Dunkirk – film review

The ghost of Dunkirk has been a constant presence in Britain’s consciousness ever since the events that played out in this French coastal town in the spring of 1940. It scarred us but it has also provided a benchmark for endurance and stoicism, the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. But it’s easy to forget what exactly happened on that French beach. Now, 77 years on, we have Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk.

The tension kicks off within the first minute. It then doesn’t let go until the last. But before we get to the film, a quick paragraph of history…

Dunkirk – the background

On 10 May 1940, German forces launched their attack against France. Their advance was spectacular. By the end of the month, over a third of a million Allied troops were trapped in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, subject to German shells and attacks from the air. It was only a matter of days before the full-blown assault would come. Losses were heavy but by 4 June, the evacuation had brought back to Britain 338,226 British, French and other Allied soldiers. Plus 170 dogs. Soldiers put much store by their mascots.

A triptych

Dunkirk is a very visceral experience. You experience the fear and the vulnerability of the men stranded with little more than their rifles. Usually, whenever we have a film based on a huge event, for example, Titanic, there has to be a romantic subplot in there somewhere. Not so with Dunkirk, and it’s all the better for it. It’s also a very British experience. Although we catch a brief glimpse of a few French and colonial troops, we do not see a single German. The German is the unseen enemy, unseen but still too close for comfort. And when he does appear, hurling in his Messerschmitt towards our brave boys on the beach or on a vessel, the sound is frightening. It’s a film with surprisingly little dialogue. It’s also a war film with surprisingly little blood – there are no close-ups of limbs being ripped off, of men being blown to smithereens or in their death throes. Nolan was certainly chasing the lower age certificate here. Yet he manages to achieve this without diminishing his stranglehold on us.

The film has three distinct viewpoints – which act almost like a triptych. The first is from the ground as we follow a young British Tommy called Tommy, funnily enough. And it is through Tommy, we meet Alex, played by Harry Styles. And let’s be honest here – most of us watching this film will be on tenterhooks looking out for Harry.

The sea plot follows a man in his late fifties, a Mr Dawson who, along with his son and his son’s friend, form part of the civilian armada who, sailing from England, braved the choppy waters of the English Channel to do their bit and help rescue the stranded men.

Lastly, we see it from the air, from the point of view of three, soon to be two, RAF pilots, one named Farrier. And they’re all terribly upper crust, unlike those ruffian army boys, with their fine uniforms and Spitfires. The aerial combat scenes are stunning. Almost eighty years on and the sight of those Spitfires ranging through the air can still stir the heart.

These three points of view represent the three main elements of what constituted Dunkirk so Tommy, Mr Dawson and Farrier are each in their own way an ‘everyman’ for what happened there. We get to learn a little of Mr Dawson’s backstory but we don’t get to know them as characters, as people. Their role here is to tell the bigger story. The only additional subplot that was entirely unnecessary but still effective concerned the friend of Mr Dawson’s son.

The cast is stellar – Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson to name but a few. And yes, to answer the big question – Harry Styles can just about act.

CGI and Nimrod

As a director, Christopher Nolan is known for eschewing CGI and special effects. Understandable perhaps, noble for sure, but perhaps a bit of CGI here may not have gone amiss. We are told early on that there are some 400,000 men on the beaches of Dunkirk – yet often we see shots of an almost deserted beach. Likewise, with the civilian ships – there were hundreds of them but, watching the film, you get the impression that only about half a dozen had come across. But this is a minor quibble.

The music, by Hans Zimmer, plays its role perfectly – it’s effective, it enhances but it never distracts. It comes to the fore towards the end, naturally, with a strange mash-up of Elgar’s Nimrod Variation, the famous one, the one that stirs the patriotic heart in all Britons. Now, had it been a straight-up Nimrod, people would have decried it as too obvious, too unoriginal. Yet somehow, Zimmer does something to it that is fantastically effective.

Never Surrender 

With our boys finally and safely back in England, we have Churchill’s famous post-Dunkirk speech, the ‘we shall never surrender’ one. But, cleverly, we do not hear it from Churchill’s mouth nor in any way presented in a Churchillian manner, but from the lips of Tommy, who reads it, mumbling, from a newspaper.

