Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Dunkirk - A Great Escape



Well, that was rather fortuitous that Christopher Nolan released a movie about the evacuation at Dunkirk almost a year after I had visited the place, which basically gives me an excuse to actually write about my experience at the museum. Mind you, there actually isn't all that much in Dunkirk, and don't expect a place swarming with tourists or anything, it really isn't that sort of town. Sure, it does have a beach, but that is basically about it. In fact, when I was sitting in the hotel lobby with a beer and my laptop, at least two couples approached the concierge and asked them if there was anything to actually do (at least at night). Mind you, the hotel that I stayed at was pretty shocking, and they also double-charged me for my room, so not surprisingly I gave it a pretty low score on Yelp.

Anyway, this post isn't so much about the film, or the city, but I'll be talking about both of them, as well as the event, and the war museum. Sure, I might be going to bit all over the place, but then again if you have read my previous posts then you would probably alway expect that. So, we arrived in Dunkirk pretty late a night, namely because we had spent the day gallivanting across the French countryside, and by the time we have finished the sun was starting to set. The first thing that I noticed when we arrived was that the town is actually quite modern, in that rather horrid 1960s architectural sort of way. That's not all that surprising mind you since the city was flattened during the war. There are some old buildings left, but not many.



A part of me is still kicking myself that I didn't go too far beyond the vicinity of the hotel. It was only afterwards that I discovered that the harbor was another five minutes walk from where I stopped wandering, and apparently there are a few places there to check out. Still, even though it was a Saturday Night when we arrived, the place was practically dead - the closest place for something to eat was a cafe at the end of the road, though I was able to grab a beer in the lobby. Maybe it has something to do with it being a small town, and while it is a harbour, it isn't actually a major harbour, which is why the British weren't able to get their ships too close to the shore.

Anyway, here is a map in case you are interested.

The Battle of Dunkirk

Actually, I'm not entirely sure as to the extent of people's knowledge surrounding the events that led up to Dunkirk. To be honest, while I had heard of Dunkirk, it wasn't until I studied World War I and World War II in University that I found out not so much about the battle, since the story of the British evacuating over three-hundred thousand troops using small fishing boats has come down to us as a legend, how they ended up on the beach is another story. However, like most things that happened in World War II, the backstory goes all the way back to World War I.


You see, when the Germans invaded France in World War I, they also invaded through Belgium, however they turned south towards Paris. While at first this looked as if it was going to be successful, the advance was halted at the River Marne. Initially the advance was supposed to come down to the left of Paris, however the plan was altered slighty and the result was that the advance came down to the right. However, the Germans were so close to Paris that French Troops were actually sent to the Front Line in cabs.

With the advance halted at the Marne, the Germans decided to head north in an attempt to outflank the French, however realising this the Allies also headed north and both sides attempted to outflank the other, to no success, until they reached the North Sea - this event became known as the race to the sea, and resulted in the four year stalemate of trench warfare that World War I has become famous for. However, this time the Germans decided to do something slightly different. First of all they struck through the Ardennes, a range of mountains that pretty much nobody thought could be penetrated by armour. However the Germans did it, though it should be noted that the move was incredibly risky as the armour moved through in single file,ad if the Allies had worked out what was going on they could have easily halted the German's advance.



Then, once they had hit France, instead of turning south, then turned north in a move that has since become known as the Schikleschnit (or the sickle cut), thus cutting the British Expeditionary Force off from the French. Once the armies have been divided, they then slowly began to squeeze the British until the found themselves trapped on the beach in Dunkirk. It seemed, at this stage, that the British were finished, and while debate still rages as to why the Germans didn't send in their tanks to finish it off, the general belief is that this section of France is incredibly marshy and no doubt if the tanks went in they would probably have become bogged. Though in the film the admiral does make the comment, "why waste good tanks when they can pick us off like fish in a barrel from the air".


Nolan's Masterpiece 

It seems like whenever I make a comment about a film by Christopher Nolan I inevitable use the word masterpiece to describe it. Then again, unlike a lot of film makers out there, Christopher Nolan is an artist, and it is only an artist that can turn the Dark Knight of Gotham into a film that challenges and confronts you. The other thing is that whenever I see a film by Nolan I almost automatically want to write a blog post, though when Inception was released it was before I had started writing anything. However I will no doubt be watching it again to discuss the themes that arise from the film so, as they say, watch this space.


Honestly, I'm not all that sure that I can say much more than what I have already said in my review on IMDB. The movie itself was great, and not as long as I expected it to be (Nolan is known for making rather long, yet quite engaging, movies). Like his last couple of films, he seems to have the knack of weaving multiple time streams together in a way that you will see something in an earlier scene and think nothing of it, and then discover later on in the film that it is actually all connected - Nolan doesn't do things by halves, and he rigorously sticks to the concept of Chekov's Gun).

The film tells the story from three perspectives: two soldiers trapped at The Mole, which is the name for the harbour at Dunkirk; a small recreational fishing boat traveling across the channel, and a couple of fighter pilots engaging German planes. The thing is that the scene at the Mole starts a week earlier, the fishing boat a day earlier, and the planes an hour earlier, which means that you will see something happening from the planes before you see it from the boat, and before you see it from The Mole.

The Beach in 2017

The other thing about the film is that it felt in part like an independent arthouse film, yet in another way it was clear that it was a big budget blockbuster. I have to be honest and admit that I don't see that many arthouse films, probably because when it comes to movies I tend to prefer mainstream films. Sure, I'll see the occasional one, but since I watch at least a movie a week at the cinema, and see the occasional play, I generally don't to have the time for watching the strange and the weird (though I probably should try to get down to the Astor more often and see some of the classic cult movies that they tend to show).

The War Museum

If you happen to be in Dunkirk you will discover that there are a number of signs scattered about the town, each of them highlighting an important aspect of the battle that was fought here. Since I hadn't seen the film, when I stepped out onto the beach it really didn't seem to be all that much, and it certainly didn't seem to be as far out as it had in the film (though the beach is apparently quite shallow, as is the harbour, which is why the British had an awful lot of trouble bringing their larger ships in). There was a pair of binoculars on the foreshore, and even though it was a clear day we still couldn't see Britain (though we could see France from Dover).


You can actually follow this signs in order around the town, and they culminate at the War Museum, which is in an old bunker just back from the ocean. In fact when we walked in there it looked as if it was run by a veteran of the battle (though I didn't think of asking him that when I paid my entry fee). The Museum, like a lot of the war Museums scattered across France (and England), is generally a collection of old military equipment, photographs, dioramas, and the occasional video. 

The operation to remove the British troops from the continent was known as Operation Dynamo, and occurred between the 28th May and 2nd June. However, Lord Gort, the commander in chief, and a veteran of the First World War, decided that he would remain until the last boat had left, and in the film it is even suggested that he remained behind to help co-ordinate the evacuation of the French. However, this was a bit of a controversy that arose, and there is still some bitterness about it to this day - Churchill decided that the British would take precedence in the evacuation, and the French would then be evacuated, if it was still possible. In fact, much of the French forces ended up being captured.

Honestly, I can't say that the museum was one of those great and engaging museums, but it is a nice distraction where you can spend half and hour or so exploring and looking at what is on offer. Along with the various artifacts, and the video, they also have newspaper clippings and reprints of the news reports from the time. In a way it relies very much on the primary sources. As for the town, well, at least I got to stand on the beach that the British army stood on, anxiously waiting to find out if they would get home, or if they would be captured. We all know the end of that story though, though it is a shame that I didn't get around to visiting Normandy and Omaha Beach. (who knows, maybe next time).



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Dunkirk - A Great Escape by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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