No, Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ doesn’t fail to honour France’s sacrifice

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. | Allied troops waiting to embark are sitting targets for the German air force in Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk".

Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed portrayal of the British army’s miraculous escape in 1940 has been criticised in France for ignoring the French army's heroic last stand that made it possible – a swansong postwar France was all too eager to forget.


In one of the opening scenes of “Dunkirk”, a fleeing British soldier, terrified and haggard, is allowed to scramble over a barricade manned by French soldiers. It is the last line of defence before the beaches of Dunkirk, where hundreds of thousands of troops have amassed, penned in by the German advance. As he files past the Frenchmen, the battered young Briton can barely withstand their glare. No words are exchanged, save a sardonic “Bon voyage l’Anglais”. The Brits are pulling out, leaving their allies to face certain defeat – alone.

Implicit in that single sequence is the notion that the extraordinary events that are about to unfold owe much to the defiant last stand of those French soldiers, without which the great escape to Britain would have failed. It is a story that remains largely untold, one that Nolan acknowledges but doesn’t dig into. Except in metaphor, his film never returns to this gallant defence, to the dismay of several French critics for whom the home nation’s part in the “miracle of Dunkirk” has once again been slighted.

More than 75 years on, there are, of course, more pressing issues to discuss than the relative merits of European nations caught up in “Operation Dynamo”, the extraordinary evacuation of 340,000 Allied soldiers, between May 26 and June 4, that is credited with enabling Britain to continue the fight against Nazi Germany. But the row over "Dunkirk" is not just about the “First World” concerns of history buffs eager for some recognition of their forefathers’ achievements. It touches on a highly sensitive – and largely neglected – episode in French history, the way it has been erased from the national memory, and how a filmmaker should go about tackling such a delicate subject.

‘Where are the French soldiers?’

In that respect, Nolan has singularly failed to honour his obligations to history, according to prominent film critic Jacques Mandelbaum and journalist Geoffroy Caillet, writing in Le Monde and Le Figaro respectively. Both have nothing but praise for the breathtaking sensorial experience delivered by the film. They pay tribute to Nolan’s trademark temporal and spatial elasticity, here built around the intertwining stories of characters who witness the evacuation from land, sea and air. The problem, they contend, is that all but one of the main characters are British.

"No one can deny a director's right to focus his point of view on what he deems fit, as long as it does not deny the reality it claims to represent,” writes Mandelbaum. “Where in the film are the 120,000 French soldiers who were also evacuated from Dunkirk? Where are the 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against an enemy superior in weaponry and numbers? [...] Where is even [the city of] Dunkirk, half flattened by bombs, and yet here invisible?"

While tempering his criticism with references to “the respect and eternal gratitude France owes its liberators”, Mandelbaum argues that the film’s disregard for the heroism of the French army amounts to “a stinging impoliteness, a dispiriting indifference”. On the subject of rudeness, he also notes that the French soldiers manning the barricades are portrayed as being “rather unfriendly” – as if soldiers in the thick of war could be expected to smile and say bonjour.

Caillet is even more scathing in his critique, writing that “Nolan’s focus is so narrow it allows no greater understanding of this episode than a GoPro fitted onto Napoleon’s horse would have informed us about the battle of Waterloo”. He also makes the dubious claim that Britain’s withdrawal had scuppered France’s planned counterattack and thus “directly paved the way for the defeat of the French army”, but that is an issue best left to historians.

“Nolan’s film is first and foremost a hymn to British survival, which glosses over the defection that made it possible,” Caillet writes. “Coming from a filmmaker who was so eager to celebrate the heroism and spirit of sacrifice of the French while promoting his movie, this [film] closely resembles what one would call, in the present military context, treason.”

