On May 10th 1940 a German Army Group invaded Belgium and the Netherlands while two French Armies, the First and Seventh, advanced to meet them on the Dyle, as did eight of the ten divisions of the British Expeditionary Force. This attack was a feint, and four days later another German Army Group advanced first through the Ardennes and then raced north, employing combined arms to devastating effect and imposing an operational tempo the Allies could not match. This Army Group reached the Channel on the 20th of May, trapping the three Allied armies in a shrinking pocket. It was the most consequential maneuver (and the most devastating use of new tactics) in modern history, winning the Battle of France and leaving Hitler in command of most of Europe.
On May 25th the British government decided to evacuate as many of the trapped Allied troops as it could. By the 26th the British Expeditionary Force had fought its way back to the Dunkirk perimeter, and on May 27th the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping ordered the collection of all suitable shallow draft boats, including pleasure boats, private yachts, and launches, the ones immortalized as ‘the little ships’. Almost all of the ships had been privately owned until they were collected by the British government, and while the Admiralty didn’t want boats smaller than a certain size a number came anyway; at 14.7 feet in length, Tamzine was the smallest.
Eight hundred and sixty-one vessels took part in what was officially known as Operation Dynamo, and the Germans sank two hundred and forty-three of them. Some of the British and French forces—after a day or two, almost entirely French forces–held the Germans at bay while the others waited for the ships. This defense featured acts of generally unremembered Allied courage, also German atrocities that are even less well-remembered: at Le Paradis German troops murdered 97 British PoWs, on May 27th, a day later murdered anther hundred or so British and French prisoners in a barn near Wormhoudt and Esquelbecq, and in a slightly earlier atrocity apparently murdered two hundred French Muslim PoWs north and east of Cambrai. But the evacuation was what became famous.
Since neither British destroyers nor most small craft could approach the beaches too closely soldiers had to wade out around a hundred yards into the sea, and waited for hours in shoulder-deep water. Although the Admiralty had hoped to rescue perhaps 30,000 over nine days 338,000 made it back to England, and on the 4th of June Churchill would give the speech about fighting on the beaches and never surrendering. And they would fight on beaches, although not on their own. Hitler is said to have believed that once Britain’s troops left continental Europe they would never return. but he was sometimes an imperfect judge of such things, and within a few days two more divisions landed in France. Their survivors, too, were soon forced off the Continent, so within weeks Dynamo was followed by Cycle and Ariel. Almost another quarter million were evacuated, and at the end of Ariel the Luftwaffe sank R.M.S. Lancastria, repeatedly strafing her survivors in the water and finally igniting the oil in which some of them were drowning. Between 3000 and 6500 died, many of them civilian refugees, in the worst disaster in British maritime history. The following day Churchill gave the speech about their finest hour.
But some of the British troops returned yet again, in fact several times: first to Greece, from which they were soon driven out, then to Sicily, then Italy, and finally, four years after Dunkirk almost to the day, they for a third time returned to France on the 6th of June, 1944. Some of them remain, and in the British Cemetery in Bayeux there is a memorial to the ones who died on D Day, upon which is inscribed “Nos A Gulielmo Victi Victoris Patriam Liberavimus”, supposedly a subaltern’s Latin epigram at the time. A bit loosely translated it means ‘William, we whom you conquered returned to set your people free”, which they had, and would. The war, which in June of 1940 had seemed so decisively lost, would within a year be won, in part by a people who on that 4th of June had become so drunk on fine words that five years later their armies wound up on the Elbe.
After coining phrases like “their finest hour” the man credited with so intoxicating them was pretty modest about the feat, describing the British people as the heart of the lion and himself as only the roar. The remark has worn well: phrases like “fine words” implicitly juxtaposes mere words to real things, and we often feel wise when we dismiss mere words as mere roaring. But the fine words of 1940 raise an interesting question: if a lion did not roar, would it always and unfailingly remember that it had the heart of a lion?
Christopher Nolan’s film is not about the roaring. Almost all of it takes place within the Dunkirk pocket, in the sky above it and on the Channel near it. Dunkirk is an impressive display of pretty pure film with very little dialogue, and little if any of that dialogue is spoken to much dramatic effect. The movie instead shows vast numbers of men trapped on a beach being strafed and bombed at irregular intervals, at which moments they throw themselves to the ground. If still alive they again stand, waiting with astonishing discipline for the ships and boats that will, if they in turn survive German air attacks, ferry them across the Channel. With one or two partial exceptions the movie does not show any of the occasions on which that discipline broke down, although the camera many times returns to two soldiers who pick up a wounded man and pretend to be stretcher bearers, trying thereby to jump the queue onto a ship that will take them home. One of the two, named Tommy, is probably intended as both metonymy and synecdoche.
