Hugh Sebag-Montefiore: Poetic licence used but ‘Dunkirk’ echos true drama of evacuation

Defeated British and French troops waiting on the dunes at Dunkirk to be picked up by ships and taken to England. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Defeated British and French troops waiting on the dunes at Dunkirk to be picked up by ships and taken to England. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
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If a film director takes on the onerous task of portraying one of this country’s most famous evacuations, he should not be surprised to find that cinema-goers expect him to keep poetic licence in check.

However when six British soldiers walk down a deserted but pristine Dunkirk street - where not so much as a pane of glass has been cracked - in the very first scene of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster film, it is immediately clear that melodrama is going to trump inconvenient facts: anyone who knows anything about Operation Dynamo could have told the director that just about every window in every street had been smashed by the time the evacuation was under way at the end of May 1940, and the streets were full of bombed and burned out houses.

The historical scene-setting is no more accurate. Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay is not permitted to stay in Dover, from where he directed Operation Dynamo. Christopher Nolan has his Vice Admiral speed over from England to the Dunkirk ‘mole’ (the main jetty), to deliver his message in person to Kenneth Branagh’s piermaster.

The dialogue between the two men is equally unauthentic. Ramsay’s pessimistic forecast about the number of troops he could rescue was made at the beginning of the evacuation. Churchill’s decision to let one Frenchman be evacuated for every British soldier rescued was taken towards the end. Yet in the film these topics are rolled into one conversation.

There are many other anomalies. In the film, as well as taking centre stage on hospital ships, women appear at Dunkirk on some of the little ships, although I never encountered any in the course of my research. The RAF deploy in a group of three planes, notwithstanding the real life decision to deploy in much larger, multi squadron, formations. And the hero of the film appears to be reading out Churchill’s ‘We will fight them on the beaches’ speech the day before it was delivered!

And yet this wonderful film, which is a cross between the best of the silent movies and a meladramatic Wagnerian opera, complete with expressive thematic music so that a picture of every action is painted aurally before it is seen on screen, is full of touches which echo the true dramas I unearthed when writing my Dunkirk book.

I almost wept when George, the teenager in the film, who has been mortally wounded on the little ship that is heading for Dunkirk, spits out his last words, not because they are spoken in a particularly moving way, but because they echo a poignant true life scene: after Harold Potter, an 18-year-old sailor in the merchant navy, was blown to kingdom come with all the other men serving on the cockle boat Renown by an exploding mine, his father revealed how much being part of the rescue meant to him. Harold believed he was a failure when he was at school, although this was partly because of recurrent illnesses. But shortly before he left, he told his father that one day he would do something to make the school proud of him. When his parents received the letter telling them that Harold had ‘done well’, and had ‘died doing his duty helping to evacuate troops from the coast of Belgium’, they were comforted that he had done something which, had he lived, would have made him proud of himself.

I was equally mesmerised by the way Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, the civilian in charge of the motor launch heading for Dunkirk, dealt with the German plane that swooped towards his defenceless little ship. In the best traditions of British servicemen with their backs to the wall who hold their fire until it can deliver the biggest dividend, he told his son to keep on steering the boat along its current course until the screaming German plane was almost upon them, only at the very last minute ordering the boy to wrench round the tiller, taking the boat out of harm’s way. It mirrored the action taken on Sundowner, one of the little ships whose exploits are recounted in the little ships file in London’s National Archives.

Likewise there was a ring of truth about the scuffle between the British and the French as British officials sought to exclude French soldiers from the mole. The same applies to the threat by the character played by Harry Styles to shoot a Frenchman who had been sheltering with the Brits on a stranded ship. Documents I found in the French archives describe how there really were scuffles between allies on the beaches, and how one group of French soldiers were put up against a wall and shot because they were believed to be spies.

But perhaps the most telling scene in the film was when the rescued British soldiers looked out of their train window to find a group of schoolboys playing beside the railway track as if the war had never started. This could not have been more realistic. I remember reading an account by a young British lieutenant who, having overcome almost insuperable odds to get back to Dunkirk and then Britain, was overwhelmed by the feeling of joy as he watched cricketers dressed in white on their village greens and girls in summer blouses playing tennis ‘as if there was no war.’

The updated paperback and a new audiobook of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk: Fight To The Last Man is published by Penguin. The paperback of his book on the Battle of the Somme will be published in November