S. Martin Shelton

Retired U.S.Navy Captain, Novelist

Archive for the tag “France”

Film Review – Dunkirk

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Rating – Two stars

I enjoyed the first few minutes of Dunkirk. The narrative was presented in classic cinematic design—relevant, dynamic, kinetic action void of dialogue and supported by pertinent sound effects. “Here’s a winner,” I reckoned. Unfortunately, as the film continued, I became increasingly disappointed.

I do not know what to make of Dunkirk. Is it a historical fiction film based on the rescue of the British army from France, or an avant garde experiment? Nonetheless, as a straight narrative film it is seriously flawed. Notwithstanding the numerous technical errors, several egregious, I could not willingly suspend my disbelief while viewing this film.

Dunkirk does not engender empathy for its characters. One exception is actor Mark Rylance—the skipper of a small boat that putt-putts at an agonizingly plodding pace to the beach at Dunkirk. Other than him, I’ve no one to root for.

There is no antagonist, except some vague enemy who shoots from concealment, fires artillery shells from the ether (as it were), and flies Messerschmitt 109s and drops bombs from Hinkle 119s sans aviators. I’ve no one to fear or abhor. Who is the enemy that is causing the havoc at Dunkirk? I am bamboozled by why the producers did not identify the adversary—the German Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and Kriegsmarine. Am I to conclude that the filmmakers’ cultural-correctness negates history so as not to offend—anyone? Gadzooks! Without a defined antagonist, the narrative is palpably defective.

Compounding my disappointment is the negative ambiance that pervades Dunkirk. The mise en scène focuses excessively on sinking ships, downed aircraft, and dying and dead “tommies”—dying in all manner of horrors. Bedlam is a more fitting title for this epic extant. Admittedly, war is Hell. But to linger on its savagery is ghoulish.

My most serious objection to Dunkirk is the film’s dereliction in failing to communicate the critical importance and far-reaching consequence of the “Miracle of Dunkirk”—the evacuation of 200,000 British “tommies” and 140,000 French poilus from the beaches of France. This British operation was one of Word War II’s most critical actions. The film ignores the great triumph that it was. Had this operation failed, Britain would have been without an army and probably would have had to ask for terms with the Third Reich.

Background. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Wehrmacht Commander of Army Group A during the Battle of France, said, “Dunkirk was one of the greatest turning points of the war.”

The filmmaker missed a beckoning opportunity to concoct a classic cinematic montage that would portray the frenetic activity of British naval personnel and subjects fueling and preparing private boats that could sail the forty miles from Ramsgate to France, and return with soldiers. En route was an armada of eight hundred self-propelled vessels—the “little ships of Dunkirk.” It was a mélange of trawlers, pleasure yachts, fishing boats, dinghies, Thames ferries, lifeboats, automobile ferries, and tugboats. Included also were Belgian fishing boats, Irish motor torpedo boats, and Dutch coasters.

The last scene in Dunkirk shows a rescued British soldier riding in a train, looking at a newspaper. He spots a transcript of Winston Churchill’s famous “Miracle of deliverance” speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940—”We shall fight on the beaches…we shall never surrender.” This was the most famous speech of the war. It boosted British subjects’ sagging morale and encouraged them to carry on. To my serious disappointment, the soldier read aloud this hallmark speech. How pedestrian.

Nolan missed another golden opportunity to salvage a smidgen of this flawed film’s ambiance. After the surfeit of death and destruction that suffused through this epic, it ought to have ended on a high point, a capstone. Consider a scene that would show the “little ships” flotilla closing on the English coast. On the sound track is Winston Churchill delivering his “Miracle of deliverance” oration. Didn’t happen.

The special effects in Dunkirk are spectacular. I wonder, however, if less technology and more plot and cinematic design would have produced a more tolerable film.

FIN

Complete text of Winston Churchill’s “Miracle of deliverance” speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940—the last day of the Dunkirk evacuation.

”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.”

FIN

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Thoughts About D-Day, 6 June 1944

We thank and honor the men who landed on the Normandy beaches on June 6th 1944.  All are heroes.

I was fifteen years old when we heard a radio announcer blurt that the Allies had landed on the beaches in northern France.  Involved were 130,000 Allied soldiers from USA, Britain, Canada, and the Free French.  There was no mention of casualties.  The news was all positive: we were going to liberate Europe from the Nazi scourge.

Meantime, Joseph Stalin’s Red Army was advancing swiftly through Belorussia with Poland in sight in the USSR’s version of their “liberation of Europe”—under the plague of the hammer and sickle of Communism.

In retrospect, I have concerns about the wisdom of the D-Day landing on the Normandy beaches.  These brave men stormed the beaches into the teeth of the German’s defenses: the Atlantic Wall orchestrated by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (The Desert Fox)—perhaps the most skillful of all Third Reich’s generals.  The approaches to the beaches had a four-tiered defense system.

  • About 300 yards from the high-water mark were Belgian gates with mines attached.
belgian gates

Belgian Gates

  • A line of spiked logs facing seaward.
spiked logs

Spiked Logs

  • Thousands of underwater mines.
underwater mines

Underwater Mines

  • A near continuous line of hedgehogs close to the beaches. 
Pas de Calais, Atlantikwall, Panzersperren

German Engineer with Hedgehog

On shore, were coastal artillery batteries in gun casement, tank traps, thousands of machineguns, mines, booby traps, two divisions of Wehrmacht well armed, and combat veterans from the Eastern Front (USSR).  In nearby reserve were two Panzer divisions.

Gun Enplacement

Coastal Artillery Gun Casement

Anti-tank trap

Anti-Tank Trap

 

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German Machine Gunner on Omaha Beach

Allied causalities at day’s end were over ten-thousand—dead, wounded, and missing!

Our causalities increased alarmingly in the following few days.  Not until late on 9 June did the Allies secure the beaches and begin their tedious and dangerous advance into Normandy.
I wonder if our invasion of Europe should have been in southern France?

To set the perspective for D-Day, let’s review a few key highlights of World War II to date.

  • 01 September 1939. Germany invaded Poland and France and Great Britain declared war on Germany.
  • 17 September 1939. USSR invaded Poland.
  • 10 May 1940. Germany began Blitzkrieg through the low countries and France.
  • 22 June 1940 France surrendered. Germany occupied Paris, the land areas around the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean.  A puppet French government, headed by Marshall Henri Phillippe Pétain, was established in Vichy to govern central France and the area adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea—dubbed “Unoccupied France.”  Most of the French colonies in Africa and Asia were under the control of Vichy France.
  • 22 June 1941. Germany invaded the USSR.
  • 08 November 1942, Operation Torch.  American troops landed in Vichy-French North Africa.
  • 10 November. 1942, German troops occupied Vichy France.
  • 13 May 1943. Africa cleared of Axis troops.
  • 10 July 1943.  Allies invaded Sicily.
  • 03 September 1943.  Allies invaded Italy.
  • 04 June 1944.  Allies liberated Rome and are bogged down in the mountains north of the city.

I would speculate: even though Germany had occupied all of France in late 1942, our task might have been somewhat less horrendous if we had invaded France from the Mediterranean coast.  Few German troops were in this area and the terrain was more favorable for a fast armored breakout.

Isn’t speculation wonderful?

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