Christopher Nolan’s war movie is as intriguing for what it leaves out as what it puts in.
On May 10, 1940, just a few months after the outbreak of World War II, an aging and alcoholic aristocrat, descended from one of England’s most distinguished military leaders, the first Duke of Marlborough, was summoned back to power after a decade of political exile, and named Britain’s Prime Minister.
At 65 years old, he seemed well past his prime and was thought by many to be one of the great failures of political life, an extremist whose judgment had more often proved wrong than right. A former army officer and war correspondent (whose writing, rather than his war efforts, would one day win him a Nobel Prize), he had proved a disaster as a World War I Cabinet member, the man held most responsible for a foolhardy allied attack on the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli, an attack that backfired catastrophically, resulting in around 250,000 casualties on each side.
Forced out of office, he had scratched his way back to become Chancellor of the Exchequer (equivalent to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury), only to blunder again in 1925, returning the pound to the gold standard and triggering deflation in the lead-up to the Depression. Once more, he was pushed out, this time into the wilderness, presumably never to return.
Just as there are no second acts in American lives, so there are next to none in British politics. Having already had two, it was almost certain he would be denied a third. Instead, he stayed on the sidelines, a mad dog howling at the moon, barking about the wrong-headedness of home rule for India, and protesting King Edward VIII’s desire to abdicate and marry “the woman I love.”
He was on the wrong side of history. And then suddenly he was on the right side.
It was Winston Churchill who trumpeted the dangers of a brown-shirted group of thugs that had seized power in Germany, louder and clearer than anyone. He was England’s Cassandra, only now, after years of having his prophecies ignored, everyone believed him. When the previous Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, saw his Munich Agreement collapse and the promise of “peace for our time” founder, Chamberlain was out and Churchill was in. The great failure of British politics had become its greatest success.
Churchill looms, gargantuan, over any story about the British at war. Which is what makes his absence from Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk so astonishing. I say that, not because it’s a mistake, but because it’s one of the most remarkable things about his altogether remarkable film.
Just as we never see the enemy (imagine pitching a war story where you don’t meet the bad guys), so we never encounter this leviathan who towered not just over a war but over a century, who has come to embody the quintessence of leadership and resilience. Churchill’s stentorian tones — those distinct cadences that have helped define World War II to post-war generations, as well as his own — are never allowed to intrude, and the only time when his words pierce our consciousness is at the very end of the film, when we’re reminded of one of his most memorable speeches, given days after the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Speaking in the House of Commons — concerned that this near-defeat not be white-washed as a victory, and yet knowing he needed to rally his troops — who’d survived in large part because Germany had halted its soldiers’ advance too soon — Churchill declared, with beauty and brevity: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
In Nolan’s Dunkirk, it’s not Churchill who speaks those words. Instead, a young soldier newly returned from battle reads them out loud in a hesitant and stumbling voice on the train that’s bringing him home, having only just them — just as so many others did then — in the newspaper of the day.
Nolan admires Churchill enough to allow him at least this; but all words — even that master’s — are secondary to images and sounds in the Nolan universe. Dialogue vanishes; speech is ineffective or barely audible; the central tools of communication itself mean nothing in the grip of war.
Nor are words alone of minor importance. In keeping Churchill offstage, Nolan is effectively giving us his own view of history: That, grand as they are, Great Men matter no more than ordinary ones.
History has this director in its thrall. But it’s not the history of dukes and duchesses, of paladins and power players; it’s the history of the common man.