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This eBook first published in Great Britain by William Collins in 2017
Copyright © Joshua Levine 2017
Cover image copyright © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.Copyright © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. DUNKIRK and all related characters and elements are trademarks and © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. WB SHIELD: ™ and © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (S17)
Joshua Levine asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
Map by John Gilkes
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Excerpt from The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (Copyright © George Orwell, 1937), reprinted by permission of Bill Hamilton as the Literary Executor of the Estate of the Late Sonia Brownell Orwell; (Victor Gollancz 1937, Martin Secker & Warburg 1959, Penguin Books 1962, 1989, Penguin Classics 2001). Copyright © 1937 by Eric Blair. This edition copyright © the Estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell, 1986; and Copyright © 1958 and renewed 1986 by the Estate of Sonia B. Orwell, reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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Source ISBN: 9780008227876
Ebook Edition © June 2017 ISBN: 9780008227883
To Lionel who inspired me.
To Peggy whom I hope to inspire.
To Philip Brown, Eric Roderick, Harold ‘Vic’ Viner and Charlie Searle with thanks.
‘I Don’t See It as a War Film. I See It as a Survival Story’: An Interview between Joshua Levine and Director Christopher Nolan
2 Quite Like Us
3 The Long and the Short and the Tall
4 High Hopes
5 Fighting Back
6 Halting the Panzers
7 Escape to Dunkirk
8 No Sign of a Miracle
9 A Miracle
10 Where’s the Bloody RAF?
11 A New Dunkirk
Also by Joshua Levine
About the Author
About the Publisher
One afternoon, sitting in the National Archives in Kew, I opened a file containing a report by Commander Michael Ellwood. Commander Ellwood was in charge of communications during the Dunkirk evacuation, and he wrote, in passing, of a Marconi transmitter/receiver that was used for a very short time before it broke down – due to ‘sand in the generator’.
This seemed surprising. How had sand got inside this precious piece of equipment? The Marconi TV5 was a sizeable box, and the memory of Laurel and Hardy delivering a piano in The Music Box flashed through my mind. Had two particularly clumsy ratings dropped it on the beach? Had Captain William Tennant, the Senior Naval Officer Dunkirk, yelled at them in frustration when they told him what they had just done to his only piece of transmitting equipment? Or did they stay quiet and hope that somebody else got the blame?
A short while later, in May 2016, I was standing at the shore end of the Dunkirk mole, very close to where Captain Tennant had placed his headquarters. Looking around, I could see parts of the Dunkirk beach cluttered with soldiers – or men who looked like soldiers. There were warships out to sea, and a white hospital ship, clearly marked with red crosses, was berthed at the end of the mole. Black smoke billowed in the distance, and the sea frontage had been camouflaged to remove any traces of the late twentieth century. Dunkirk was looking remarkably as it had in late May 1940.
Something else was striking, though. The wind had picked up and sand was whipping everywhere. It was clogging hair and stinging eyes. Most people were wearing goggles and shielding their faces – and I suddenly realised that nobody had dropped the transmitter. There had been no clumsy ratings. Sand had been blown into the generator in May 1940 just as it was now blowing into everybody’s eyes and ears. By spending time at Dunkirk, I was learning things about the original event that I could simply never have learned otherwise.
This is why I would urge anybody interested in the story of the evacuation to visit Dunkirk. Walking along the beaches and up the mole, exploring the perimeter where French and British troops kept the Germans at bay, visiting the excellent War Museum, the deeply moving cemetery and Église Saint-Éloi with its bullet- and shrapnel-pitted walls – these are all activities that will bring the events of May and June 1940 to life. The landscape retains the story, and fills in the gaps between words.
With this book, I have tried to tell a different story, or at least a wider story. Just as a visit to Dunkirk will make you think differently about the evacuation, so this book tries to explain events by placing them within a richer context – not merely military, but also political and social. It will try to give a sense of what it was to be a young soldier in 1940, and of the importance of youth culture, in its different forms, in the build-up to war. It will focus on the fighting (and sometimes lack of fighting) that led to the evacuation. And it will explore the effect of the evacuation, up to its very latest manifestation – the 2017 Chris Nolan film.
I have been lucky enough to work as historical adviser on this film. It was a pleasure to do so – partly because I enjoyed meeting so many interesting and enthusiastic people. But mainly because it has brought an under-appreciated piece of history to life in a remarkable way. In the last chapter, you will read of the efforts taken by director, producer and heads of department to be as true as possible to the historical event. By making those efforts, they have allowed the spirit of the evacuation to be recreated as vividly and as truly as I think it ever could be. The result allows us to experience the story for what it actually was – a hard and desperate fight for survival that kept the world free.