There have been relatively few complaints about Dunkirk’s politics, although on the Left the film has sometimes been deprecated as pro-Brexit propaganda (the British troops successfully leave Europe while their country survives to boast of the experience) and has been decried for failing to show any of the approximately four hundred people (out of four hundred thousand on the beach) who were from the subcontinent. On the Right the film has been faulted for not making the modern audience understand all that was at stake; some have complained that the film’s voiceover does not even use the word “German”, for the audience is told only that a victory had earlier been achieved by ‘the enemy’. This seems alarmist; the film does show the Luftwaffe attacking and sinking a very large, clearly marked and stationary hospital ship and thereby killing nurses, doctors and wounded men, so the audience probably does suspect that the assailants are a bad lot. But Nolan is interested less in the politics of a war than in the particular experience of some soldiers and sailors–in one face of a battle. Oddly enough, he shows very few human faces in motion: one of his chief actor’s faces is always covered in a mask, and while a few are fearful, many of the actors’ faces are either impassive or seen at a considerable distance.
Movies can show more differentiated faces of this particular battle than Nolan has attempted to convey, and have. Atonement (2007), which did one hundred and twenty-nine million dollars at the box office, has a celebrated five-minute tracking shot of soldiers and civilians on Dunkirk’s beach. The shot contains an amazing variety of incident, with some men shooting horses, another smashing jeep radiators with a rifle butt, some singing hymns, others bored and smoking, some drinking, one running for no obvious reason and then being irritably knocked down by another, and again and again there are glimpses of the macabre incongruity of a slowly turning Ferris wheel. On Nolan’s beach almost all of its uniformed subjects are reduced to uniformity: they stand very closely packed, almost all are perfectly disciplined, they fall to the ground when strafed, the survivors then again stand, and while this is in its way real it feels less right.
Nolan has made a startling commercial success about what one would have thought an unpromising subject, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors who are entirely helpless and can only endure what is done to them. Only a couple of Spitfire pilots strike back at the enemy, and only a very few people show much moral agency, most notably three who have chosen to go in harm ways to rescue those men from that beach and who comprise the crew of one of the littler of the little ships. So Nolan has made a movie in the dominant tradition of war literature written in the wake of the First World War, one much less about what armed combatants achieve in war than about what they suffer in it; like Wilfred Owens’, his poetry is in the pity, and what his movie shows concludes on the 4th of June.
While early on the 4th of June Dunkirk had been urgent business for the people immediately involved, later that day it became vastly important for everyone else, when another kind of poetry, not the pitying sort, transmuted a staggering defeat into a collective memory of a vast victory, one that soon evolved into both an accurate understanding and an outrageous misunderstanding. Together these changed everything. Seventy years later we finally have a sophisticated movie assessing that memory’s formation and the nature, indeed the essence, of its accuracy and function. Like any great work of art celebrating what was in some part an outrageous misunderstanding, this movie is in large part a comedy.
Their Finest, adapted from Lissa Evans’ wonderful novel—her U.K. title is Their Finest Hour and a Half—is at one level a movie about men and women making a movie between the last months of 1940 and the first months of 1941. The movie being made is a response to the Ministry of Information’s desire for a film to raise morale, which needs it. A subtly fatuous official from the Ministry has given the filmmakers the clear and apparently impossible task of combining authenticity and optimism at the moment when Britain was fighting alone and to any honest eye hopelessly, with Germany triumphant, Japan menacing, American a determined neutral and Russia a hostile one. A screenwriter, one Tom Buckley, has read a newspaper story about twin girls who took their father’s cockleshell of a boat to help bring troops home from Dunkirk and came back with a deck full of soldiers, a very promising hook for such a film, one that would certainly have authenticity and optimism. Catrin Cole, a fledgling screenwriter, is astonished and delighted to be offered a job above secretarial grade—she has just been hired to write the women’s dialogue in propaganda shorts, the lines described by Buckley as ‘the slop’. Now a greater opportunity looms: Catrin is sent to talk to Rose and Lily, and if the story pans out she’ll be a screenwriter on a feature film.
