By coincidence I saw two films about Dunkirk in the last month: the huge and fairly accurate (according to the survivors) Dunkirk, and this much more obscure one. This is about the making of a film about Dunkirk in 1940, shortly after the real event. It’s a comedy-drama, and we enjoyed it.
The plot … two screenwriters hear of a set of twins who stole their father’s fishing boat and made a heroic trip to Dunkirk where they rescued a bunch of soldiers. Wow! This would be a terrific story to tell! So they find the sisters … and it turns out the engine conked out about a mile out of the harbor and they had to get towed back. Well, hell!
The only thing I found a tad unbelievable about what came next was the idea that anyone in Whitehall would give a flying fuck that the story turned out to be spurious. But the writers and directors prevail over the government wonks, and they proceed with the story that should have been, and would have been, in a more orderly universe. They make changes galore, make up shit right and left, bring in a salty old father, played by the wonderful Bill Nighy, and all sorts of other totally made-up dramatic incidents, and battle interference from above. Against all odds they actually manage to make a fairly silly little film just jam-packed with clichés.
But the real power of this film is when the novice screenwriter first sits in a packed theater and is stunned, just stunned, at the reaction of the people all around her. They are weeping! They are cheering! They are moved deeply! Well, shit, the fucking bombs are still falling all around them in London. Most of them have lost loved ones, or homes, and they’re spending the night in shit-smelling Underground stations. They need something to cheer about, and who cares if it is all phony heroics? And those writers, along with many others, pulled off a real miracle. They helped transform one of the most catastrophic defeats in military history into the wonderful legend of the Miracle of Dunkirk.
I’m not saying it wasn’t a miracle. It was. But as Churchill reminded them a few days later, it also was a total disaster. And I wonder, why were 400,000 Allied soldiers stuck there on the beach? Who was responsible for that? My reading of history (admittedly spotty) never gets into that much.