Forbes Africa Editor Chris Bishop took a sneak preview of the new Hollywood blockbuster Dunkirk as it lands in the continent and emerged more than a little disappointed.
Sometimes art pales when it tries to imitate life and gritty human history. This was what I felt when I left the cinema after two hours of the slick new Hollywood effort Dunkirk.
This is one of the reasons why. When I was a young, aspiring, reporter on a small provincial weekly newspaper I had to carry out “district calls” every Monday morning; for the new generation of journalists this means travelling around actually talking to people to find out what is going on at street level. It was the best foundation for a career in journalism. It was a lot more reliable than social media and frankly a lot more fun (Youngsters, don’t forget to look back at your phone and say : ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ at this juncture.).
I always looked forward to my first call of the day, at a small semi-detached house in Wilden Lane, the most. As my car drew up the florid face of Reg Abbotts would beam through the window. He was a town councillor and former mayor who used to like talking to journalists and was always full of stories. I can shut my eyes and hear his throaty laugh, country burr and eyes bright with mirth; I always liked Reg no matter what his political party was doing. He was man of substance and a man of the world even though he’d lived nowhere but his tiny village; war had made him a socialist.
I always wondered why he used to offer me a whiskey on a Monday morning before pouring a large one for himself; back then you didn’t say no to elders, so I accepted. In those days we also hadn’t heard about post-traumatic stress.
One day I noticed his war medals. He told me he was at Dunkirk – the French beach where British and French troops fled the advancing Germans in May 1940. It proved a miracle in anyone’s book. The British hoped to rescue about 30,000 troops; a brave operation that included scores of small ships from ferries to rickety pleasure boats to save more than 300,000 troops and arguably changed the course of the war.
Reg was a cavalry man in the Queen’s Own Worcestershire Hussars, a regiment that served in Africa in the Anglo-Boer War, one of the regiments of folklore where I grew up. There were no horses in World War Two and Reg told me, between sips of whiskey, he was in an anti-tank battery forming the rear guard against the advancing Germans to buy time for the troops to be picked off the beach at Dunkirk.
“Remember Dame Barbara Cartland the romantic novelist?” he asked between sips. Yes, I said.
“Her brother had his head blown off right next to me.”
Sure enough, years later I checked the history books and saw Major Ronald Cartland of the Hussars was indeed killed as Reg’s battery retreated rapidly after destroying 40 German tanks and buying hours of time. He told me of the retreat on foot though the chaos, the fear, the dive bombers, the confusion on the beach and the ugly scramble to get on the last boats. It was a vivid story full of drama and humour.
A leg wound meant Reg had to hop most of the way, in agony. When he arrived home in England he was on crutches. I will carry the stories to my grave.
This is one of the reasons I had been waiting to see Dunkirk and one of the many reasons I was disappointed.
For a start there were no names and little context in the film. Everyone seemed to flit across the screen like extras, with little depth or background to their characters.
I thought the film did capture the terror and the fear of the thunderbolts of violence from dive bombers and submarines. Thumbs up to the director for not using CGI, but I thought some of the big battle scenes looked a bit thin on action.
There was drama and tension in the escape through the bullets and bombs of the Germans, but I felt there were better stories that were overlooked. For instance, among the little boats to the rescue was a paddle steamer that made multiple trips under fire and rescued 7,000 troops. Another little boat was holed below the water line and only made it back to England because soldiers held a mattress against the breach.
On top of this there was another historical clanger in that the rescued troops were seen reading of the evacuation in the following morning’s papers which was the “fight them on the beaches” speech by Winston Churchill. It was delivered a month after Dunkirk.