Upon investigation the story as reported possess neither authenticity nor optimism. The two girls, Rose and Lily Starling, are pathologically shy women in their thirties who are terrified of their drunken father, and their boat, the Nancy, broke down a few miles off shore. Their story as inflated by a reporter is not entirely a lie—a steam tug returning from Dunkirk was overloaded with men it took off the beach, and as it gave the Nancy a tow back to port transferred some of those men to the smaller craft. When queried by the aspirant screenwriter whether anything exciting had occurred, one of the pathologically shy women explains that a French soldier had tried to kiss her sister. Precisely because they are so deeply dispiriting to a woman desperate to work on a feature film about Dunkirk these revelations perfectly meet Paul Fussell’s definition of good writing about a war: they are an epitome of the dynamic of hope abridged. In response to so unpromising a truth Catrin does what Fussell suggested those responsible for gilding the truth of war always do: she lies. The movie she is desperate to work on– it will eventually be titled The Nancy Starling–can now proceed.
Fussell famously wrote that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding, particularly of war, and it is essentially ironic. While in its first scenes Their Finest seems to conform to that mode of understanding, the most interesting forms of irony are the unstable ones, the ones where ironies are doubled and trebled to brilliant effect. Since it is very hard to assess the Dunkirk myth as an example of hope abridged–it was so obviously the opposite, the dynamic of hope restored–precisely how irony might structure an effective account of Dunkirk remains to be seen. The task of the screenwriters within the film, meanwhile, begins to look doubly impossible: halfway through writing their script they are told that the film must include an American, although there were no Americans at Dunkirk, because the Ministry of War wants something that will subvert American isolationism. The filmmakers’ task looks trebly impossible when the initially promising American the Ministry of Information finds for them, a genuinely heroic and startlingly handsome Midwesterner named Carl Lundbeck who has been briefly detached from his duties as an RAF fighter pilot, turns out to be the worst actor our species has yet produced.
Carl Lundbeck, like many of Their Finest’s jokes, is an intricate and unstable irony. A man serving as an actor while perfectly bereft of the power to be one, Lundbeck is one of the oldest types of comic butt, the imposter, and earns his laughs as one. He is all platinum hair, lantern jaw and gleaming teeth, the latter frozen into an anxious smile, a dreadful actor on a truly heroic scale. But Lundbeck is scarcely the most odious type of comic imposter, the type who pretends to courage and martial prowess, because what Lundbeck also turns out to be on a heroic scale is heroic, indeed preposterously brave and formidable. In the novel his character has shot down forty-seven German fighters, in the film a smaller but still staggering number. As an actor Lundbeck is only an involuntary imposter, one ordered by his commanding officer to risk humiliation where Britain now needs him, hence simultaneously ridiculous on screen and blameless for being there, but authentically heroic in doing something that terrifies him, acting, which the Luftwaffe does not. His very presence in Britain, however, is a mistake of the sort debunking comedy exults in—when his new employers learn that he has come to fight the Russians in Finland, the character gets a laugh as a version of Wrong Way Corrigan engaged in an epic navigational fail.
But this, too, is immediately revealed to be a misjudgment: Lundbeck, arriving in Britain during the Battle of Britain, had decided on the spot that these people, too, are in a jam, and look as if they can use some help, which he provides on the grandest possible scale. In this trajectory Lundbeck is historically accurate: many of the scores of Americans who served in the RAF had gone to wicked old Europe to defend Finland against Stalin’s invasion but wound up defending Britain against the threat of Hitler’s. Carl Lundbeck is truly implausible only in being a shockingly handsome Scandinavian-American and heroic mid-western pilot with fair hair, a good jaw, excellent teeth and the initials CL who wants to risk his life stopping Hitler from conquering Britain, because he shares his initials, appearance and skills with Charles Lindbergh, by early 1941 an anti-semitic isolationist. Lundbeck, an inverted Lindbergh, is what Americans ought to have been rather than what one of them infamously was. If a hyper-vigilant but hasty viewer decoded only that portion of the joke Lundbeck would be just what Fussell-trained viewers expect to find in Anglo-American war movies, a lie of the sort termed ‘Disneyfied’. But Lundbeck was actually a far more common type of American flier than Lindbergh, since scores of Americans flew against Hitler in 1940 and 1941, committing felonies under several Neutrality acts and risking both imprisonment and loss of citizenship, while none flew for Hitler. Lundbeck’s story properly understood is just what the Ministry of Information ordered, being both authentic and optimistic, although until it is properly understood seems the reverse. This is true of a large portion of Their Finest, true of both its jokes and also, to some degree, true of its sorrows, which does not mean that debunking irony has no place in any honest representation of 1940.