I felt a little uncomfortable with the ending – it seemed too upbeat. Alex, the Harry Styles character, fears they will be spat on but despite this caveat the ending felt a little too triumphant. Yes, these 338,226 men had survived but we had failed. Churchill referred to Dunkirk not as a victory but merely a ‘deliverance’. And the French saw it in very negative terms – with the Germans closing in on Paris, they considered the evacuation of Dunkirk not in terms of an heroic rescue, but as a huge betrayal. The British had betrayed them.

On 14 June the swastika was flying from the Arc de Triomphe and on the 22nd, France surrendered to the Germans. Four long years of occupation lay ahead for the French.

I’d been looking forward to this film for a year – and it did not disappoint. But if you want to see it, it’s one of those films for the big screen. Don’t wait for the DVD.

Rupert Colley.

Women Heroes of World War II – the Pacific Theater – a review

Kathryn Atwood has already written two great books about women and war. History In An Hour has reviewed them both – women heroes from the Second World War and from the first. Now, we have a third – Women Heroes of World War II – the Pacific Theater: 15 Stories of Resistance, Rescue, Sabotage, and Survival.


The books are aimed at the young adult audience but readers of any age will not fail to be moved and horrified in equal measure by the stories contained within these pages. As Kathryn writes in her foreword, she’s tried not to make the stories too graphic but we’re talking about the Rape of Nanking here, young girls forced into being ‘comfort women’, and the much-feared Kempeitai, Japan’s military police. So we approach with caution because what some of these women had to endure is mindboggling. Yes, there are tales of incarceration, torture and rape but this book is not a horror-fest. Instead, what we have is a very sympathetic portrayal of these incredibly brave and resourceful women and what they went through in the name of justice and humanity.


Atwood begins with a brief overview of Japan’s relationship with the West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She reminds us that Japan fought on the side of the Allies during the First World War. But post-war Japan was treated dismissively by their European allies – much of it based on racism. She summarises Japan’s development into a fascist, one-party state, and how young Japanese boys were hardened and desensitized by brutal and compulsory military training.

We tend to think of the Second World War as having started on 1 September 1939, the point Germany attacked Poland. But some historians now consider 7 July 1937 to be a more accurate date – the ‘Marco Polo Bridge Incident’ which started the war between Japan and China.

On 7 December 1941, the Japanese attacked several Western strongholds in the Far East, and, most notoriously, the US Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor. Two months later, Japanese forces humiliated the British by taking Singapore. Atwood book covers all these pinch points and several more within the Pacific theatre of war.

Chin up, girls


Atwood gives us 15 tales of women who, each in their own way, fought against Japanese aggression. Take Vivian Bullwinkel, for example. Vivian was one of 22 Australian nurses who, on 12 February 1942, was forced by Japanese soldiers into the waves off Bangka Island in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). They smiled at each other, aware of what was about to happen. Their matron, Irene Drummond, managed to call out, ‘Chin up, girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all’ before the machine guns opened fire. Vivian, although shot, survived. The only one.

Then we have Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Vautrin. Minnie was working in a women’s college in the Chinese city of Nanking when the Japanese invaded in December 1937. The college became a designated refugee camp. Designed for about 300 students, by the end of the year, 10,000 terrified women had squeezed in, desperate for sanctuary from Japanese soldiers intent on raping every female they could find, however young or old. Tortured by what she had witnessed in Nanking, Minnie returned home to Indianapolis where, in May 1941, she took her own life.

Another chapter relates the story of Sybil Kathigasu, a Malayan nurse, who, together with her surgeon husband, helped scores of wounded guerrilla fighters. But she was arrested and interrogated and tortured by the Kempeitai. Sybil survived the war but the injuries sustained at the hands of the Kempeitai were too severe and she died in 1948, aged 48.

Fortunately most of the women from these tales survived the war and lived to an old age. Elizabeth Macdonald, who worked as an undercover agent during the war, died in 2015 having made it passed her 100th birthday.

Atwood, as always, writes well, her admiration for these women evident. She’s not afraid to tackle the horrors they had to endure but manages to do so with great sensitivity, and avoids becoming overly voyeuristic.

