Nolan’s Dunkirk film accused of ‘rudely’ ignoring France’s crucial role in saving British

The blockbuster film Dunkirk hits cinema screens on Wednesday but in France some are miffed that the movie passes over the crucial role the French troops played in saving their British allies. And perhaps rightly so.

Nolan's Dunkirk film accused of 'rudely' ignoring France's crucial role in saving British
Photo: Screengrab Dunkirk Trailer

Thanks in part to the cartoon The Simpsons the role of the French in World War Two is often reduced that of “cheese eating surrender monkeys”.

But there was hope in France that Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film “Dunkirk”, which focuses on the “miraculous” evacuation of 300,000 British soldiers trapped on a northern French beach, would go a little way to setting the record straight by presenting an alternative image of France’s much-maligned military efforts in World War Two.

In the run up to the release of the film the French press noted the “Anglo-Saxons have an unpleasant tendency to put forward the feats of the British army and pass over those of the French army.”

Respected historian Dominique Lormier, who is “one of a number of historians who are reinterpreting the events of May-June 1940” in order to better portray the bravery of French soldiers said in the run up to the release of Dunkirk: “I hope that this film will highlight the sacrifice of the 30,000 Frenchmen who prevented the surrender of the British troops who would have been unable to defend the territory.”

Those 30,000 French soldiers were vastly outnumbered by the 160,000 German soldiers who had advanced like lightning through northern France. The French paid a heavy price. Those that survived were captured and sent to prison camps.


Elsewhere Lormier writes: “By its heroic sacrifice the French army did indeed save Great Britain from defeat. It was a tactical and strategic defeat for Hitler who could not then force Britain to negotiate a separate peace.”

A British government memo sent out at the time that was later released by the BBC also hails the role of the French soldiers.

“The Ministry of Information have written the following for such use as we wish to make of it,” reads the memo.

“As the British people watch with pride and admiration the home-coming of their BEF (British Expeditionary Force) their feelings go out no less to their heroic French Allies whose Marines, under their Admiral Abrial are holding the gateway to safety at Dunkirk, whose Navy is sharing with the British the dangerous task of convoying the rescued soldiers to England, and above all, whose soldiers under General Prioux occupying as they do, the positions of greatest danger in the rear-guard of the Allied retreat, are still hewing their way against overwhelming odds to the coast.”

But French hopes that their army’s heroics would be truly reflected in Nolan’s blockbuster appear to have been dashed, if Le Monde newspaper's fairly harsh review of the film is anything to go by.


France’s newspaper of reference accuses the British director of being “witheringly impolite” and “indifferent” towards France by disregarding the role it played in “miracle of Dunkirk” in May 1940.

Reviewer Jacques Mandelbaum writes that one of many reservations he has with the film is that the plot is “purely British”.

He notes there are “a dozen seconds devoted to a group of French soldiers defending the city who were not very friendly and a few more to a French soldier disguised as British in order to try to flee the massacre.”

“That does not account for the indispensable French involvement to this crazy evacuation,” he writes.

“No one can deny a director’s right to focus his point of view on what he sees fit, as long as it does not deny the reality of which it claims to represent.

“Where in the film are the 120,000 French soldiers who were also evacuated from Dunkirk? Where are the 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against a superior enemy in weaponry and numbers?”

Continuing on Mandelbaum, perhaps going a little too far, asks why the French army who fought the Germans at Lille and prevented the Wehrmacht from heading to Dunkirk are not reflected in the film?

And finally he asks “where is Dunkirk itself?” Half destroyed by bombardments, but rendered invisible in the film.”

Le Monde laments that “a rare moment in the war which honours the heroism of the French army” is still not worth representing.

So it's worth being reminded of the words of Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill who wrote: “The heroic resistance of the French army saved the British and allowed them to continue the war,” wrote Churchill after the war.”

If reviews are anything to go by then Nolan's film is well worth watching but for an alternative view of what happened this film clip is also worth viewing.







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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.