As it happens, Buckley shares at least part of what one might term the Fussell Theory of war literature and film criticism. Put in the most tactful possible form the theory holds that representations of wars, including the Second World War, cannot be both authentic and optimistic, and whatever one’s views of the imperial sweep of the Fussell Theory it is clear that inauthentic representations that could actually lower morale were well within the film industry’s powers in 1940. Their Finest actually begins with one, a fragment of a film made that year titled A Call to Arms, wherein we see a sequence in black and white, hands pushing ammunition into perforated metal disks, possibly parts of a drum magazine as obsolete as an arbalest. Women are tending machinery on an assembly line and a cornucopia of cartridges—in an American film from that year they’d have only been gold coins spilling out a sack–cascades into a holding pan while pistons pump, something is water-cooled, and sounds meant to evoke either a very small steam hammer or a metal punch serve as a score. A Call to Arms must have been wishfully intended to vaunt an industrial plant that would look potent, inspiriting, hypermodern and up to the job of stopping the twenty-one panzer divisions the Germans would deploy by June of 1941. In 2017 the technology seems comically dated, as does the dialogue spoken by two actresses playing a forewoman and a middle-aged line worker discussing some bad news the latter has just received.
In a Hollywood film made that year they’d probably have been worrying about the impending foreclosure of a farm, but here Britain is at war and Timmy is missing in action. A factory whistle marks the end of a ten hour shift and the anxious wife or mother bravely declares that a missing son or husband is nothing a nice cup of tea won’t put right, at which point this world and its war could be neither more implausible nor more emotionally distant from us. A Call to Arms seems merely campy, and we feel superior to the audience that first took it in. This feeling is another mistake, because when the camera swivels an often sleeping and in some cases snoring working class audience, some uniformed, is visibly bored. When on the screen in front of them a phone rings and someone demands a million more bullets by morning, a preposterously pretty actress shouts ‘Come on girls, it’s got to be done’, there’s a wild rush back to the assembly line, and the cinema audience is stirred to open laughter and whistling derision. Despite vanished accents, period costume and odd haircuts these people are as cynically knowing as we are, and whatever sustained the transmutation of crushing defeat into the Miracle of Dunkirk could not have looked and sounded like this.
Both the 1940 audience and the one watching Their Finest see through the guff Ministry of Information was churning out, through what the Fussell Theory holds to be the state’s always deceitful and ludicrous misrepresentations of war. Here that theory may risk a mistake, because Britain in 1940 was not very obviously a place and time people needed to be taught to see through, because so many already did–Lindbergh saw through it, as did Father Coughlin, Joseph Kennedy Sr., almost the entirety of the world’s Communists, and a lot of others on both sides of the spectrum. A Call to Arms remains unsalvageable, but when properly understood the film to be made within the film, the one about Dunkirk with an American thrown in, will be in an intricate way both authentic and optimistic, as is Their Finest itself, not least in its opening, which suggests that it’s harder to lie to people than one might think, itself some cause for optimism. Their Finest may also suggest that people who believe themselves uniquely undeceived are not necessarily in on the joke, and may even be the occasion for one. Making us understand what one truly ought to laugh at is a pretty good trick, and one that has rarely been accomplished in only an hour and a half.
For long stretches Their Finest feels like a romance. There is no score to instruct us when we see Buckley carefully making notes on just how bored and sourly amused the audience is by A Call to Arms, but Their Finest opens a second time with strings in a cheerful major key telling us that we are watching a comedy, proper titles come up, and a woman gets off a bus and dashes down a street clutching a hat precariously perched on her head. This suggests a romantic comedy: the woman is suitably pretty and, as Bergson once noted, few things are as reliably funny as the prospect of someone being compelled to chase his own hat down a street. But the next cue complicates things, because while in a Hollywood film made in 1940 a bus to one’s first day of work at a new job might by delayed by road work—reliably comic frustration–the cause of the delay would not be men filling in a hole in the street that had been made by the Luftwaffe the night before.