Nothing could be more important than that. I urge you to remember, as you watch, that without the real Tommys, Georges and Alexes, we would be living in a far darker world today. And many of us would not be living at all.
An Interview between Joshua Levine and Director Christopher Nolan
Joshua Levine: You’re a British person who works in America. When you said you wanted to make this very British subject into a movie, what did people say?
Christopher Nolan: I had the script finished before I told anyone. Emma [Thomas – producer of Dunkirk] knew. She had originally given me your book [Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk] to read. We had made a Channel crossing many years ago with a friend of ours (who’s actually in the film in one of the boats) in the spirit of re-enacting that historic journey. It was one of the most difficult and frankly dangerous-feeling experiences I have ever had. I was very grateful to get back in one piece, and that was without people dropping bombs on us. It was literally just the Channel, the elements and the three of us on a small boat.
JL: And you made that crossing as an homage?
CN: Yes. We did it a little bit too early in the year. It was Easter, I think it was April rather than May. It was a little too cold and we went over to Dunkirk specifically, but not as massive history buffs. We knew the story – we had grown up with it and our friend had a sail boat, and he said let’s just do it. It turned out to be very, very difficult (at least for me and Emma) venturing out into the Channel in a small boat. It’s a considerable thing to do. The idea of doing it and knowing that you’re heading into a war zone is unthinkable really. And that’s where the analysis of what Dunkirk means as mythology, or as modern mythology, or whatever you want to call it, can’t be overstated. By actually getting on a boat and making that trip you can glimpse the bravery of the people who did it. It’s just such a courageous thing for them to have done.
Emma and I talked about it years later and started reading first-hand accounts. We were curious about why no one had made a film about it – in modern times. It’s one of the greatest human stories. It’s universal, I think. So I did a lot of reading, danced around how to go about it and why people hadn’t in the past. Ultimately we came to the conclusion that the reason people hadn’t was because it was a defeat. And it’s an expensive film. It’s big. It’s an epic any way you slice it up. We tried to approach it in a very intimate way, but it’s an epic and so you need the resources of the industrial Hollywood machine behind it, and getting those resources channelled into a tale, however great, of defeat was a little tricky. But actually what drew us to the story is that it’s not a victory, it’s not a battle. It’s an evacuation. It’s a survival story.
So I don’t see it as a war film. I see it as a survival story. That’s why we don’t see the Germans in the film and why it’s approached from the point of view of the pure mechanics of survival rather than the politics of the event.
JL: It doesn’t feel like a war film. I remember reading about George Orwell’s Room 101, which contains the worst things in the world from your own personal perspective, this faceless enemy which is the nightmare of your imagination, it’s whatever terrifies you. And the film is almost a horror film, or a psychological horror film, or something like that?
CN: It’s a suspense film, but we try and push the visceral suspense as far as we can. So you get into the language of horror films, definitely.
JL: There’s almost an implied contract that if you’re going to make a film about the Nazis in any way you have to show them for what they were. And you haven’t done that.
CN: No. Well, when I was first writing it – it was a crawl at the beginning, but it tells you what’s going on – I used the word Nazi constantly and had people referring in the dialogue to Nazis. I wanted to continually remind the modern audience how evil and awful the enemy was and get them alongside. And then at some point – I think it was in my discussions with Mark Rylance, who first came aboard the project – I realised that because I had made the decision to never actually show Germans, even referring to them was pointless. You don’t want to be in a middle ground. That is to say that you either have to try and address the entire concept of Nazi evil and ideology, or you have to completely circumvent it by not showing them, by having them be subliminal creatures in a way, having them as an off-screen menace. It’s like the shark in Jaws, maybe you see the fin but you don’t see the shark. And that way your mind, and even your ethical sense of who you are identifying with in the film, automatically makes them the worst thing possible out there.
JL: The audience can run with their imagination and take it wherever it goes. But because this film will be seen by a lot of young people who know nothing about the Second World War at all, is there an obligation to underline who the Nazis were?
