Spoilers ahead for Dunkirk…
A nationalist review and comment about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and ambiguous imperialist ideology of Churchill’s government.
Dunkirk evacuation, France, 1940
Christopher Nolan’s thrilling depiction of the Second World War evacuation in his latest movie Dunkirk is a cinematic stroke of genius. His nonlinear narration of the evacuation episode in three chapters Air, Sea and Land (Mole) will make the visual experience of the desperate survival of exhausted Allied soldiers more realistic than never before. I can say it as the best movie so far in 2017 unlike the movies of MARVELLous super heroes who are just toys.
It’s the survival story depicting the evacuation of Allied soldiers (mostly British, French and Belgium) from the French coastal city of Dunkirk when they are surrounded by the Nazi army from all the sides. When death is lurking behind the wall, they need to reach home within a short period of time (courtesy Adolf Hitler who misjudged the British government that they will strike peace).
In the end, when they reach home British soldiers will have a heavy sense of guilt in their hearts for running away from ruthless enemy instead of fighting against them and for letting down their citizens. Nolan creates a sense of empathy in us towards the soldiers for the grave situation they are driven into. The final scene where a soldier reads out a newspaper report about Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s speech in the context of Dunkirk evacuation is really odd. I feel it to be contradictory with the actions and attitude of Churchill towards India in the coming days. Churchill was giving motivational, inspiring and patriotic speeches to his nation but at the same time was killing innocents in his backyard. This epilogue in the movie disturbed me a lot.
‘Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. 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’ – Winston Churchill to the House of Commons after Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940.
Bengal Famine, British India, 1943-1944
After three years of Dunkirk evacuation, Britain now supported by USA whose might is no less than Nazi Germany is wreaking havoc in Europe and Hitler’s hegemony was being stubbornly resisted. At the same time, in eastern India, a worst famine has struck leaving thousands of its people starving to death. Principle cause of this famine is utter mismanagement of the local economy by colonial government. Crop harvest and surplus grains produced by Indian farmers were exported to the Britain and to its allies for no cost to fight the war. Adding the salt to the wound was the orders from London to divert the incoming relief material meant to Europe which really meant for starving Indians. Churchill signed those orders.
Few historians say, ‘Winston Churchill is no less than Hitler in his ruthlessness’.
Author Madhusree Mukherjee in her book Churchill’s secret War writes about Bengal famine ‘Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. Starving people begged for the starchy water in which rice had been boiled. Children ate leaves and vines, yam stems and grass. People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones.”
Dogs and jackals feasted on piles of dead bodies in Bengal’s villages. The ones who got away were men who migrated to Calcutta for jobs and women who turned to prostitution to feed their families. Mothers had turned into murderers, village belles into whores, fathers into traffickers of daughters”.
Ms Mukerjee also writes “Churchill’s attitude toward India was quite extreme, and he hated Indians, mainly because he knew India couldn’t be held for very long.” She also writes “Churchill regarded wheat as too precious a food to expend on non-whites, let alone on recalcitrant subjects who were demanding independence from the British Empire. He preferred to stockpile the grain to feed Europeans after the war was over”.
Winston S Churchill, revered as the greatest leaders of 20th century committed genocide in India in no way different than what Hitler was doing Jews. When he had his own sense of patriotism and love for his country to protect his citizens then why should not Indians have the same towards India? Already battered by Hitler’s might, pressure of Quit India movement and Subhash Chandra Bose’s alliance with Japanese in the war annoyed the colonial government much more than anything else. His racist remarks against the Indians when they asked for aid to feed Bengali people clearly contradict his reputation as the greatest Prime Minister of Britain.
Churchill gave irrelevant excuses to officials in India – Britain could not spare the ships to transport relief aid as their fleet was depleting. But there are official records which reveal ships carrying grain from Australia bypassing India to Europe.
When British officials who understood the situation in Bengal wrote to their Prime Minister saying that his policies were causing loss of innocent lives in India, Churchill replied with a witty question ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’
What does the British think would have been the reason for Allied forces victory in the war? It was not Churchill’s inspiring leadership and bravery of their defense forces, it was India’s economic and human loss which gained them. Their victory is built on the graves of millions of Indians who starved to death to feed them and three million Indian soldiers who fought along with the British.
Indian parliamentarian and former UN bureaucrat says ‘This [Churchill] is the man who the British insist on hailing as some apostle of freedom and democracy, when to my mind he is really one of the more evil rulers of the 20th century only fit to stand in company of the likes of Hitler, Mao and Stalin’
Do the schools teach these facts to their children in England? Shashi Tharoor again lambasts in a British news channel ‘There is so much historical amnesia about what the British Empire entailed’. He critically point out the fact that they (British) don’t really teach colonial history in their schools and students doing A levels in history don’t learn a line of colonial history. He also adds that here’s no real awareness of the atrocities in British children.
He suggests to young minds in this context of British-Indian colonial past ‘ If you don’t know where you’ve come from, how will you appreciate where you are going?’
Coming back to Dunkirk, Should I appreciate the generosity of ordinary British who helped to bring back their soldiers in small boats or their warm welcome by offering beer to guilt ridden soldiers? Should I appreciate and admire the British for their victory over Germany five years later? Should I agree with the manipulated and half-baked history about British victory?
OK.. Whatever it may be, I thank Christopher Nolan for giving us a stunning and heart pounding experience of a human’s quest for survival when surrounded by enemy. Dunkirk is quite different from the World War movies we have seen till now. It’s only about survival and not about killing each other. The intellectual narration of Nolan is seen through the entire movie where audience is shown not even one enemy soldier except in the end. It’s not about blood and action but only about survival from death and desperateness to go home. One line from the movie that drives the invisible atrocity of war is uttered by an aging sailor ‘Men my age dictate this war — why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?’
I also thank him for including the Churchill’s address in the end of the movie because if it was not there I would not have written this.
Christopher Nolan being a British citizen might be oblivious of Western colonial atrocities, but as an Indian I am aware how my land was looted and how my people were deprived of what they were truly entitled to.
Feature image by junaidrao