Their Finest will repeatedly wrong-foot its audience. Buckley will aspire to become the possible lover of Catrin, the pretty woman running down that street, and we happily anticipate his success when the two do a creditable evocation of Beatrice and Bendick meeting in a writers room, perhaps bespelled by what Graham Greene that year called the love charm of bombs. Buckley and Catrin do eventually find themselves in an absurdly romantic setting, on a rock by the sea under a moon so vast and glowing that a peculiarly unsubtle set designer for a high school musical performed in a barn would hesitate to hang it over a stage. Buckley looks up at that moon and observes, with neither gloating nor distress, “some Hun’ll cop it tonight.”
A man meeting the woman he loves under such a moon is supposed to be thinking of something other than the death of other possible lovers, but like sunsets on the western front in the First World War, against which men in Allied trenches were silhouetted and killed by German snipers they could not see, and in the wake of which hazard could be ironized accordingly, in wartime the valence of several forms of natural beauty can be inverted. During strategic bombing campaigns a full moon was the friend not only of lovers but of navigators and bombardiers, who on such nights had their best chance to find and kill cities. But Their Finest’s ironies about lovers and moonlight keep multiplying, for later in the film two actresses playing actresses in the film within the film sing at what appears to be a wrap party, beautifully harmonizing They Can’t Black Out the Moon, a 1941 song they repeat over the closing credits. Its lyrics are neither ironical nor ironized:
When we go strolling in the park at night
The darkness is a boon
Who cares if we’re without a light?
They can’t black out the moon
I see you smiling in the cigarette glow
But the picture fades too soon
But I see all I want to know
They can’t black out the moon
The romance of London in 1940 has been durable and the impulse to identify with lovers on moonlit nights similarly hard to kill, even if lovers in 1940 were anything but. Near Their Finest’s climax the audience is given a deeply distressing example of Fussell’s trope of irony in war as the dynamic of hope abridged. At that moment a picture does fade too soon, fading before we can see a love properly consummated, and we know more than we want to know: that the picture does fade from the light in and of lovers’ eyes when one of them is killed and the other grief-stricken.
It is not the only wartime death in Their Finest, and why should it be? The movie is set during the Blitz, normally defined as the period between September 7th, 1940 and May 11th, 1941, dates marking the Luftwaffe’s first and last major air attacks on London. Around 43,000 British civilians were killed during the Blitz and at least 47,000 and possibly as many as 130,000 wounded, along with 808 air crew from the RAF’s Fighter Command and Coastal Command killed and another 422 wounded. While other British military personnel were killed during the battle the toll of British civilians was forty or fifty times the toll of British combatants. In Their Finest’s first death Catrin walks through an underground station serving as an air raid shelter and past a soldier who tries and fails to pick up a good humored leggy girl also heading for the stairs. As she gets out onto the street a German bomb shatters a shop window, strewing what seem to be dead girls along a sidewalk. The bodies are in fact mannequins denuded by blast. Catrin’s horror yields to shock and shock’s symptom is laughter, although only until she walks back a step and sees the leggy girl from the tube platform, now a gracelessly sprawling corpse. Fussell had plausibly identified Snowden’s scenes in Catch 22 as the progeny of a durable trope from First World War writing: an apparently lesser wound, a disaster avoided, turns out to be a greater and inescapable horror. Hope has been abridged.
Their Finest’s second death requires Bill Nighy’s Hilliard, a hilariously narcissistic actor in The Nancy Starling, to identify what he is told will be his agent’s body, also killed in an air raid. Hilliard, whose last important film roles date from the ‘twenties, when he played an omniscient detective inspector, notices in the morgue that this body has five fingers on its right hand where his agent had only three, and for whatever reason—a muted form of shock?—quietly delivers his signature line from his glory days, “Someone has made a mistake. Most people wouldn’t have noticed it, but…”, at which point the nurse in the morgue, visibly distressed, apologizes: we try so hard, she explains, to give the bereaved a whole person. The additional fingers had been sewn on in good faith, and upon further inspection the dead man’s face, both blackened and reddened by blast, proves that this is indeed Hilliard’s agent, and hope has again been abridged. Their Finest immediately has recourse to an older trope: an air raid begins, and the morgue nurse, eager to make amends, offers Hilliard a place in its shelter, assuring him that no one will mind, there’s lots of room and it’s very quiet, momento mori any Jacobean or for that matter Victorian audience would recognize without missing a beat.