These 15 extraordinarily courageous women deserve to be remembered. Kathryn Atwood’s fine book helps ensure that they will be.

Rupert Colley.

Women Heroes of World War II – the Pacific Theater: 15 Stories of Resistance, Rescue, Sabotage, and Survival by Kathryn Atwood, published by Chicago Review Press, is now available.

Shakespeare: History in an Hour – a review

As a high school English Literature teacher I am always interested in exploring new resources that will enable my students to better comprehend the challenging themes and complex elements of Shakespeare’s plays. In order to do this successfully, the students first need to have an understanding of who Shakespeare was and the period in which he wrote.

Shakespeare IAHWith curriculum deadlines and hastened time periods, I have been unable to find to one comprehensive resource that is suitable to create this foundation for my students. Prior to this I have often cited sections of Anthony Burgess’ Shakespeare, which is among the best summative and concise assessments of his life, but contains challenging vocabulary and contextual issues that are too complex for the high school level. What Ms. Fitzgibbon has written is one comprehensive book that meets all my requirements while challenging my students in an engaging manner.

Shakespeare: History in an Hour, much like Burgess’ book, is an outline of The Bard’s life and not his plays or poems. Unlike Burgess’ book this is far more concise and avoids any entanglements with his contemporaries and remains narrowly focused Shakespeare. This book provides insightful commentary on his family, childhood, and marriage without engulfing itself with pedantic facts and timelines. There are, however, a plethora of vital facts and tidbits of information about The Globe and Lord Chamberlain’s Men that my students found engaging throughout its quick pace.

Following the conclusion of this we moved into a short unit on Shakespeare’s sonnets and read Romeo and Juliet, all of which was more engaging due to the foundation of information that Ms. Fitzgibbon provided in Shakespeare: History in an Hour.

Bruce Roderick
New York City Department of Education
English Language Arts Teacher

Women Heroes of World War I – a review

In 2011, American author, Kathryn Atwood, wrote a book entitled Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Now, comes a prequel to that title, Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics.

Women Heroes of WWI coverWhen one thinks of the Great War, invariably the first images to spring to mind are, understandably, that of soldiers in the trenches, men with shellshocked eyes carrying their wounded comrades, soldiers with gas masks. Women, with the exception of nurses, rarely feature among the iconic images of the war. Atwood, in her finely-crafted book, attempts to redress the balance.

Nurses, resisters, soldiers and journalists

Kathryn Atwood’s book, although aimed primarily at the ‘Young Adult’ market, is a fine read for all. Her introduction provides a brief overview on how the war started and the changing role of women as the conflict progressed. The book is then divided up into sections where we are told the stories of some incredibly brave women. We have a section on nurses, resistance and espionage, women soldiers and journalists. Some, like Edith Cavell (pictured), are still remembered but most have been forgotten, partly, says Atwood, because their stories have been eclipsed by the very women they helped inspire during the Second World War.

Edith CavellThe stories are indeed remarkable. We have, for example, Louise Thuliez, whose resistance work in Belgium was discovered by the Germans and stood trial alongside Cavell. Following the war, she was decorated by French president, Georges Clemenceau. We have Emilienne Moreau who, just 16-years-old, single-handedly managed to warn a company of Scottish soldiers that they were walking straight into a German ambush. Days later, she shot dead two Germans with a revolver. Incredibly, a quarter of a century later, following the fall of France in June 1940, Emilienne resumed her resistance work.

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Under the Wire by Paul Conroy – a review

Veteran war photographer, Paul Conroy, has written a compelling and direct book on his experiences in 2012 covering the conflict in Syria while working alongside American journalist, Marie Colvin. Weaving between the Syrian narratives, he also describes their adventures, the year before, in Libya during the final days of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule and his brutal end.

Under the WireEarly on in Under the Wire, Conroy describes Colvin giving a speech in a church on Fleet Street, London, in which she argued ‘passionately’ for the need to send reporters to dangerous places. And Colvin had certainly been to several dangerous places; hot spots such as Kosovo, Libya and Chechnya. Her raison d’être, Conroy tells us, was to inform the world of injustice, and to use mass media to hold governments to account.

