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.

Guy Fawkes – a summary

Guy Fawkes was executed on 31 January 1606. Sinead Fitzgibbon offers a brief summary of his life, the Gunpowder Plot and his death.

Guy Fawkes was born in York around 13 April 1570. Although there is some uncertainty surrounding the exact date of his birth, church archives confirm that he was baptised on 16 April 1570 at the church of St Michael le Belfrey. His parents Edward and Edith Fawkes were Protestant, and as such, it is believed that Guy was raised in the Protestant faith.

When he was eight years old, the young Fawkes attended St Peter’s School in York. It was here that he first made the acquaintance of two brothers, Jack and Christopher Wright, who would become his comrades in the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament some thirty years later.

Catholic conversion

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King George V

Sinead Fitzgibbon summarises the life of Britain’s King George V, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II.

Grandson of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria and second son of Edward VII, Prince George Frederick Ernest Albert was born on 3 June 1865.

At the age of 18, George entered the Royal Navy, an occupation he retained until the unexpected death of his elder brother, Albert, from pneumonia in 1892.  With Albert’s passing, George became second-in-line to the throne.

In 1893, George became engaged to his dead brother’s fiancée, Mary of Teck. The couple would go on to have six children.

Following Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, the throne passed to George’s father, Edward VII. However, Edward’s reign was not destined to be a long one – he died just nine years after becoming king, and the Crown passed to George V.

‘The King is a very jolly chap’

George, essentially a shy man, preferred shooting and stamp collecting than being in the company of politicians or intellectuals. Nor were politicians and intellectuals terribly impressed by the new king – during his coronation in 1911, the English writer and caricaturist, Max Beerbohm, dismissed George V as ‘such a piteous, good, feeble, heroic little figure’. And David Lloyd George, at the time the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on first meeting the king, said, ‘The King is a very jolly chap… thank God there is not much in his head’.

The House of Windsor

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Death of Prince Albert

The light is subdued in the Blue Room. He lies in his bed, plumped up with pillows. His breath is slow and laboured, his skin terribly white, his hair stuck down by sweat. Kneeling on the floor beside his bed, trembling, his wife – the queen. Holding his limp hand, she knows he is dying. Beside her, five of her children, their faces pinched with fear. Standing awkwardly, nearby, various ladies in waiting, equerries, doctors, and a minister or two. But she has eyes only for her darling prince. The time is almost eleven in the evening. As he slips away, she mutters, ‘Oh, this is death, I know it.’ On his passing, the queen lets rip a scream that tears down the walls of Windsor.

Prince AlbertOn the 14 December 1861, Albert, the Prince Consort, died. He was only 42. His unexpected death plunged Queen Victoria into grief so overwhelming that it endured for the rest of her life. Her pain was shared by the nation in an outpouring of angst that would not be seen again until the death, 136 years later, of Princess Diana. But after a while, public and politicians alike began to ask whether the Queen’s period of mourning would ever end?

Prince Albert and Princess Victoria meet

The 16-year-old Princess was immediately smitten – on meeting Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha for the first time, she confided in her diary that her German cousin was ‘extremely good looking’. It was 18 May 1836. They would not meet again for another 3½ years by which time, October 1839, Victoria had become queen. This time, her praise went even further – ‘It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert – who is beautiful’. Albert had the teenage queen’s heart ‘quite going’.

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The Gunpowder Plot – a Summary

Like all good conspiracy stories, the tale of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is one that combines elements of mystery, intrigue, suspense and of course, deception.  It is the story of a small band of disaffected Catholics who, unhappy with the constraints placed on their religion by Protestant monarchs, undertake to challenge the religious status quo by committing the ultimate act of terrorism – the destruction of both King and Parliament.

The Break From Rome

The malcontent felt by this group of would-be terrorists did not spring up overnight.  In fact, the seeds had been sown some seventy years earlier during the reign of Henry VIII.  During the 1530s Henry, in his desperation to divorce Catherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn, incurred the wrath of Rome by declaring that he, and not the Pope, was the Supreme Head of the Church in England.  This act of defiance on Henry’s part culminated in England’s break from Rome and gave the new Protestant religion, which had been sweeping the Continent, a foothold in England.

Thanks to the legitimacy afforded to it by Henry VIII and subsequent Tudor monarchs (apart from a brief interlude during the reign of the staunchly Catholic Mary I), Protestantism became England’s official religion. Catholics were forced to abandon their allegiance to the Pope and instead accept the reigning monarch as leader of the Church.  Anyone who refused to do this was viewed as a potential traitor to the Crown and was subjected to heavy fines, imprisonment or even death.  In the face of such persecution, many Catholics were forced to practice their faith in secret.  Tensions simmered and an insidious atmosphere of mistrust, suspicion and fear prevailed.  It was against this sinister backdrop that the Gunpowder Plot was hatched.

