleaguered government didn't have that luxury of mistrusting the masses; they mobilised them to the point where they had a known Communist militant advising on the creation of the Home Guard. Dunkirk began a wartime Britain where rationing levelled class divides, where the progressive Beveridge Report became one of the most circulated documents among soldiers, and where after the war people decided that the horrors of mass unemployment and crippling medical bills would be consigned to history with V2 rockets and blackout curtains. It marked a change in how we saw the world.
That history is now bitterly contested. On one hand the postwar government was far from perfect. Often memories of it skim over the troublesome bits and whitewash the racial diversity of the period. Meanwhile hardline conservatives invoke the Blitz Spirit mythology for their own ends - there's a short road from the little people to Little England. It's a road eagerly taken by Nigel Farage, who tells "youngsters" to watch Dunkirk and absorb his interpretation. Opposing talking heads in The Guardian have joined the fray, comparing the threat of Brexit to Dunkirk. Comparing historic battles to random current events is pointless, but it's true that the film is set against a question mark over national identity.
In it we find few answers, but more contested ground. As Jeremy Corbyn understands when he uses the Glasto stage to quote Shelley's poem about the Peterloo massacre (also the subject of a forthcoming film), every plan for the future needs a past to draw on. Those who say there is an archetypally British radical tradition in our history from the Diggers to Dunkirk are stretching it. But Dunkirk is still our story - a strange, multi-layered and defiant story - and is worth preserving for radicals as much as for anyone.
The collective strength, solidarity and initiative of working class people - from volunteers in the Spanish Civil War to the boat people of May 1940 - helped break the back of fascism and build a society better than the one before. From the choppy Channel in May 1940, a different Britain was faintly in sight. It can be now. If that defiant, risk-taking compassion is still present in our society, it can be channelled into helping those who need it now. That includes those who, seven decades on, lie trapped at Dunkirk waiting for salvation.