To bear witness

Roy Greenslade, writing Marie Colvin’s obituary in The Guardian, quoted her as saying, ‘My job is to bear witness. I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village or whether the artillery that fired at it was 120mm or 155mm’. It was this, in February 2012, while reporting for the Sunday Times, that motivated their mission into Syria and to the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs. At the time, Homs was heavily under siege with the forces of President Assad relentlessly pounding the city on a daily basis.

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The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious Dynasty by Mary Hollingsworth – review

Ever since the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire first coined the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility”, the maxim has been used as a yardstick by which to judge many of those who have assumed a position of influence and authority, and their subsequent deeds. Did those in power use their position to benefit others, or did they capitalise on and manipulate their success for personal gain? Unfortunately, history is littered with many more examples of the latter than the former.

The Dark Side of Power

The BorgiasIf we were to assess the Borgia family in these terms, how would they fare? Not well, I fear.  This infamous Aragonese dynasty, which spawned no less than three popes and which dominated 15th century European politics, has long been associated with the dark side of power.  Indeed, the Borgia name itself has become a byword for corruption, avarice, ruthlessness, and debauchery.  Add to this a blatant disregard for celibacy and a fondness for nepotism among those members of the family who had taken up Catholic holy orders, and we are left with a rather unflattering impression of the Borgia clan in general.

Mary Hollingsworth does not shy away from these uncomfortable truths in her book, The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious DynastyIn her account of the family’s rise to prominence, she presents the history of Borgia family year by year, providing insightful and illuminating commentary along the way.  Starting with Alonso de Borja, who hailed from Valencia in modern-day Spain, we follow his inexorable rise from lawyer to diplomat of the Court of Aragon to cardinal in Rome, culminating in his ascension to the Papal throne as Calixtus III in 1455.

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Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire – review

‘It was one of those enterprises which could be attempted only because in the eyes of the enemy it was absolutely impossible.’ Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, describing the Second World War raid on Saint-Nazaire.

Into the Jaws of Death - coverOn 28 March 1942, 621 men of the Royal navy and British Commandos attacked the port of Saint-Nazaire in occupied France. The mission has been dubbed ‘the greatest raid of all time.’ It was certainly daring, audacious in the extreme and terribly dangerous – less than half the men returned alive. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded, two of them posthumously. As the title of this new book on the raid states, the men went Into the Jaws of Death.

Historian, Robert Lyman, has written much about specific aspects of the Second World War, with books about the Cockleshell Heroes, the Siege of Tobruk, Kohima, the Middle East during the war, and a biography on General Bill Slim. Now, Lyman has turned his attention to the Saint-Nazaire raid. Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire is a detailed book on the raid: the reasons that lay behind it, the preparation, the training, the raid itself and its aftermath.

A Bleak Time

Early 1942, as Lyman reminds us, was a bleak time for the Western Allies during the Second World War – British forces had just surrendered their garrison at Singapore; Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic; and wartime austerity was beginning to bite. In Europe, following the fall of France eighteen months earlier, Nazi occupation had been firmly established; and the first deportations of Jews residing in France had just begun.

Britain’s high command was gripped by fear of Germany’s huge battleship, the Tirpitz, a massive ship, a sixth of a mile long. Its sister ship, the Bismarck, had been sunk in May 1941, but the Tirpitz still roamed large. The only dry dock on the French coast capable of accommodating such a ship was to be found at the port Saint-Nazaire, a town of some 50,000 people. If the Normandie dock, as it was called, the largest dry dock in the world at the time, could be put out of action, then the Tirpitz’s activity in the Atlantic would be severely constrained.

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Code Name Pauline – a review

Born in Paris to English parents, Pearl Witherington Cornioley was an extraordinary SOE agent who, at one point during World War Two, had over 3,000 fighters under her command. In 1995, her memoirs were published in France. Now, eighteen years later, as Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, they are finally available in English, edited by American author Kathryn Atwood, and published by Chicago Review Press. Atwood first introduced us to Pearl in 2011 in her excellent Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. And here we get Pearl’s story from the woman herself. And it’s quite a story.

