It’s 2017. So the sight of a row of black-faced men wearing orange life jackets, crammed together in a small boat, evokes feelings about refugees rescued from drowning.
It’s an image that recurs in the film Dunkirk. But these men are British soldiers. Their faces are black from the oil that spilled as their ships went down.
And their rescuers are old men and teenage boys. They were officially too old or too young to fight, yet they volunteered to take their tiny pleasure craft into a war zone to pick up the survivors of a disastrous military defeat.
I’m a Brit, so watching the movie in Leipzig was a disturbing experience. For a start, Dunkirk 1940 was a chapter of shame in our history books, to be quickly glossed over. It was a scrambled evacuation of 330,000 British and French soldiers, surrounded by Hitler’s forces and huddling helplessly on the beaches.
Worse still, this Dunkirk film version is dubbed in German!
There are no German characters – only the faraway fighter pilots whose faces are not shown. They rain bombs on the retreating French and British forces. They bomb the hospital ship, painted white with a red cross on its funnel, and carrying only nurses and wounded soldiers. They bomb the pier, so that rescue vessels cannot approach the beach through the shallows to pick up the shell-shocked and exhausted troops.
Those British Tommies in Dunkirk show typical trench humour – even though they are speaking in German, which makes me feel dizzy and disoriented.
They are defeated but somehow not downcast.
The actor playing the British Admiral, Kenneth Branagh, is a giant of the English stage. His portrayal of Shakespeare’s Henry V at Agincourt is a legend.
In Dunkirk, he stands on the makeshift jetty. It’s been cobbled together from trucks and planks by the Royal Engineers, because the Germans have bombed the pier.
The Admiral looks despairingly out to sea through his binoculars. He sees a ragtag collection of weekend sailboats, a Thames sailing barge and a couple of fishing smacks.
“What do you see?”, asks the Army commander.
“Home”, says the Admiral. And I burst into tears.
The music swells like a tide and becomes the Royal Air Force anthem ’Lux Aeterna’, the ’ Nimrod’ Adagio theme from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
It is a hymn to dead fighters who live in heaven in eternal light… but in the movie it cues the happy ending.
Happy? At the greatest military defeat since Gallipoli? Well, yes.
Because although we Brits had lost the battle, lost the beach-head, and lost the continent to Nazism, we had gained something that was not there before. You could call it solidarity. Those old boys in their little boats had sailed into deadly danger, with the Luftwaffe overhead, U-boats below and the sea ablaze with burning oil.
And they had come home, with their cargo of black-faced men in orange life-jackets and their British sense of dignity and decency intact.
By Jane Whyatt