Dunkirk was no ordinary evacuation. Over nine days in mid-1940 almost 340,000 British, French and Belgian troops were ferried across the English channel to safety – not by the Royal Navy but mostly in fishing boats, merchantmen and yachts sailed by ordinary Englishmen. Remembered as one of history’s great escapes, the evacuation gave a boost to the Brits and, more importantly, it kept the Allies on their feet.
It’s fitting, then, that Dunkirk is no ordinary war movie. At first glance it delivers all the on-screen death and destruction we expect from a modern-day epic: men dying horribly and in droves, bombs blowing up, ships and planes going down. The carnage is appalling but what makes it especially compelling is its closeness. There’s a clarity to the film’s cinematography and sound design that draws us, its audience, into the action, casting us more as actors than onlookers. Thus we find ourselves trapped, for example, in a cabin filled with drowning men or in the cockpit of a creaking Spitfire alongside its anxious pilot.
It’s an exhilarating and excruciating experience, one made all the more powerful by the sequencing of the story. This is the filmmaker’s masterstroke. Using a technique more often associated with arthouse thrillers, Christopher Nolan presents us with three perspectives of the one event, splicing the storylines together with assiduous asynchrony, throwing them all out of time. The effect on us, his unsuspecting subjects, is unsettling. Before long, we’re as dazed and disoriented as the boys on the beach. Their eventual rescue restores our temporal equilibrium, so that the film’s climax hits us with all the impact of a triple crescendo.
And yet for all its active ingredients, Dunkirk is far from a balanced diet. A feast for the senses, it provides scant food for thought. To his credit, Nolan tries to give the film a point, by showing us that war makes monsters of men. In doing so, though, he radically dehumanises the movie’s combatants, rendering them less than lifelike. The scenes on the beach exemplify this retreat from reality. In them, soldiers queue on the sand in uniform masses, mute and unmoving, devoid of individuality and expression. Few are recognisable as people. Even the pilots are depersonalised; oxygen masks obliterate their faces and radio deadens their voices.
Nolan’s combatants are unnatural in another way too: they are, in the main, amoral beings, automatons bent only on self-preservation. The soldiers we follow struggle among themselves for survival, exploiting the injured and deserting the endangered. Only twice do they act selflessly on screen and even then their actions are shown to be futile. Missing from these figures are the myriad motives that more or less drive all mortals: the urge to impress and inspire, the desire to help others, the need to defy fate and to hope for the best. In reality, few men are so fully debased by battle; most continue to behave in complex and self-conflicting ways, some even heroically.
In Dunkirk, the heroes are not to be found in Dunkirk. Instead, Nolan’s ministering angels are civilian sailors, the old men and boys who set out from England in small boats to save the entrapped army. The film features three such folk, and all are endowed with qualities the soldiers lack: singularity, speech and scruples. Untainted by war, they appear almost lifelike, thanks to their ordinary attire and earnest exchanges, to their concern and their courage. And yet for all their humanity these civilians are barely more believable than the film’s military men: they’re just too good to be true.
As a visceral experience, Dunkirk truly excels. Like many war movies, though, it misses the metaphysical mark, as it misrepresents the actuality of battle by demeaning one side while idealising the other. No matter that the two parties – soldiers and civilians – are on the same side, because the retreat from reality remains. A beach can be evacuated with élan on the big screen and yet there’s no escaping the facts: war is more complex than that.
Growing up in Australia, I gained a love of wide open spaces. Not from my surroundings, as you’d expect – I lived in a narrow-minded provincial city – but rather from a book. A British book. Here’s the passage that worked its magic on me:
The sun was setting in a dull red glow behind a mighty bank of cloud that was rolling up from the west. Below him the world was lost in a vast well of deep purple shadows, while the east was already wrapped in profound gloom . . . Around, above, and below, was a scene of peace and unutterable loneliness.
Thomas Hardy, perhaps, or D.H. Lawrence? No, this is the work of a less exalted author: Captain W.E. Johns, whose Biggles books are better known for their entertainment value (and these days for their dated moral values) than for their ability to elevate and inspire. And yet, as late as the 1980s, they gave this earthbound Antipodean boy a glimpse of a higher realm – of literature and life.
