Saturday, July 22, 2017

A war film that dares to celebrate a British triumph: After decades of movies lionising the Yanks, MAX HASTINGS says Dunkirk should be required viewing for all schoolchildren

21 July 2017

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Think how many years have passed since there has been anything like it: British audiences expected to pack cinemas to see a British movie about one of the great British moments of World War II: Dunkirk.

Christopher Nolan’s deafening epic about the evacuation from the northern French beaches in May 1940 provides an answer to fans who have demanded for years: ‘Why are we always given Hollywood films about how the Americans battled Hitler all on their own?’

The war movie is such a staple of popular entertainment, a huge element of modern culture, that it is amazing the British have for so long stayed out of it, preferring to make genre pictures about gritty life in northern cities, or rom-coms about smart London.

Part of the trouble, of course, was getting the money for any movie that did not star Americans, and having to pay the cosmic expense of getting hold of tanks, warships, Spitfires or Flying Fortresses.

I once had a conversation about this with the great film director Stanley Kubrick, who was enthusing about a real-life 1944 episode in which the French Resistance battled with Nazi Panzers. I asked why he wasn’t making a film of the story. He replied: ‘Have you any idea what it costs to hire even one German tank for a week, never mind 20 of them?’

Computer graphics have changed all that. Nowadays, giant action scenes and ship-sinkings such as those that feature in Dunkirk can be shot for a fraction of the money Cecil B. DeMille spent on thousands of live extras on movies such as his The Ten Commandments (1923), or Lew Grade wasted on his ruinous Raise The Titanic.

The Dunkirk film shows more ships sinking than stay afloat. And praised be the Lord, here at last is a film without even a token American.

Some of the best war films of the past have been compromised by the need to appease the U.S. box office. The Great Escape (1963) included Steve McQueen, whose motor-biking stunt makes for terrific viewing, but outraged all those who pointed out that no American remotely like him was involved in the real 1943 Tom, Dick and Harry tunnelling out of Stalag Luft III, and no bikes either.

Back in 1957, The Bridge On The River Kwai offered a stunning study of British PoWs on the Burma railway, led by Alec Guinness as their mad colonel. But the on-screen hero had to be the American William Holden, who played the saboteur who destroyed the bridge the stupid British had built for the Japanese.

Richard Attenborough, who should have known better, made the Americans much smarter than the British — headed by a super-snooty Dirk Bogarde as Lieutenant General ‘Boy’ Browning — in his 1977 epic A Bridge Too Far about the September 1944 dash for the Rhine bridges.

Robert Redford played the heroic American paratroop officer Major Julian Cook, who stormed across the Waal river at Nijmegen under German fire. The on-screen Cook treats the sluggardly, tea-brewing British with contempt — as, too, in many respects, does the whole movie.

The ultimate Hollywood crime against British wartime history was U-571, a 2000 movie that hijacked the Royal Navy’s heroic 1941 achievement in salvaging an Enigma cipher machine from a stricken U-boat, and portrayed this as an all-American achievement.

For my taste, and for that of many others of my generation, most of the best of our home-grown war movies were made in black-and-white, during or soon after World War II. Mrs Miniver, Target For Tonight, In Which We Serve and suchlike were designed as propaganda, and intensely sentimental. But they captured a mood of the time which even seven decades later brings a lump to many throats.

So, too, do the greats of the Fifties: The Dam Busters, Reach For The Sky, The Cruel Sea, The Colditz Story, Ice Cold In Alex.

I have always thought that an important element in their credibility is that those who made them had been there. Cast, directors and writers alike experienced the war.

The men who played the aircrew in The Dam Busters were contemporaries of the real-life fliers: Richard Todd, who starred as Guy Gibson, served with the Parachute Regiment in Normandy.

The Cruel Sea — and especially stars Jack Hawkins and Donald Sinden — brilliantly captures the mood and look of the Battle of the Atlantic, an especially fine achievement because it was made long before modern special effects were available. I have never seen a film — not even the excellent German U-boat epic Das Boot — which matches its portrayal of the salt-soaked privations of the men serving in small ships in poor weather, which meant most of the weather, even before the enemy entered the story.

John Mills, Hawkins, Todd and their generation of actors brought to British war movies an intensity of feeling, an absolute belief in the people they were portraying, that their modern counterparts find hard to emulate.

When 21st-century stars don khaki or blue, they almost always look exactly what they are — thespians doing their best to take seriously something that really seems to them remote and absurd. A critic might react to my observations by saying: ‘Yes, but in those old films there was never any blood. Everybody was either alive or they were dead.

‘Today’s movies are far more realistic about showing what war is really like, with people’s arms blown off on camera — as in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan — or their guts trailing all over the screen.’

That is true enough. Yet many of the bloodiest modern American war films, which movie-goers love, most notably Platoon and Full Metal Jacket (both about the Vietnam war), seem grotesquely melodramatic.

Nobody has ever produced a shred of evidence that in Vietnam the communists forced prisoners to play Russian roulette, as in The Deer Hunter.

