History on Film: Entertainment or Accuracy?

DR TIM BENBOW 

Warning: contains spoilers for the film ‘Dunkirk’, and unashamedly subjective opinions on several other films…

Historians are, I understand, notorious for offering their opinions (sought or otherwise) on the accuracy of films or television shows that touch on real events.  Astonishingly, these informed views are not always welcomed by the people watching with us.  It is therefore a refreshing experience to actually be invited to comment on a film: BBC Culture is currently featuring a series in which historians discuss where particular films were close to historical events and where they were further away, and they asked me to look at ‘Dunkirk’.

Many films have attracted criticism and even scorn from academic and general-interest historians alike. Some have been appallingly cavalier with historical events, such as ‘U-571’ (in which a US warship is credited with what was in fact a Royal Navy achievement), ‘Braveheart’ (which, among a long list of transgressions, shamelessly appealed to Scottish nationalism and American prejudice by transforming William Wallace from an armoured noble into a woad-painted, kilted commoner), or ‘The Patriot’ (which ascribes SS atrocities from the Second World War to British forces in North America). Others, of course, submerge any history that happens to be present beneath a dreadful script (cough, ‘Pearl Harbor’, cough).

Yet on the other hand, it is possible to be too pedantic.  I well remember one colleague commenting on a film in which the office bookshelf of the protagonist could be seen to contain a book that was not in fact published until the year after the film was set; how that director could live with himself after such an error I just don’t know.

Further, it is wise to be just a little cautious in critiquing the work of an entirely different profession: I suspect it would be rather discomforting for an academic to have a film director sitting in on a lecture and taking notes on one’s performance. The starting point for this sort of exercise has to be a recognition that the concern of directors tends to be dramatic rather than documentary, entertainment rather than education. They must inevitably be selective rather than comprehensive, and the requirements of narrative and character development are bound, quite rightly, to trump a strict adherence to historical veracity.  However, this does not make it inappropriate to discuss the accuracy or otherwise of a film. Doing so provides a chance to challenge what might mistakenly be assumed by viewers to be based on actual events. It also offers an opportunity to capitalise on wider public interest in history that might be triggered by watching this sort of film.

The Dunkirk evacuation is a particularly interesting case this question because it is such a familiar, even celebrated event, about which most viewers will have some awareness before seeing the film.  Further, Dunkirk has long been surrounded by a degree of mythology, the occasional misperception, one surprisingly resilient but ridiculous conspiracy theory (which I discuss here), and accompanying debates about the relationship between memory, popular understanding and ‘real’ history.

Broadly (in the view of this particular historian, rather than some objective and infallible verdict of ‘History’), the film ‘Dunkirk’ is more faithful to historical events than might be expected.  As noted above, it is not seeking to tell the whole story of the evacuation, still less of the campaign that preceded it, so what could be seen as sins of omission should be forgiven.  It would not be a valid criticism, say, that it does little to explain how the Allies came to be in the dire predicament that required evacuation or that it does not cover the broad planning of the operation.  It should not be surprising that some episodes from the battle for France did not feature – so the objection that, for example, it omitted the notorious SS massacres of British prisoners-of-war is misplaced. Similarly, criticism that the film did not give enough prominence to troops from India or from Birmingham, or that it failed to give proper recognition to particular individuals, are not wholly convincing.  These themes, although undoubtedly of interest, are not what the film is about.

What I found particularly impressive was the way in which the film handled some of the mythologised aspects of the operation.  The image most associated with Dunkirk is that of the ‘little ships’, the civilian vessels that braved appalling risks to help the army in its hour of need.  The popular conception of Dunkirk is dominated by little ships lifting men off the beaches.  Despite the cynicism of some commentators (the sort of individual who seems to delight in pouring scorn over any positive or creditable episode of national history), the little ships genuinely played an important role, suffering grievous losses in the process.  However, their contribution and the centrality of the beaches have at times been exaggerated and misinterpreted: whilst tens of thousands were lifted from the beaches, of the 338,000 who were rescued fully 70 per cent embarked from the Eastern Mole, a breakwater in the otherwise wrecked harbour that was used as a makeshift pier.  The shallow gradient of the beaches prevented large vessels from approaching the water’s edge, which gave the little ships their principal role, that of ferrying men from the beaches to the larger ships further offshore rather than carrying them all the way home.  The film handles this well, showing the use but also the limitations of the beaches, and giving due prominence to the mole.  Where it is perhaps less sure-footed is in under-representing the contribution of the Navy: the great majority of those rescued came home either in warships or in nominally civilian ships that were crewed by naval personnel.

