Dunkirk & Millennials
The huge IMAX theater in Washington, DC where I watched Dunkirk was packed with young people. Out of hundreds in the audience I was likely the oldest. The movie itself is nearly exclusively about young people, or at least young men, excluding the British naval officer and yachtsman that Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance respectively portray. Both are brilliant actors who’ve appropriately performed Shakespearean roles, as Dunkirk itself is Shakespearean in its sweeping evocation of a nearly defeated people escaping calamity, with the the world as audience.
As to the crowd of young people in the theater with me for Dunkirk, a 77 year old story likely never taught to them in school, they watched attentively and applauded afterwards. It was unlike most contemporary films. There were no romantic or sex scenes. There was violence but no gratuitous gory close-ups. Personal lives were unexplored. Words were few. There was little high-tech razzmatazz, except for clunky ships and small war planes.
Instead Dunkirk portrays tremendous tension, anxiety, waiting, and dutiful patience despite fear. Thousands of British troops stand in line for hours or days on beaches awaiting transport that may or may not arrive. Sometimes they are strafed or bombed by the Luftwaffe. Sometimes they board ships that are then torpedoed. Then, if they survive, they board another ship. This film portrayal is mostly true. The British are famous for their orderly queues, a national characteristic that persevered in war.
The patient courage at Dunkirk was not inevitable, whatever the British character. Their forces had been disastrously routed within weeks, compared to the 4 year standoff on nearly the same ground in WWI. Over the years subsequent to WWI, patriotism and service to country had not been fashionable. The famous Oxford Union debate of 1932 had resolved King and country did not merit sacrifices of life. Pacifism and cynicism were pervasive. Britain declared war unenthusiastically on Hitlerite Germany, bound by treaty to Poland, and realizing appeasement had failed.
British fortitude at Dunkirk, supported by logistical genius, rescued 340,000 Allied troops across a few days from a besieged minor port city. There could easily have been panic or premature surrender. Instead there was resolve, backed by national prayer, called for by King George VI. The young men at Dunkirk were justifiably afraid but heeded duty and honor, faithful to their national traits, however those traits had been derided in recent years.
Apparently there’s no conclusive explanation for Hitler’s reluctance to move more aggressively on Dunkirk before the escape. Some claim he delusionally sought to preserve British power as a potential future ally. Likelier he trusted the often fruitless promises of obese and drug addled Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering, who pledged air power was sufficient at Dunkirk. He would later similarly promise to destroy the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, and later still, more disastrously, pledge to supply the surrounded German army at Stalingrad.
Goering, despite’s these calamities, absurdly retained power until the end, because he was the dictator’s longtime confidant. Democracies typically are less patient with gross negligence especially in dire times. German discipline, when subject to the ideological and personal whims of a tyrant, could in the end not match Britain’s lawful, orderly resolve, led by a prime minister subject to an elected parliament.
That very celebrated prime minister never appears in the film, nor do any famous men. Instead, his words are read aloud from a newspaper by a young soldier returned from Dunkirk, who with his youthful colleagues is rapturously greeted by the British people. Dunkirk is about common young people, individually not popularly remembered, but collectively honored now and for all time. Despite their initially unheroic times, they majestically rose to their destiny, at Dunkirk, with many later triumphantly returning to France at Normandy four years later.
Cynicism is dismissive of our own times and of its young people. There are typically few words of praise for the Millennial Generation, who are supposedly, according to stereotypes, overly sensitive, immature and self-absorbed. But the large young audience I saw watching Dunkirk did not seem unimpressed by the grim determination of young men queuing on beaches. Every generation has its divinely-inspired potentialities, and there may be greatness yet for even Millennials.