I recoil from all Oliver Stone’s movies, but especially Platoon, which has precious little to do with real life, or even real death, as I understand this as a historian and past witness of wars. Although Band Of Brothers (the story of Easy Company of the U. S. Army 101st Airborne Division in World War II) was a TV mini-series rather than a straight-up cinema film, it represented one of the finest attempts of recent years to depict soldiers in combat.

Historian Stephen Ambrose, who wrote the original book, and producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, share a more romantic view about warriors than I would myself adopt, but they are not wrong that comradeship is war’s sole redeeming feature.

Odd as this may sound, to me that superlative comedy M*A*S*H has more truth in it about war, and especially Vietnam — though it was supposedly set in Korea — than some of the biggest and noisiest American epics such as Midway and Pearl Harbor.

So much that happens on battlefields is black comedy. Indeed, it sometimes seems to those taking part that the very nature of war is God’s most terrible joke against the cruelty and folly of mankind.

I am currently writing a book about Vietnam, and yesterday found myself describing a moment in a 1968 fire-fight in which a U.S. Marine ran to the rear under fire, humping over his shoulder a buddy who had been hit, apparently oblivious of the fact that the man lacked his head.

That is the sort of thing that happens in wars, yet somehow did not make it into the final cut of The Longest Day, The Dirty Dozen or The Guns Of Navarone. Ah, yes — The Guns Of Navarone. Here is one of everybody’s all-time favourite war movies including mine, with Gregory Peck stitched into the cast as the 1961 obligatory Hollywood star, though his character in the original Alistair MacLean thriller was a New Zealander.

We can link this movie about a British team sent to cross occupied Greek territory and destroy the massive German gun emplacement with other gee-whizz war movies such as Where Eagles Dare.

In the latter, the most believable line comes from hero Richard Burton, who tells Clint Eastwood he is getting too old for death-defying stunts in Nazi castles.

MacLean got the germ of his idea for Navarone from a 1943 episode in the Aegean, when in a season of allied victories, Winston Churchill made a serious blunder: he personally insisted that the islands of Kos and Leros should be seized and held, though the Germans were still strong in the area.

In the ensuing real-life drama there were no big guns, only a few heroes, and no dramatic rescue: but tragically, six British battalions were written off. The Gregory Peck/David Niven movie, like Where Eagles Dare, makes terrific viewing for retarded adolescents like me, of whom there are many millions.

But the stories are really Superman thrillers rather than ‘proper’ war films, because the stars perform feats against the stupid Nazis that no mortal men could match — no, not even the modern SAS on a good day.

Contrarily, one of the wonders of the Fifties black-and-white movies was that almost all told stories that were amazing, but true.

I have been studying World War II all my life, yet my jaw still drops in awe when contemplating what 617 Squadron, the Dambusters, did in May 1943 — flying their Lancasters level through darkness, 60 ft above the water of the Mohne and Eder reservoirs to drop Barnes Wallis’s brilliant bouncing mines. And so, back to Dunkirk. It was, indeed, a miracle that the British Army was allowed to escape France — not through any Nazi expectations of a peace deal, but because the Fuhrer and his generals were overwhelmingly preoccupied with smashing the much larger French army.

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It was a second miracle, that the Channel sustained an almost glassy calm through the evacuation. And a third one that sailors, uniformed and civilian, braved the Luftwaffe’s dive-bombers to rescue the great bulk of the Army, albeit stripped of its weapons, vehicles and equipment, which took years to replace.

The British movie industry is now morbidly frightened of making films that might be thought jingoistic or glorifying war. This makes it all more heartening that the makers of Dunkirk have brought to the screen a great moment in our history.

Winston Churchill warned the House of Commons after Dunkirk: ‘Wars are not won by evacuations.’ But outright defeat was averted only by that marvellous rescue.

The film version has no meaningful dialogue, but that scarcely matters when the spectacle is the thing. The audience in the cinema where I saw Dunkirk burst into spontaneous applause when the ‘little ships’ first sailed across the screen. I hope I shall not be accused of party-pooping for pointing out that in reality it was the big ships, not the little ones, that carried home the overwhelming bulk of the 338,000 men rescued.

Of the 39 Royal Navy destroyers involved, most survived repeated shuttle trips, many of them by night. Just six were sunk, though 19 were damaged.

What was amazing about the real Dunkirk story was not how many British troops the Germans contrived to kill, but how relatively few — around 3,500. Total British dead in the whole 1940 French campaign were only 11,000, against almost five times that number of French troops.

But people will flock to see the Dunkirk movie not for real history, which it assuredly is not, but for an old-fashioned patriotic weepie spectacle, with whizzo special effects by land, sea and air — the sort of thing Steven Spielberg has been making for decades.

His films, of course, are enfolded in the Stars and Stripes. Now that we have one wrapped in the Union flag, it should be made compulsory viewing for all our schoolchildren, who grow up almost totally ignorant of what their great-grandads and great-grandmas did.

What next? In a 2017 in which we seem to be overdosing on gloom and doom, when we go the cinema we deserve to be cheered up. We need another brilliantly-shot ‘finest hour’ story, in which the British triumph in a just war. How about the Falklands War? 

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