CN: I think the responsibility is to not present a misleading portrait of the Nazis, but Nazism is notable by its absence and being notable I think is the proper thing. You want the feeling of crisis and jeopardy in Europe. You want the feeling of these British and French soldiers on the ground at a crucial moment in history. You want to feel like this is the absolute crisis point. I did that, from a cinematic point of view, by not personalising, not humanising the enemy, which most war films, one way or another, tend to want to do at some point. Even as far back as All Quiet on the Western Front there’s a thread in war films of wanting to be sophisticated, wanting to humanise the enemy. But of course when you put yourself in the position of a soldier on that beach, for the vast majority their contact with the enemy is extremely limited and intermittent. Most of what you are seeing is bombs dropping. Most of what you are hearing is gunfire from a couple of miles away, which must have been more terrifying than we can really imagine as it gets closer and closer and closer. What we are trying to do with the sound mix right now is to figure out how to create that audio space, so that the battle appears to be ten miles away, then seven miles away, then four miles away, and how absolutely terrifying it would have been for the guys there on the beach.
It’s what you don’t know that is important in the film. So, in the expositional scene we give hopefully just enough historical information. The idea is that [the characters] Tommy and Gibson wouldn’t know anything about what was going on and then they’d be given disquieting scraps of information like ‘we’re trying to get forty-five thousand people off the beach’, ‘there are four hundred thousand people on the beach’ and then you get that ‘OK, every man for himself’ feeling. I was interested in the idea of what people wouldn’t know rather than explaining everything we know now. If you’re inside an event, particularly back then, when you didn’t have smartphones and everything, it’s pretty difficult to get any perspective on what’s going on. One of the most moving things about the Dunkirk story to me – in fact, definitely the single most moving thing – is that when these guys finally were rescued, when they finally made their way home, they went home with a sense of shame. That they went home, the vast majority of them, thinking they were going to be a huge disappointment to the British people back home and then found that they were welcomed as heroes was to me one of the most extraordinary turnarounds, emotionally, in history, and it was because they didn’t know what was going on. So we have them reading Churchill’s speech in the newspaper. They wouldn’t have been in Parliament, they wouldn’t have been able to do what films do traditionally, which is to cut to Winston Churchill speaking to the Cabinet or preparing his speech. They were just going to get it from the newspapers, so they find out after the fact what it is that they’ve been through.
JL: Are there any modern parallels? Are people going to see it as something that happened x years ago or are they going to see it as something that could happen again?
CN: One of the great misfortunes of our time, one of the horrible, unfortunate things with the migrant crisis in Europe, is that we are dealing once more with the mechanics and the physics of extraordinary numbers of people trying to leave one country on boats and get to another country. It’s a horrible resonance but it’s very easy in our technologically advanced times to forget how much basic physics come into play. Reality is insurmountable. If you have a vast number of people in one place and they need to get someplace else and they can’t fly and they have to get on boats – to overcrowd the boats, with that human desire for survival … it’s unthinkably horrible to see it on our front pages in this modern day and age. But it’s there. With that going on in the world today, I don’t think you can in any way dismiss the events of Dunkirk as being from another world or another era.
JL: So what war films do you like?
CN: One of my favourite films – one of the films I most admire – is Terence Malick’s Thin Red Line. It has almost no relevance to this film whatsoever, but it has had relevance to a lot of my other films. I think Memento is heavily indebted to Thin Red Line. We did actually screen it before this film, but it wasn’t relevant except in one key textural, stylistic sense, which is that it is timeless. It feels very accessible and contemporary even though it’s about World War II, and that was certainly something that we wanted to try and achieve in the texture of this film, but as far as the artistic underpinnings and the way in which it tells the story it felt very unrelated. I didn’t look at too many war films. We looked at Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which was also instructive because it has a horror movie aesthetic. It has an approach to intensity and gore that’s so absolute and successful that you realise that you have to go elsewhere. You can’t try and compete with that film. It would be like trying to compete with Citizen Kane. I mean it’s an absolute. That’s the horror of war right there. So we went more in a suspense direction. I didn’t watch too many war films because I read – I think it’s reprinted in the liner notes of the Blu-Ray on the Criterion Edition of Thin Red Line – a piece of writing about war films by James Jones, who wrote the novel of the Thin Red Line, and it’s humbling. This is somebody who had been at war and had written about war and he exposes the devices, the bullshit of war movies in a merciless way that to a filmmaker sitting down to write a film set during a real moment in history was extremely daunting. One of the things he says is ‘What more can be said about war after All Quiet on the Western Front?’ So I went back to look at All Quiet on the Western Front, which I had not seen in many, many years. It’s incredible how all-encompassing it is as a statement about war, how horrible war is. Even though the craft of filmmaking was more in its infancy than now – it’s black and white, it barely has sound – it’s extraordinarily well made. And by virtue of the fact that it’s about Germans but made in the Hollywood system, the anti-nationalist point of view is so powerful, so strong. And that’s what elevates it above any other anti-war film made since. It’s so relentless in its depiction of how awful war is, it’s so unsparing in its depiction of how nationalist myths, jingoistic myths, propagate the idea of war as glorification. I don’t think they’d ever have been allowed to do that if it was made about the Americans and the British.
