Blessay 45: The Dunkirk Variations

My parents, who lived through WW2, hardly spoke of that time. If I questioned my father (who’d been an ARP warden and a fireman) tears would well up in his eyes then he’d firmly tell me to shut up and switch on the television. Whereas my mother would occasionally gush, for half an hour, just before Dad returned home from work, about the terrible people she endured in the air-raid shelters. Especially the ones that snored very loud, got drunk or barely tolerated an unwashed, old woman who habitually began her ‘crazy act’ by starting to tear of her clothes.

As a curious boy I probed them, assisted by war footage shown on TV. I attempted to drag them out of their slumber of forgetting. For several minutes the words, blitz, rationing and Dunkirk triggered apprehension in my mother and a quiet fright in my father who’d light his pipe and quickly leave the room.

The real Dunkirk never registered as an event in which a relative had suffered (though in a home as secretive as mine even a friend of the family might have been killed in the conflict and I would have never been told). It was Dunkirk, the film, not the often mythologized actual defeat, that played on mother’s nerves and father’s guilt.

Aged nine in the early summer of 1958 I spent a week with my mother at Rhyl, in North Wales. This was a holiday and a temporary ‘evacuation’ from the misery of my Dad who emotionally hid away from his family. It wasn’t the then excused violence of physical blows but the many brooding silences, lies, secrets and neglect. Since her recent return from hospital mother was weary of her husband’s un-concern. So we absconded or ‘evacuated’ ourselves, leaving the ‘head’ of the household stewing in his irascible mood swings.

Going to Wales was my first trip to a foreign country. It made me feel a sharp sense of displacement from Liverpool. I sensed Mother’s unhappiness and probably physically clung to her, over that week, more than any other time afterwards. It was all a very needy mother and son love. I can’t recall the sea-side or the town of Rhyl itself: only the breakfasts of bacon and eggs, a vase of freshly picked flowers on the table and the warm laughter of my uncle resonating through the house.

Yet it was the after-effect of seeing a film that exposed the true state of my mother’s helplessness. It was the Plaza cinema in Rhyl and the film was Dunkirk. Ten minutes before the end, my mother began to cry. This coincided with the screen death of actor Bernard Lee, playing a sceptical journalist and small boat owner, unexpectedly killed by a German aircraft whilst attending a service held on the beach. It wasn’t simply the poignancy of the scene but the intense pain, in my mother’s legs, that caused her tears. She didn’t seek help from an usherette but said it would be better once she was outside the cinema. Mother stoically made it to the bus-stop, laid herself down on a bench and moaned. Her sounds cut right through me. I didn’t know what to do, nor did she. She hoped the pain would lessen soon as the chemist was now closed to buy aspirins.

A stranger appeared. A well dressed middle aged man wearing a trilby. “My legs.” Was all mother was able to say to him. All he said in reply was “It’s a taxi for you luv.” When the black cab arrived the stranger paid the driver in advance plus a small tip to take us home to Uncle’s. Back home she went to bed, took painkillers and drank hot, sweet tea. I entered the bedroom and lay down beside her. She hugged me saying, “Those poor young soldiers in the boats. And your mother with her pains. What’s to be done, eh?

Nothing to be done for the actors in the Ealing film. And for my mother, only stronger tablets from our doctor once we were back in Liverpool. The diagnosis for Dunkirk was a good, sometimes stolid, British war film. The diagnosis for Mother was the beginning of rheumatoid arthritis. I and my older brother became her occasional ‘carers’. Father was the passive onlooker. Mother the frustrated patient, who in old age gradually slipped into infirmity.

Last week I saw Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, at the Imax cinema in Swiss Cottage, and inevitably thought of Leslie Norman’s project housed inside the art-deco Plaza cinema. I found the new version to be a very good film, though not the masterpiece that some critics would have us believe. It’s impressively staged and photographed. Hans Zimmer’s overwhelming soundtrack / soundscape makes the greatest impact. Nolan’s visuals are finely crafted but very few memorable images stick in the mind afterwards. The problem is the director’s intention to turn this story of survival into an ‘immersive experience’ Dunkirk is a moving film, even though, like the 1958 version, the agony and gore are absent (Whereas the great anti-war films do very sensitively depict such horrible scenes.) But was my 2017 Nolan / Dunkirk involvement more because of the brilliant mechanics of cinema than its inherent semi- tragic story of military defeat? On that I am divided.

Despite its more linear and conventional narrative, the tone, rather than the technique of the 1958 Ealing film also proved ‘immersive’. Dunkirk has a glum and bitter flavour of endurance that accorded with a national response. That stoicism (both admirable and yet potentially repressive) suited the emotions of cinemagoers in the 1950s, upset my mother and intersected with her pain.

Yet there’s a further parallel between the two films and what happened to me on that day in Ryhl. Innocence and Experience. Not shining in neon lights, but contrary states subtly infiltrating both screen time and real time with an affecting power. Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) the experienced newspaperman is an innocent when placed in the field of conflict. His death in Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk feels arbitrary and futile. The ‘innocent’ young man Frankie (Sean Barret) who accompanied him runs to tell the newly experienced boat owner John Holden (Richard Attenborough portraying a man shaken out of his former indifference to the war effort) of Foreman’s death.

In Nolan’s Dunkirk its George (Barry Keoghan) the innocent schoolboy son of boat owner Mr.Dawson (Mark Rylance) dies from injuries caused on board by a scuffle with a British shell-shocked sailor. The experienced sailor father doesn’t attack or judge the soldier. Although solemn and resigned to his son’s fate, Dawson’s stoicism never descends into the category of stiff upper lip fortitude.

Both scenes in both films are intensely moving. Bernard Lee’s more so for that’s when Mother and I began to leave the cinema. (Impossible to imagine my mother, if she were still alive, sitting through the Dawson boat sequence of the Nolan film. The ‘noise’ of the Zimmer soundtrack, if her hearing had still been intact, would have had her leaving within minutes of the film starting.)

I see mother and me as innocents. Unprepared for the onset of arthritis. Unprepared for that screen death. Unprepared for our evacuation from home. Our Dunkirk experience revealed to me the vulnerability of the body and the chance intervention of compassion (The stranger who got us home in that taxi will be dead now, but his generosity outlives him, trying to be caught in this essay).

A small postscript – my encounter with a man in his eighties in the bar of the Regents Cinema, London. I happened to mention I’d seen the new Dunkirk film two days ago. Dave told me that in 1958 he was a soldier doing National Service. And that the producers of the “John Mill’s Dunkirk” needed real soldiers as extras for the beach scenes. Dave, with many unpaid others, had to run up and down the beach for two days of filming. Many of those scenes were long shots. Unfortunately Dave never got to see himself close-up. “It was really tiring.” He said. But his face revealed great delight. I suspected his unintentional pleasure was a highlight of an otherwise mundane National Service. Here was another conscripted young man, battle dressed for the part, innocent of participation in the real Dunkirk, yet gaining experience, for a fleeting moment, in its reconstruction. All quite immersive, in its way.

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