Not a ‘war film’

In the run-up to the film’s release, the British-American director made it clear “Dunkirk” was not a “war film”, but rather a tale of survival. He said he approached the film “from the point of view of the pure mechanics of survival rather than from the politics of the event”. The result is a hybrid movie, that zooms in on the soldiers’ ordeal while eschewing the broader historical picture, as well as the strategising and bickering between French and British commanders that one might have expected.

While acknowledging that French characters are not the focus of the film, Nolan said it was important for him to pay tribute to their valorous defence, without which the evacuation would have failed. “The French don’t want to look at this history, seeing it only as a tale of defeat,” he said. “And yet the French troops displayed extraordinary bravery and spirit of sacrifice.”

For historian Paul Reed, the author of several books and documentaries on Dunkirk and other turning points in the war, it is unfair to claim Nolan has failed in this endeavour. Instead, he suggested the film would help dispel the notion, “widely held in Britain, that the French meekly surrendered at the very start of the war – when in fact they went on fighting for three weeks after the British evacuation.”

When tackling a historical subject, “a filmmaker has a responsibility to deliver a credible story, and this film certainly does that,” Reed told FRANCE 24. “[Nolan’s] story is about the British experience of Dunkirk, with a nod to the French resistance that made it possible,” he said. “It’s a film, not a documentary. It was never going to cover every aspect of what happened at Dunkirk.”

Regarding the lack of footage of the battle-scarred northern city, an issue raised by several critics of the film, Reed noted Nolan’s reluctance to use computer-generated imagery (CGI) in his film. “There are not enough men on the beach, not enough boats at sea, and not enough bombed-out buildings – but you simply can’t do all of that without CGI,” he said.

However, Reed did express reservations about a scene early on in the film in which French soldiers are aggressively turned away when trying to board a ship, suggesting it comforted the anti-British propaganda of France’s Nazi-allied Vichy Regime. “Vichy created a myth that the French were turned away by their allies,” he explained. “But the truth is tens of thousands of French troops were also evacuated” – though mostly after the British.

France’s unsung heroes

While Vichy exploited the escape at Dunkirk in its rhetoric against the “Perfidious Albion”, Nolan’s film gives us a very different narrative in the making, one that is indeed quintessentially British and underpins the country’s defiant stance throughout the war.

In his review of the film, Mandelbaum laments the director’s decision to make the “battle of Dunkirk (...) a purely English story” (incidentally there are plenty of Highlanders – i.e. Scots – too, though the nuance is generally lost on the French). But the film is not about the “battle”, which has already been fought and lost. It is about the miraculous evacuation, the stirring part played by civilian boats, and the spirit of defiance this helped forge across the Channel, delivering both the manpower and the morale boost that would allow Britain to fight on for another five years.

In the troubled days of Brexit, that narrative can easily be manipulated and distorted. As French military historian Jérôme de Lespinois wrote in an oped, Nolan's film “comforts the misplaced belief that the British are better off when facing the dangers of the world alone”. He added: “There is therefore no room for others in this history that willingly ignores the sacrifice of French soldiers.”

Does “Dunkirk” indulge in patriotic sentimentalism? Yes, particulary towards the end. Does it give the French a disproportionately small part? Certainly. Does it belittle their importance in the events, or disregard their valour? No, though the use of metaphor and the paucity of historical context may blur the message.

At the very least, Nolan’s work will have raised awareness of a largely forgotten chapter in French history. Even France’s ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, has weighed in on the subject, highlighting the French army’s critical role in defending the city of Lille and thereby delaying the German advance. “Dunkirk was not a British-only story,” he tweeted. “The French 1st army fought valiantly to stop the Germans and protect the evacuation.”

There is a wrenching scene in the film, in which a Frenchman scrambles to plug holes in a sinking ship full of Britons, even as he is engulfed by the surging water. It is a powerful allegory of France’s unsung sacrifice in and around Dunkirk. Ultimately, if that sacrifice remains unsung it is largely down to the French themselves, who in their rush to erase the stain of 1940 and its aftermath also erased the memory of their lost ones.

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