The broad ‘feel’ of the film was effective in conveying the uncertainty and fear of individuals who did not know whether or not they would make it home, helping the viewer to put aside any foreknowledge that the evacuation as a whole was a success.  It also showed vividly the psychological impact of coming under repeated air attack when helpless and unable to respond, and the utter horror of being trapped below decks on a sinking ship. Despite the lack of gore, limited to gain the certification sought by the studio, there was a real sense of jeopardy and the film is undeniably tense and harrowing.  The much discussed differing timescales used, with the strand on the land forces unfolding over a week, that of the sea over a day and that of the pilots over an hour, portrayed their contrasting experiences yet also indicated how their efforts had to come together to make the operation a success. It did, perhaps, overlook the fact that many of the ships would have been making repeated trips over a number of days, and the pilots undertaking multiple sorties – in both cases, after long campaigns beforehand.  Many details were spot on, from the nervousness of the returning troops about the reception that they were likely to receive, giving way to amazement at its warmth, to the repeated German bombing of clearly marked hospital ships, to the troops’ genuine but misplaced resentment at what they saw as inadequate support from the RAF.  The importance of calm leadership from officers and NCOs came across powerfully.

Some complaints concern decisions that were taken for sound reasons: a French destroyer was used because, appallingly, there is no preserved Royal Navy destroyer from the time that could have stood in, and it was preferable to a CGI warship.  The Spitfires had a remarkably generous supply of ammunition and were able to glide a remarkably long distance… yet the significance of fuel limitations given the distance from home bases was a constraint, and the film made this clear.

There were a couple of areas where the film was lacking – though several of these resulted from decisions that were taken for understandable reasons, not least the director’s well known preference of avoiding the use of CGI.  First, the beaches, the sea and the sky were remarkably empty which meant that a film that paid such great attention to the visuals did not quite convey the scale of what happened.  Rather than the many tens of thousands of troops that were on and around the beaches and harbour, there appeared to be only hundreds.  The beaches appeared remarkably tidy; in reality they were strewn with the detritus of a defeated army, with many abandoned vehicles and masses of equipment.  There were too few ships at sea, particularly large ships at the mole and naval vessels. The dogfights would have involved far more aircraft than were depicted.  The town of Dunkirk was far more badly damaged by bombing than was shown; the devastation inflicted on the harbour in particular was the reason why the beaches and the improvisation of using the mole were so important.

At one point, there is an implication that the French were an afterthought; in fact, while the numbers did increase towards the end of the evacuation, the slow start was largely because of the delay by the French high command in giving the order to evacuate, and in all French troops comprised a third of those evacuated.  I am not going to delve into the same level of scrutiny as those who have found fault in the vintage of the train carriages or noted the anachronism (by several months) of velux windows.  Yet one other thing is more than merely a detail (though I did notice that remarkably few people were smoking); in the film, the sea is far rougher than it was during the evacuation, when its remarkably calm state was essential for the use of the little ships and the beaches.

Overall, given that it was not intended as a work of history, ‘Dunkirk’ was pretty accurate in its general feel and also, most strikingly, in the way that it tackled some of the myths surrounding the operation; it would be nice to think that the film might inspire some of its audience to delve a little more deeply into the history of the Dunkirk evacuation (perhaps even my edited book on the subject).  Alongside other films, it stands up well – it would be interesting to see in the comments section below people’s thoughts on this film or on other films that have stood out, positively or negatively, for their fidelity to history.

Image via flickr.

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