Monday, May 20, 2024
HomeKathy GyngellKathy Gyngell: Today’s cosseted Britain would struggle to repeat Dunkirk

Kathy Gyngell: Today’s cosseted Britain would struggle to repeat Dunkirk


It is not news that since Dunkirk the spirits of duty and ‘derring-do’ have been replaced by an oppressive culture of virtue-signalling and risk aversion. Watching the new movie and then reading its reviews underlined how stark is the change.

Parents need to know that Dunkirk is director Christopher Nolan‘s World War II movie about the real-life incident in which Allied forces were surrounded and trapped on Dunkirk beach – and everyday heroes helped rescue them, despite the risk of danger and death’.

So read a review by common sense media, showing this site to be rather more in touch with the closure of the contemporary British mind than David Aaronovitch of The Times. It’s not just youngsters to whom the movie Dunkirk may come as a shock, but their parents too. Both it seems need alerting to that curious anachronism of risking yourself for another (altruism was too difficult a word I suspect).

The paltry three star rating this ‘safe space’ reviewer gave the movie notwithstanding, it would be worth slicing through the national history curriculum and making school showings of it compulsory, since everything else is. How else are these gaps in the modern national psyche to be filled? Surely Christopher Nolan would oblige.

It could be one of the few chances to open our kids’ eyes up to their regressively changed narcissistic culture.

This ‘apocalyptic war epic’, this ‘utterly immersive account of the allied retreat’ is far from the greatest account of the weeks Britain veered on the edge of annihilation in the war against the Nazis.

Personally, I could have done without the virtue-signalling Labour luvvie actor Mark Rylance acting pretty much himself in the cameo role of brave small boat skipper. The director’s fancy time-twisting technique also was hard to follow and gave too narrow a cast to this historic event. But while I might have privately been praying for a comeback of Leslie Norman’s 1958 (more authentic?) account with its John Mills and Richard Attenborough heroics – Nolan’s version is still a timely reminder of how lightly we now regard past values.

It still brings back a truly terrible time in recent history that today’s generation needs to appreciate – to begin to understand what their great grandparents’ generation sacrificed and their values  – on which their (and our) survival depended.

At the very least, as the common sense for parents review mundanely understates it, the film is to be recommended for its ‘messages of bravery, teamwork, and sacrifice’. These, it says, will reward ‘persistent teens and adults with a powerful, visceral experience’.


Modern filming certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing. It shows the terrifying reality of drowning, trapped in the hold of a torpedoed ship; the frightening realism of life-jacketed survivors burning alive in a sea of igniting oil slicks from their capsizing ships. It renders into a virtual reality the fearful struggle these men endured before their death.

But as to the sheer numbers of men at peril, this the film did not sufficiently emphasise.

It needed to. Not least because of  the shockingly cold disparagement of  male sacrifice that came to light in an appalling Marie Claire tweet that the film ‘feels like an excuse for men to celebrate their maleness – don’t they get to do that enough already?’.

This, unbelievably, is how a woman’s magazine chose to mark the Dunkirk evacuation, (code-named Operation Dynamo) of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, in the north of France, between 26 May and 4 June 1940, during World War II.  This was their comment on the male sacrifice and  testament to  male strength and courage on a scale not witnessed before or since.

The country, Marie Claire please note, faced an unprecedented and “colossal military disaster” with “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” stranded at Dunkirk and about to perish or be captured.

On the first day, 7,669 men were evacuated, but by the end of the eighth day, the extraordinary number of 338,226 soldiers had been successfully brought back across the English Channel while under attack on all sides in a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 boats.

Imagine us achieving that level of organisation and cooperation now in our individualistic, comfort zone and entitled world.

In the week between, thousands of men, terrifyingly exposed to Luftwaffe strafing of them on the beaches, or waiting for hours shoulder deep in cold sea, laden with gear, or rescued only later to drown trapped in the hold of their torpedoed ship, were not so lucky.

Of the 933 ships took part in Operation Dynamo, 236 were lost and 61 put out of action. Six British and three French destroyers were sunk, along with nine other major vessels. In addition, 19 destroyers were damaged.

Yet there was no national collapse. No candlelit vigils. The country got on with regrouping.

They knew that without the bravery of men crafting the little ships of Dunkirk, the exact number of which will never be known, a flotilla of hundreds of merchant marine boats, fishing boatspleasure craftyachts, and lifeboats which were called into service for the emergency, even more than a horrifying 68,000 lives would have been lost.

This sadly is what Nolan’s film fails to capture – either the full scale of the loss and chaos, the level of risk of the rescue endeavour and the extent of the bravery.

Could we do the same now? Would we pull together? Would have the physical or the moral courage to step up to the plate of another such ‘emergency’? These were the questions the film left me with.

An end credit of a black screen silent ‘in memoriam’ scroll of the men, ships and small craft lost would have given time to reflect on our dangerously changing mores.

Today we have a collective nervous breakdown at the prospect of any change, let alone action. The very word Brexit has risk averse Remainers running for cover. Students demanding respect for their safe space and preoccupied with virtue-signalling, questions of cultural appropriation or hate crimes no longer contemplate the virtues of fortitude, courage, altruism and duty.

Why would most men today be prepared to sacrifice themselves when their very maleness is continually and consistently undermined or undervalued if not made a matter of shame; when the only male pride permissible is gay pride?

Yet it is still men’s unique maleness that for all our modern technology and so-called gender equality we still depend on when the chips are down. If the film Dunkirk does nothing else it should remind us that dismissing and dissing it is a risky strategy for survival.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

If you appreciated this article, perhaps you might consider making a donation to The Conservative Woman. Unlike most other websites, we receive no independent funding. Our editors are unpaid and work entirely voluntarily as do the majority of our contributors but there are inevitable costs associated with running a website. We depend on our readers to help us, either with regular or one-off payments. You can donate here. Thank you.
If you have not already signed up to a daily email alert of new articles please do so. It is here and free! Thank you.

Kathy Gyngell
Kathy Gyngell
Kathy is Editor of The Conservative Woman. She is @kathygyngelltcw on GETTR and is back on Twitter.

Sign up for TCW Daily

Each morning we send The ConWom Daily with links to our latest news. This is a free service and we will never share your details.