My childhood was ‘ocker Aussie’ in lots of ways. During the day, I frolicked in the sun, knocking balls around the backyard until the cockatoos came home. Darkness brought tea: lamb chops or steak, followed by swags of fresh fruit. In other respects, though, my upbringing was baldly unpatriotic. Beaches were closed to me and barbeques out, for as a family we kept to ourselves, rebellious and remote.
My amusements, too, were less than true-blue. With its talkback and livestock reports, local radio lacked the punch of the Beatles and Goons. Britannia ruled our airwaves. She dominated the small screen as well, winning us over with the Goodies and Doctor Who. But it was on my bookshelves that the Brits reigned supreme. Blyton, Milne and Kingsley led the charge; in their wake came C.S. Lewis and then W.E. Johns himself.
Born in Hertfordshire in 1893, William Earl Johns fought at Gallipoli and later in the air over the Western Front, where his stint as a bomber pilot – all six weeks of it – ended when he was shot down and captured. After the war, Johns served as a RAF recruiting officer in London, famously turning away Lawrence of Arabia when the well-connected writer tried to enlist under an alias. It was then that Johns separated from his wife, whom he had married early in the war. Posted to Birmingham, he met Doris Leigh, the daughter of a neighbour, and they became lifelong companions.
Johns wrote his first novel, Mossyface, in 1922; by the end of the decade his aviation illustrations and articles were appearing regularly in print. A versatile and prolific writer, he published crime, science fiction and romance novels and had long-running columns in My Garden and The Modern Boy magazines. Biggles himself was born in 1932. As Johns explained,
The first stories were written for a magazine of which I was the editor, and apart from the entertainment of the reader had the more serious purpose of presenting a picture of war flying as it was in its infancy.
A self-appointed ‘Captain’, Johns wrote over 160 books, a hundred or so featuring his most famous fictional creation. In a career spanning several wars and most of the globe, James C. Bigglesworth fights the good fight in various guises: air fighter, charter pilot, air detective and more. Armed with unerring instincts and an aeroplane, Biggles gets the better of his every enemy, common criminal and sinister Erich von Stalhein alike. It was a winning formula, and by the 1960s Biggles had become the golden boy of children’s fiction in Britain and beyond.
There the joy ride ended. Later in his life, Biggles faced his most formidable foe: academics and educators who felt he was a literary menace. Johns’ books, they argued, oversimplified reality, glorified war and demonised outsiders. Biggles was banished from library shelves. Latter-day critics tend to be more sympathetic; they accuse Johns of simply failing to keep up with the times, a charge that is hard to dispute. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Biggles has kept his commercial appeal, and a range of the books are still in print today.
To my credit, I was a discerning fan: the early Biggles stories appealed to me more than the rest. And, having reread them recently, I understand why. At their best they’re fast-moving, funny and affecting. I was barely thirteen when I got them as gifts: three sleek anthologies whose vivid livery sucked me straight into their slipstream. On the cover of one, a leather-clad Biggles strides away from his biplane, fists clenched, a faraway look in his eyes – a look, I fancy, that mirrored my own.
Like all good adventure tales, these stories have an irresistible impetus. Their drive is provided in part by the action itself, which Johns is adept at describing, for he details the thrills and spills of old-fashioned aerial warfare with dexterity and dash. Here’s a burst from ‘The Funk’:
The dog-fight became a delirium of whirling machines, zooming, rolling, and banking, firing and firing again through a network of tracer bullets. Machines flashed across his sights, and his guns chattered incessantly.
An exciting mix of poetic and pictorial effects, John’s prose delays the resolution of tension as deftly as it demands it. There’s a rhythm to the way he structures these stories – an oscillation between action and reflection, conflict and peace, the serious and the silly, whose impact owes much to the contrasts within aerial warfare itself.
In ‘The Thought-Reader’, for example, we lounge in ‘a patch of deep, sweet-scented grass in a quiet corner of the aerodrome’, staring ‘lazily at a lark trilling gaily far above’. The war seems distant to us – as it does to Biggles, who lies alongside. An enemy aircraft disturbs the peace, its antics luring us skyward. The story’s undulating dance has begun. Back and forth we sweep, nearing the flashpoint of the action with each shortening swing. It’s the pas de deux of a tale well told, and it delivers us to our destination with sure-footed finesse.