JL: So is your film a sort of successor to that?
CN: No, not at all. Because I did that reading, that research, it pushed me further in the direction that I had already been heading, not making a war film but making a survival story because that was what I felt confident of doing. I have not fought in a war. It’s my worst nightmare. I can’t imagine doing that. So to me Dunkirk becomes a survival story. The terms of the success or failure for me are survival, and that’s why when one of the soldiers at the end says ‘all we did was survive’, the blind man replies ‘That’s enough.’ Because in the terms of Dunkirk, that was the definition of success. Which is where Churchill’s ‘Inside this defeat there’s victory’ comes from. That’s the particular situation I felt confident trying to tell.
JL: Do you have anyone in your family who fought?
CN: My grandfather died in World War II. He was a navigator on a Lancaster.
JL: Good Lord. Do you know how many missions he survived?
CN: He survived forty-five. He was meant to retire, but I think he died on the forty-sixth. After forty-five, they would then go and instruct new pilots and he was right there. He’s buried in France, and we went to visit his grave while we were making the film, which was very moving. He was in his thirties when he died and he was the old man of the crew, they looked up to him as a father figure. I mean they were kids. They were eighteen, nineteen.
JL: Do you watch your films again?
CN: I do, yes.
JL: And when you watch them do you judge them? How do you watch a film you made several years ago?
CN: You wind up watching them for various reasons fairly soon after you finish, for the video release, for this and that, all kinds of technical reasons. And these days my kids are interested to see The Dark Knight or whatever and I’ll sit and watch it with them. But the reasons go away over time and you stop seeing the films. It’s a very long time since I have seen Memento. There are filmmakers who never watch their films. But I’m interested to because they change over time as you get further away from them. You start appreciating them in a more objective way – what’s good, what’s bad – and they become a little bit more of their time, I suppose.
CN: Which isn’t a cheerful thought, because you don’t want to think of yourself as ageing and being very much of your time, but you are …
JL: But how could you be anything else?
CN: Yes, it’s what we all are. But your highest aspiration is to make a film that feels timeless.
JL: Are you worried that the story of Dunkirk is going to be – certainly for a while, for a generation – your story of Dunkirk?
CN: That brings with it a responsibility, yes, and I am certainly mindful of it. But it’s probably one of the reasons why the film doesn’t attempt to be comprehensive. We don’t deal with the politics of the situation. We don’t deal with the larger worldview around it because I think it would be too daunting a responsibility to try and own a complex piece of history that you can’t actually distil into a two-hour dramatic narrative.
I’m comfortable presenting the visceral experience of Dunkirk and having that define for a period of time, for the next few years, people’s ideas of what the experience might have been. I feel qualified to do that, because we researched and we were able to film it comprehensively. But regarding the wider implications of the story, of the history itself, I don’t want to take that on. And I don’t think the film pretends to. The film has a quality of simplicity that allows you to imagine more stories. And that’s very, very deliberate. That’s part of the reason for the structure. We want to allow people the space to understand that there are many, many more experiences of these events.
JL: This is something that I have written in the book:
For every individual who stood on the beach or on the mole, or retreated clinging to a cow, there was a different reality. Set side by side, these realities often contradict each other. To take one element of the story; the beaches covered a large area, they were populated by many thousands of people in varying mental and physical states over nearly ten intense days of rapidly changing conditions. How could these stories not contradict each other? The whole world was present on those beaches.
To me that feels like the essence. Do you agree with that?
CN: Yes. I think the film is very much based on that same assessment of the illusive nature of individual subjective experience defining objective reality. Which is a connecting thread with all the films I’ve ever made. They are all about individual experiences, potential contradictions with objective reality, and the film tries very strongly to leave space for the seemingly infinite number of experiences and stories that would contradict each other or comment on each other in different ways. We tell three stories that intersect at a point. We show the point when they come together and they are very, very different experiences. Watching a Spitfire pilot ditch from the other Spitfire, it looks calm and controlled, but to actually go through that as you do later in the film is completely different. A massive contrast. That is something that’s always fascinated me about human experience.
