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‘Dunkirk’ and the West’s myopia about World War II

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"Dunkirk,” the taut blockbuster by British-born filmmaker Christopher Nolan, is one of the runaway successes of the summer, grossing more than $300 million worldwide since its July 21 release.

It depicts the harrowing May 1940 evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, which had been trapped by the rampant Nazi military at the French port of Dunkerque. In their hour of desperate need, more than 300,000 British soldiers were rescued with the aid of a motley civilian flotilla of fishing trawlers, family yachts, barges, tugboats and merchant vessels, which ferried them from the beaches and onto the safety of Ol' Blighty. Had they not escaped, the saga of World War II may have had a far more abrupt ending.

For obvious reasons, the drama and heroism of the evacuation lives long in the British imagination. The rescue was followed by a stirring oration from Winston Churchill, just days into his term as prime minister, in which he declared his nation would “go on to the end” and fight the enemy “on the beaches,” “in the fields and the streets.” The film closes with the speech being read out by an exhausted, freshly rescued soldier. A strategic calamity becomes a rallying cry, a quintessential exhibition of British pluck and courage against the odds.

Nolan himself has stressed that he didn't want to get “bogged down in the politics of the situation,” instead creating a tense, enthralling film that plunges viewers into the terror and alienation of war. But that has not stopped commentators and critics from drawing all sorts of broader political meaning from it.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen lamented the conspicuous absence of Germans from a story that's about running away from them — as well as any hint of the wider monstrosity of the Nazi regime. British journalist Jenni Russell feared the story's “narrative of heroic retreat,” anchored in a seemingly bottomless reservoir of British national pride, was not the message needed at a time when British politicians are marching toward a potentially catastrophic rupture with Europe.

“Nothing could be less helpful to our collective psyche as the country blunders toward Brexit,” she wrote.

Then there was this remarkable bit of chest-thumping: “We see the deep and abiding bond of nationhood. And it is that bond that calls forth extraordinary acts of rescue from ordinary men in boats,” extolled the Heritage Foundation, an influential right-wing think tank in Washington. “In a day when soulless globalism is the established orthodoxy of the West (save for Brexit and the United States in recent months), Nolan’s depiction of nationhood in 'Dunkirk' is a much-needed medicine for our culture.”

This is wishful fantasy, as many of the film's skeptics have noted. Perhaps the most fervent backlash against “Dunkirk” has come from Indian media, where critics justifiably complain about Hollywood's “whitewashing” of World War II.

There were at least four companies of the Royal Indian Service Corps on the beaches of Dunkirk. Mustered thousands of miles away, they joined an empire's global struggle — one that had little to do with the freedoms and aspirations of those in their own homeland. One of the companies was forced to surrender to the Germans; three others were among the last to be evacuated. A British army officer was court-martialed for trying to secure their safe passage in defiance of superiors who didn't think it worth the trouble.

No Indian soldier appears for even a fleeting second of the film, though Nolan does give a tiny cameo to colonial African soldiers among the French. The result is an erasure of history that many argue should no longer be tolerated. 

“Observers said [the Indian contingent was] particularly cool under fire and well-organized during the retreat. They weren’t large in number, maybe a few hundred among hundreds of thousands, but their appearance in the film would have provided a good reminder of how utterly central the role of the Indian Army was in the war,” wrote historian John Brioch. “Their service meant the difference between victory and defeat. In fact, while Britain and other allies were licking their wounds after Dunkirk, the Indian Army picked up the slack in North Africa and the Middle East.”

Some 2.5 million soldiers from the Indian subcontinent served in World War II; 87,000 died. Their contributions have gone woefully underrecognized in the West — particularly in Britain, where many seem to prefer their tidy myths of a brave little island holding its own against the Nazi menace. Nolan's film is just the latest affront.

“The focus on Britain 'standing alone' sometimes risks diminishing how the war brought pain in many places, right across the globe,” wrote Yasmin Khan, the author of “The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War.” “The war, especially when viewed from the East, was about two empires locking horns rather than a nation taking on fascism. Above all, the narrative of a plucky island nation beating back the Germans omits the imperial dimension of the war. Many people living in the colonies were caught up in a vicious conflict beyond their control.”

Of course, neither Nolan nor Hollywood should have to shoulder this burden of history alone. Khan and others point to decades of enforced British amnesia — generations of British schoolchildren were taught little of the colonial contribution to the war effort or, for that matter, the horrors exacted in the name of the British Empire.

For Indians, Churchill's lionization in the West is hard to swallow, given his stated contempt for many of Britain's colonial subjects and complicit role in the deaths of millions of Indians in a famine. More than seven decades later, it's strange that so many people, including British and American politicians, still need to see the British bulldog as such an untainted, heroic figure.

“A nation that turns away from the truths of its past ... runs the risk of stunting its future,” wrote Mihir Sharma for Bloomberg View, reacting to a recent poll that show the British public exulting in the exploitative legacy of their empire. “Acts of colossal self-delusion, like Brexit, then become inevitable. There’s no clearer sign of a nation’s descent into self-absorption and petty nationalism than the conviction that its darkest shame is in fact its greatest glory.”

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