War is no laughing matter and yet some of our comic masterpieces – Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse 5 among them – are books about battle. As terrible as combat has been, authors have found its funny side. Johns is no exception, for his early stories are laced with laughs. In these droll double acts, the irony and understatement of the old soldier share the stage with schoolboy jesting and japes. This odd coupling reflects a reality: that in the air above the Western Front most veterans were painfully young.
Things are not always what they seem in these stories. Thus the sun, that light of our lives, routinely harbours death in its impenetrable glare. Beware the Hun in the sun, the old adage went. Johns’ characters, too, are adept at saying one thing while meaning another. ‘Anything for a quiet life,’ Biggles remarks, when asked to lead an attack. ‘There’s no sense in sleeping while there’s a good war like this on,’ he assures an exhausted flight engineer on another occasion. It’s a dry wit born out of desperate times.
And then there’s the other kind of comedy. In ‘The Battle of Flowers’, Biggles’ cousin, Algy, digs a garden on the aerodrome. ‘It isn’t hot enough for bananas,’ he says, fielding one flippant request. ‘Holy mackerel!’ Biggles says. ‘It feels hot enough to me to grow doughnuts.’ When the squadron is bombed Algy roars off to seek his revenge – not on the Huns’ hangars, as expected, but their geraniums. ‘Germaniums,’ Biggles splutters. ‘Am I going crazy?’ It’s a plum comic set-piece, one almost worthy of Wodehouse.
What sets these stories apart from Johns’ later works is their pathos, for they have some genuinely moving moments. None is more affecting than the ‘The Decoy’, in which a young pilot dies from his wounds soon after landing. ‘I got the bus home, Biggles,’ he whispers. There’s poignancy, too, in the full sweep of the stories. Taken together, they tell the tragic tale of a young man’s emotional undoing, of a pilot ground down by the depredations of war. Traumatised by the loss of his comrades, by the callousness of his countrymen (in ‘On Leave’, he is given a white feather) and by the betrayal of his French lover, Biggles is driven to the brink of a breakdown, as his C.O., Major Mullen, perceives. ‘Biggles is finished,’ he observes, ‘unless he takes a rest.’
This is the Biggles that spoke to me when I was a boy. For while the indomitable air fighter won my admiration, it was the damaged, delicate youth with whom I identified. This Biggles is slight, serious and self-contained, a keen reader who fell for books while bedridden as a boy. And he’s a loner to boot, someone with ‘a tendency towards individual action’, as Johns coyly puts it. This Biggles is at his best in the air, where he acts alone. Ordinary earthbound existence is beneath him, it being too much like life in the trenches. ‘It’s worse than flying in clouds,’ he growls, in ‘Biggles Finds His Feet’. ‘No altitude, no room to move – no nothing!’
I felt the same. Unlike Biggles, though, I was a sheltered thirteen-year-old who knew little of the wider world. ‘The Great Arena’ changed all that. In this story the last big push of the war has begun, and Biggles is tired of life. As another day ends, he makes a final test flight, a trial as much of man as machine. Buoyed by the beauty of the twilit sky, Biggles is filled with ‘a curious sort of rest’. His revival is realised a moment later when, drawn into a duel with another airman, Biggles is left defenceless, his guns having jammed. Death awaits him. And then a remarkable thing happens.
The enemy pilot waved cheerfully, turned steeply, and before Biggles was aware of his intention had lined up beside him . . . For some minutes, they flew thus, smiling at each other across the void.
It was uplifting stuff for a lowly boy like me. Biggles and his stories widened my horizons; they acquainted me with the long reach of literature, prompting me to read less for escapism than for escape – escape to places more real than my own. Five years later, I finally took flight.
When Johns died in 1968 he was working on another Biggles book, although his hero had, in a sense, already ceased to exist. For in the last of the early stories, Biggles is disabled during a dogfight; hurtling earthward, he knows ‘his time has come’. Had Johns known it, too, his literary star might have risen much higher. To me, though, Biggles will always be up there with the best, circling in the sun.