JL: We went on a trip round parts of Britain meeting Dunkirk veterans. What did you learn from that?
CN: Absolutely vital things. But what was interesting was that although when we were talking to those people I was honoured and humbled, I wasn’t necessarily inspired or aware in the moment exactly what I was going to get out of these conversations. I knew it was a smart thing to do. We needed to talk to people who had actually been there if we were going to presume to portray their experience. It’s really only when I look back at the film now … when I look at the scene where they watch the guy walk into the water, I don’t know what that guy’s doing, whether he’s killing himself or whether he thinks he can actually swim out. But the reason I don’t know is because I think I even asked him [the veteran] ‘Was he killing himself?’ and he didn’t have an answer. This was a direct thing he had seen.
JL: Did the man himself even know what he was doing?
CN: I don’t know. Exactly.
JL: We like to pin a certainty on everything – ‘This is what he’s doing’ – and actually we don’t even know why we do what we do half the time. And in a situation like that, where the pressures are unimaginable …
CN: A lot of what I got from the conversations with those amazing people was confidence that things that we were intending to do were supported by people’s experience. Different people talking about being on the mole, people getting off the boat, the chap bringing water to Dunkirk, which meant getting off the boat and then not being able to get back on the same boat. It’s just this nightmarish feeling of chaos. Ordered chaos, I suppose you’d call it, or the almost bureaucratic chaos that was apparent on the mole. It’s very interesting listening to people talk about that. And also with that chap who, although he wasn’t a civilian, he’d come over from England to supply water – one of the things that fascinates me is the mechanics. This is why Tommy is trying to go to the loo at the beginning, because those things are interesting; the logistical things. Where are you going to get food from? Water? It’s something that was never planned and is being done ad hoc and so hearing the accounts of somebody who came over with water and saw all the fires from a distance and knew he was going there. That’s an omnipresent image in the film: heading towards these burning fires. It’s on the horizon. It’s the last place you want to go. There were all kinds of things I got from those conversations. They seeped in over time. I think it was very informative asking as you did what their interpretation of the Dunkirk spirit was, because there were such different interpretations. Three very distinct interpretations, as I remember. One was the little ships representing the idea of the Dunkirk spirit. Another was, I can’t remember the words he used, but he basically said it was complete bullshit. And then the last chap we were talking to, he related it to the people holding the perimeter who were left behind. And they were all three absolutely definitive in their own interpretation: that’s what it is, that’s what it means.
JL: Absolutely. I remember one said, ‘You were only worried about yourself.’
CN: Yes. I think he was one of the most interesting people to talk to. What he implied to us was that he’d gone through a set of experiences of which he was not proud, but which he firmly felt were in the norm of that situation for the people that were there. I felt that he wasn’t in any way saying he had done anything wrong or different, but that there were things which shouldn’t be talked about, which were best left there. And for me the whole relationship between Alex and Tommy and Gibson was that moment. It’s not meant to be judgemental of people. I felt that there was a window which opened up on to the privacy of that subjective experience.
JL: I find it interesting that when you get to a certain age the order of things often disappears. Stories no longer move from beginning to end. Time becomes increasingly irrelevant. For me, as a barrister and now a writer, I instinctively want to reorder people’s stories, make logical sense of them. But you’re coming from a totally different perspective, which I find very interesting. You’ve dealt so much in your films with the nature of time that – to you – there was something very honest about this.
CN: Very much. My job is to tell a story in a very disciplined and ordered manner, whether it’s chronological or not, and I wouldn’t have a job if it were natural to people conversationally. The reality is that people’s nature is not to be able to relate their experiences in an absolutely coherent manner, for whatever reason. So storytelling, in whatever form, always has value in society because it’s a particular skill. It’s putting something into a different form, and that’s why the guy not telling us about that specific experience creates an interesting hole in our knowledge which I think is much more expressive than the words would be. Whatever happened, I think he was aware on some level that it would either sound trivial to us, because perhaps he had just sworn at an officer, for example, or it would seem truly shameful, and we wouldn’t be able to understand. Whatever it is, his subjective experience, by becoming a story, would be greatly reduced. I find it very powerful and thought-provoking to think of it as a little gap in our knowledge. It confirms everything that the research suggested, which is that there was an enormous range of experience.