Code Name PaulinePearl’s father was a drifter and an alcoholic, rarely at home. Although she states she was “never unhappy at home with Mummy”, it was, nonetheless, a difficult childhood, having to bear her parents’ arguing, often rummaging for food and fighting off her father’s debt collectors. As the eldest of four girls and with an English mother who found it hard coping with life in Paris, Pearl was imbued from an early age with a sense of responsibility; a responsibility that deprived her of a proper childhood. As soon as she was old enough, and following her father’s death, Pearl went out to work to earn money, not for herself, but her mother and her sisters.

The Fall of France

Pearl met her future husband, Henri Cornioley, the son of prosperous parents, in 1933. But with war, six years later, came separation. Drafted into the army, Henri was not to see his sweetheart for over three years. Following the fall of France in June 1940, Pearl and her family, as British citizens, were still technically enemies of Nazi Germany and therefore had to flee. Following a circuitous journey lasting some seven months, they finally arrived in London in July 1941.

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The Best of Friends, the Worst of Friends? Tales of Two Cities: book review

Review of Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City by Jonathan Conlin (Atlantic Books)

Tales of Two CitiesParis and London.  London and Paris.  The very names of these two world cities conjure remarkably separate and distinct impressions in the mind of the reader.  Debonair Paris mixes a worldliness and elegance with a somewhat contradictory joie de vivre which can, at times, verge on the seedy.  London, on the other hand, fosters an equally inconsistent image of a battle-hardened and shabby metropolis which prides itself on its stoicism in the face of adversity, while continuing to bask in the rapidly dimming reflection of past glories.  Indeed, if conventional wisdom is to be believed, the only real connection between these two vastly divergent cities is their long-standing and deeply-entrenched rivalry.


And, on the face of it, this appears to hold true.  Despite sharing similar early histories (both cities were founded by the Romans within a decade of year other), Paris and London have long defined themselves by their differences.  It cannot be argued that, from time immemorial, denizens of both cities have not held the other in unconcealed disdain.  And it is equally irrefutable that each city derived their sense of identity, at least in part, by holding themselves above and apart from the other.

But this widely-accepted (and one might say, hackneyed) belief in the separateness of the two cities is exactly what Jonathan Conlin sets out to controvert in his excellent examination of the cross-Channel relationship, Tales of Two Cities.  Far from developing interdependently from each other, Conlin argues, both metropolises have been engaged in a constant dialogue which has informed their evolution.  Borrowing extensively from each other, London and Paris have each exerted considerable influence over the other, and in doing so laid the foundations of the modern cities that have emerged in their wake.

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Stalin’s Romeo Spy – Dmitri Bystrolyotov

Charming, dashing and aristocratic, Dmitri Bystrolyotov’s life reads like a far-fetched spy thriller. Addicted to danger, Bystrolyotov seduced French, British and German women procuring for Joseph Stalin vital information in the years leading up to war, including, amazingly, Hitler’s plans for rearmament. He was, without question, Stalin’s most daring and successful spy.

But then, in 1938, at the height of Stalin’s purges, Bystrolyotov was arrested by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Tortured and crippled, and made to ‘confess’ to fantastical charges, he was sentenced to 20 years hard labour. Incarcerated and broken, Bystrolyotov felt the full force of the corrupt regime he had served so loyally for so long. But always one to take risks, Bystrolyotov recorded his experience within the gulags. With the help of contacts he smuggled out, page by page, his damning first-hand account of Stalin’s labour camps.

Now, 38 years after his death, the life of Dmitri Bystrolyotov is retold in a dramatic new book, Emil Draitser’s Stalin’s Romeo Spy: The Remarkable Rise and Fall of the KGB’s Most Daring Operative.

The name is Bystrolyotov, Dmitri Bystrolyotov

Dmitri Bystrolyotov is a well-known name in Russia, an action hero for today reclaimed from the myths of yesteryear. Hailed on TV and film, subject of books and documentaries, Bystrolyotov is to Russia what James Bond is to the West but with one slight difference – Bystrolyotov was real.

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