The Enemy has the English and French armies surrounded at Dunkirk. We never see the faces of the Enemy. The score of Dunkirk is incessant and driving. The film is a masterpiece. I was skeptical that this military disaster could be rendered as something heroic. Christopher Nolan has captured a change in the zeitgeist. This may be first patriotic movie of the 21st Century. “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.”
The Enemy had bombed the British fleet and the main port facilities of Dunkirk, the larger ships of the British navy could not dock and take aboard the soldiers piled up on the beaches of Dunkirk. The Enemy is faceless, industrial, devastating, and terrifying as it bombs and strafes from the sky.
An English officer holds back French (European and African) soldiers from the last deep water dock. “This is for Englishmen,” he says as they all wait in line to be bombed and strafed. Then Englishmen sail what would come to be known as the “Little Ships of Dunkirk”, a flotilla of pleasure boats, yachts, and launches to bring Englishmen back to England. Was this the last gasp of “Little England” that had lived tensely within the British Empire?
The returning soldiers imagine that they will be spat upon and jeered as cowards and failures, but they are greeted with cheers and embraced by their countrymen. As Englishman G.K. Chesterton said about patriotism, “we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons. [Kipling] admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.”
The British navy lost six destroyers and nineteen were damaged. They could not dock and the men could not get out to them in deeper water. The call goes out, “But if Not,” to the moorings of the Thames and the ports of Southeast England. Seven hundred ships answer the call. The British Expeditionary Force is successfully evacuated as is a large remnant of the French army.
“It is a good sign in a nation when things are done badly. It shows that all the people are doing them. And it is bad sign in a nation when such things are done very well, for it shows that only a few experts and eccentrics are doing them, and that the nation is merely looking on.” -G.K. Chesterton
But if the Little Ships of Dunkirk was that last gasp of Little England, local patriotic love as opposed to brutal imperial pride, Nolan’s Dunkirk may signify its rebirth. As Englishman J.R.R Tolkien said,
“But of bliss and glad life there is little to be said, before it ends; as works fair and wonderful, while they still endure for eyes to see, are ever their own record, and only when they are in peril or broken for ever do they pass into song.”
By “song” Tolkien means “artistic memory”. Nolan is singing an epic tale about an event that happened 77 years ago for a reason, and his song is rendered in a certain manner for certain reasons. What does Nolan think is in peril or broken forever?
“This is for English only,” said the officer. But once the English had saved their countrymen, they were able to save the French and Belgians.
The Enemy, an admiral suggests on the dock, if they wipe out the British army at Dunkirk will then conquer England, and then the world.
In another English war movie, Master and Commander, Captain Jack Aubrey echoes the local patriotism of the English as they fight off Napoleon and his citizen armies of the first global revolutionary movement.
“England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship, is England.” -Jack Aubrey
At Dunkirk, the Enemy is faceless and unnamed because, as we look back, it is just another “-ism,” a manifestation of the ongoing Revolution, a destruction of the Faith and Culture of place and nation for the new, the efficient, the rational, the modern. Nolan doesn’t even use the words “Nazis” or “Germans”. The Enemy starts with the regicide of the French Revolution and its attempt to squash the Catholicism of France, through the 1848 revolutions, Marxism, National Socialism, Communism, and finally the McWorld of Global Consumer Capitalism -all antithetical to the Christian religious culture that made Europe; that gave the West a Localism that flourished under the universal umbrella of Christianity -Lombardy, Galicia, Wales, Orleans, Bavaria, Bohemia, etc.
“God bade me love one spot and serve it, and do all things however wild in praise of it, so that this one spot might be a witness against all the infinities and the sophistries, that Paradise is somewhere and not anywhere, is something and not anything.” -G.K. Chesterton
I suspect that Nolan has captured somehow the changing zeitgeist against global systems in favor of returning to national and local systems -Brexit, Trump and America First, the Visegrad Group. In the global mono-culture, do the English get to have a home? Do Europeans in general get to have homelands?
In the 1990s Francis Fukuyama stated that it was The End of History and the status quo moving forward would be Global Capitalism and liberal democracy which had defeated Communism. He failed to trace the contention back far enough. In response Benjamin Barber wrote Jihad vs. McWorld , which suggested an emerging struggle between local culture and a global consumer mono-culture that seeks to annihilate the local.
In the face of this Enemy, the parochialism of time of Whig Progress, just as the English can only help the French if they preserve themselves first, so too the West can only be saved if the nations that make up the West are saved.
As President Trump said recently in Poland:
“Poland is the geographic heart of Europe, but more importantly, in the Polish people, we see the soul of Europe. Your nation is great because your spirit is great and your spirit is strong. For two centuries, Poland suffered constant and brutal attacks… So it is with true admiration that I can say today, that from the farms and villages of your countryside to the cathedrals and squares of your great cities, Poland lives, Poland prospers, and Poland prevails.”
Dunkirk ends with a soldier reading Churchill’s speech.
“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
But Churchill’s Empire was also another “-ism," now gone. Dunkirk is a rebuke of Churchill’s empire. In Dunkirk Christopher Nolan is telling us that an epoch has ended, the epoch that began with the French Revolution has come to an end as the mighty forces of The Enemy cannot prevail against the small armies and flotillas of local peoples who want to preserve their nations and cultures and not be swamped by the global mono-culture. Henceforth the old will liberate the new, as the armies of the dead liberated Gondor in Tolkien’s Return of the King, because:
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” -G.K. Chesterton The English army couldn’t get home, so “home” can to them. Dunkirk may be a sort of Homecoming for little Englanders and patriots everywhere. “God bade me love one spot…”