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King James Bible – a summary

2011 marked the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible.  Regarded by many to be a literary masterpiece, this particular version of the Bible is the most widely-published book in the English language.  The influence of this Christian text has resonated down through the centuries, outgrowing its religious origins to influence many parts of our modern secular culture. From Milton’s Paradise Lost to Handel’s Messiah and Martin Luther King’s immortal I Have a Dream speech, the spirit of the King James Bible is all around us.

Perhaps its most profound influence, however, has been on the development of English as a language. The extent of its linguistic influence is often said to be challenged only by the works of William Shakespeare.  Hundreds of phrases and idioms in everyday use owe their origins to its pages.  When we refer to a ‘broken heart’, ‘labour of love’, ‘salt of the earth’or ‘skin of our teeth’, or when we speak of ‘biting the dust’ or a ‘leopard changing its spots’, we are unconsciously referencing the King James Bible.

James I of England

The man primarily responsible for the commissioning of this Bible was its namesake, King James I of England (pictured), who ascended to the throne in 1603.  The idea was borne out of his determination to end the religious disputes and theological arguments – which plagued the reign of his predecessor, Elizabeth I — a hangover from her father Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the subsequent English Reformation.  The newly-crowned king, who greatly enjoyed philosophical and spiritual debate, convened the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604, where the future of the Church of England was to be discussed.  It was at this conference that James authorized a new English translation of the Bible, which would be acceptable to both traditionalist bishops and the new breed of Protestant puritans.

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Admiral Byng – the Execution of a Scapegoat

John Byng was born on 29 October 1704 in Bedfordshire, England. One of fifteen children, John, like his father, Rear-Admiral Sir George Byng, joined the Royal Navy and by the age of 23 had reached the rank of captain.  

Admiral ByngUntil 1739, Byng was stationed around an uneventful Mediterranean. Then, perhaps due to his father’s influence, John experienced a rapid rise up the promotional ladder. In 1742, he was given the governorship of the colony of Newfoundland. In 1745 he was appointed Rear Admiral, followed by Vice-Admiral in 1747, all of which he obtained without having seen any military action.  His father, George, had been victorious in a number of naval battles, but when his son was finally to be tested it resulted in disaster.

Minorca

Admiral John Byng is mostly famous for his notorious execution by the British authorities in 1757 following the loss of the Mediterranean island of Minorca to the French at the start of the Seven Years War. Hostilities began in Europe only two days after the declaration of war in 1756 with a French attack on Minorca on 20 May. After a fierce yet inconclusive naval battle with the French fleet, the cautious Admiral Byng, charged with relieving the garrison at Minorca, decided to move his fleet to the safety of Gibraltar and from there recoup. But by 28 June, the French had captured the island.

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The Cleverest General: the Life and Death of Sir George Pomeroy Colley

When I was a child my parents had on their bookshelves an old red-bound nineteenth century tome called The Life of Sir George Pomeroy Colley by one W.F.Butler, published 1899.

Sir George Pomeroy Colley was a Victorian general who met his death on 27 February 1881, whilst fighting the Boers in South Africa.

(The author of the book, William Francis Butler, was the husband to the famous military painter, Lady Elizabeth Butler).

The title fascinated me because here was a book about a man that shared my family name, and an important one at that (he had to be important to have had a book written about him). I always assumed we were related because we were both Colleys. And, to add to the excitement, he was a ‘Sir’. Perhaps some great-great-grandfather.

To this day I still don’t know. It might be just a coincidence of name but then why would my father have this book on his shelves rather than a more famous Victorian general?

Colley was an all-round clever man and well thought of. He passed through his military school with the highest ever recorded marks, was fluent in various languages and was a dab hand with the paint brush. But like many a British general of the time, he underestimated his enemy – and that proved his undoing.

The First Boer War

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England and the Popish Plot

In October 1678 a magistrate by the name of Edmund Berry Godfrey was found murdered at the foot of Primrose Hill near London.  Though he was in himself a figure of little importance his death was to have explosive consequences.  For the crime, never solved, marks the beginning of an episode of anti-Catholic hysteria forever known as the Popish Plot.  The roots of the ensuing crisis, by far the most serious ever faced by the Restoration monarchy, can be traced back several years.

The Cavalier Parliament

It’s one of the great ironies of history that the assembly which dominated the reign of Charles II, known for its perceived political loyalties as the ‘Cavalier Parliament’, was in its own way almost as troublesome for the crown as the Long Parliament of Charles I.  It was packed with men who were loyal to king, yes, but they were just as loyal to the established church, in some ways even more loyal.  Attempts by the government to introduce a measure of relief for Catholics and dissenters, those who refused to accept communion in the Church of England, was met with an ever growing sense of suspicion.

The events of 1678 and after have to be placed against this background, against a fear over growing Catholic influences at court, compounded by suspicions over Charles’ foreign policy, which took England into alliance with the Catholic French against the Protestant Dutch.

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