In Praise of the Dunkirk Trilogy

One can take heart that two truly worthy films have earned a total of 14 Academy Award nominations between them—two films with overlapping themes of personal courage, patience in adversity, and love of country. Come March 4, I hope they sweep their categories.

Christopher Nolan’s 2017 Dunkirk, with eight nominations, tells the story of the 1940 mass rescue of more than 300,000 doomed soldiers from three vantage points, over three different time-frames that thread together over the course of the 106-minute film. We see the desperation of the soldiers on the beach, looking for any way to get across the channel, back to a home they can almost see across the water. We watch aerial combat by a couple of RAF airmen with a desperately short amount of fuel and a well-armed foe. We see an older man and two teens aboard their small pleasure craft on the way to Dunkirk, rescuing one shell-shocked soldier tormented by the idea of going back in the wrong direction, to a bleeding and burning France.

For those who were displeased that the movie left politics (and Winston Churchill, specifically) out of the action, 2017 closed with the release of another film, Darkest Hour (six Oscar nominations) fills the void. Directed by Joe Wright, the actor Gary Oldman admirably plays Churchill during those brief days between his ascendancy to prime minister and Operation Dynamo, as the Dunkirk effort was formally called. The film’s debate centers on appeasement to Hitler and whether Churchill is the right choice for PM at the time. Its biggest criticism is the implication that the great man had internal doubts about his resolve and his country’s ability to withstand the Germans.

The movie’s controversial Underground scene, where he is bolstered by strong support from the British people as a sort of impromptu focus group, serves only to inspire him to stay true to his well-honed instinct. Perhaps politicians stateside need to try this tactic more often.

 

Against all odds, the Dunkirk rescue proved him right, and the right man for the job.

Just as Nolan tells the Dunkirk saga three ways—by land, by sea, and by air—we’re not getting the entire Dunkirk story without looking back three-quarters of a century to an earlier movie that, taken with the two more recent offerings, provides a truly three-dimensional approach to one of the greatest stories of the war: 1942’s Mrs. Miniver, directed by William Wyler. One could consider it Episode One of the Dunkirk trilogy.

Back in those halcyon days of Hollywood, the movie received six Academy Awards, including best picture, going up against such heavy competition as The Pride of the Yankees, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Wyler and Greer Garson picked up trophies, along with Teresa Wright as best supporting actress. Walter Pidgeon’s role as the doting husband was understandably overshadowed at the Oscars by James Cagney in his patriotic portrayal of George M. Cohan.

While filmed in Hollywood, Mrs. Miniver tells the story of a British family at the outset of the war, dealing with the Battle of Britain and a son who leaves Oxford to join the RAF. At one point, the father motors off in his boat to save soldiers at Dunkirk, and a wounded Nazi pilot finds his way to the Minivers’ suburban home, where he declaims emotionally on the power and success of the Third Reich, passes out, and is taken away by local police.

Death comes hard in Mrs. Miniver, with the passing not so much of soldiers, sailors and airmen—her son survives his missions—but of ordinary people, such as one of the stars, in a freak incident. As the film ends, the local vicar explains why this must be, in a sermon that echoes Churchill: “This is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom.”

This sermon, co-written by Wyler and the actor who played the vicar, Henry Wilcoxon, was reprinted in a magazine and broadcast on Voice of America at the request of President Roosevelt. A British actor living in Los Angeles, Wilcoxon had a brother who perished at Dunkirk; he himself signed up for the U.S. Coast Guard within minutes of learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Dunkirk operation is only a minor element of this film, but that’s the point here. What the movie does is set up for the audience an appreciation of what the British people were going through, and the courage and moxie with which they dealt with it, in an understated way that belies the film’s American pedigree.

While Mrs. Miniver takes place in 1940, in Britain, its release shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor (filming began less than a month before the attack) made it a perfect vehicle for providing fearful or ambivalent American filmgoers an example of wartime valor on the homefront. Speaking of the Miniver family and their fellow villagers, film historian Mark Harris writes in his 2014 book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, “War ennobles them, and the unity of a family and a town in the face of grave peril and loss becomes symbolically the unity of a country under siege.”

To a certain extent, this appears to reflect Aristotle’s idea that courage is best demonstrated at wartime, by the citizen-soldier: “Properly, then, he will be called brave who is fearless in face of a noble death, and of all emergencies that involve death; and the emergencies of war are in the highest degree of this kind,” he writes in Nicomachaen Ethics.

Despite the great debate circling around when and whether the United States should enter World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbor united the country in a way we did not see again until, perhaps, after the attacks of September 11—and then only too briefly. We easily remember how nearly every home flew a flag and Congress and the president nearly acted as one.

Today in our easily-distractible age, where every bright shiny object draws the eyes away, the memories of 9/11 unity linger off in the hazy short-term distance and we seem to have quickly forgotten that unity. What makes the Dunkirk story so compelling, and so fresh so many years later, is our latent interior aspiration for unity in our current state of significant political division. We seem to be on the path to becoming the house divided that Lincoln warned us about.

The Dunkirk story, admirably told from the triple perspective of the people (Mrs. Miniver), the politician (Darkest Hour) and the soldiers (Dunkirk), where bold and brave civilians played a major role in saving a nation’s military from an awful enemy, is so attractive to us for this reason. We need examples of the best sort of courage one only sees at wartime to inspire us toward lesser forms of courage in our daily lives.

K. E. Colombini

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K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in the National Catholic Register and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and two grandchildren.

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