Hilliard, an otherwise hilarious narcissist, is here kind, impressive and in the film, a bit puzzlingly, relatively unfazed by the corpse of an acquaintance killed with great violence. The novel explains this, being both subtle and clear when revealing that along with most men of his generation Hilliard had served on the Western Front, where intimate acquaintance with massive violence’s effects on fragile bodies became the possession of millions of ordinary people. The Second World War, in which it was often much more dangerous to be a civilian than a soldier, further democratized this kind of knowledge, which could no longer be imagined as the peculiar property of warrior aristocrats and a few thousand other ranks gleaned at places with resonant names like Agincourt. The work of reimaging heroism as more than a matter for the few, also of glory as a possession of groups larger and more various than bands of brothers, explains another of Their Finest’s jokes. When the writers and producer of the still unmade movie are summoned to the Ministry of War to be told by a wonderfully plummy and self-adoring Jeremy Irons—he is playing the Secretary of War–that they must insert an American into their story–Irons’ slimmed down, clean-shaven, civilianized and well-bred version of David Low’s Colonel Blimp begins by portentously reciting from Henry V the lines beginning with “We few, we happy few”; Churchill is thought to have alluded to them on August 20th of 1940 when describing the RAF’s fighter pilots. Irons concludes with “on St. Crispin’s Day”, pauses, proclaims “The power of the dramatic arts!” and reaches for his handkerchief. Having succumbed to either patriotic feeling or the common cold he blows his nose, and the most famous war poetry in our language has been turned into preposterous cant at a moment that had once seemed to strip from it any possible Blimpishnes.
Henry V became dazzling propaganda in 1944. Filippo del Giudice, who’d persuaded Olivier to pursue the film project, was an anti-fascist émigré who’d fled Italy in 1933, arrived in London in 1937, made Freedom Radio, one of Britain’s first explicitly anti-Nazi films in 1941, produced Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve in 1942, and the following year decided to make what became Olivier’s Henry V. The film was finished a week and a half after D Day and released in November with a frame announcing that it was “dedicated to the ‘Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain the spirit of whose ancestors it has humbly attempted to recapture.” For at least a generation Henry V remained extremely effective propaganda, and it was very hard to hear and see it and not think of 1940 rather of than of the chevauchées with which Henry V’s troops had terrorized French villages, or the scenes of Henry’s threats of rape and mass murder, or his order to kill all the prisoners.
Jeremy Irons makes the particular lines he delivers seem a ludicrously misjudged way to steel people for an ordeal that would last another five years, but three quarters of an hour later, watching the audience finally lap up The Nancy Starling, we are given reason to think that while there are problems with some older conceptions of the heroic their solution does not require a wholesale dismissal of the category. While single irony may seek to entirely explode the heroic, successive levels of irony will always be doing something else. Irons’ fustian makes us remember that in 1940 it was not the few but the many whose lives were threatened, that it was the British people as a whole who’d been urged to so bear themselves so that posterity would say that this was their finest hour, and that posterity has so far said just that. If the language of Henry V had become wholly obsolete movie audiences wouldn’t have exulted in it in November of 1944, and if you know the passages adjacent to the ones Irons for a moment makes meaningless you may recall that a few years before many had heard Lord Haw Haw’s taunts, at which time a fair number of them probably wondered why he mocked poor fellows thus. After Dunkirk they certainly seem to have remembered that the man that once did sell the lion’s skin while the beast lived was killed with hunting him. It was at the movies, however, where they would sit and see, minding true things by what their mockeries be.
The Nancy Starling, in which a certain sort of wartime film is both affectionately mocked and respectfully pastiched—mockeries, like ironies, can have more than one meaning—is both very far from Shakespeare and not impossibly distant from Casablanca. When a Messerschmitt’s strafing shatters a bottle from which he’d been drinking, Hilliard’s Uncle Frank, dead drunk after waking aboard the boat his nieces have in the movie actually taken to Dunkirk, exclaims in fury “Hitler! Hitler! Who the bleeding hell does he think he is!”. This is low comedy and received as such in the gallery, also a possible paraphrase of what the British people had decided in September of 1939, which at this moment the people watching this film appear to think still. The actress playing one the Starling girls, diving into the sea to free a fouled propeller, is advised by the actress playing her sister to “Just pretend that you’re Erroll Flynn—he can do anything”, possibly layered irony, since like Lindbergh Flynn too had been an isolationist given to warning about small minorities who sought to get us into a war. The advice is both jokey and corny, also what a number of people probably did pretend before discovering that they could do more than most onlookers thought, for example, endure the Blitz and go on to win the war. An actor playing a Tommy on the beach at Dunkirk—when not on screen as narcissistic a man as Hilliard–vows that “I’m not going to sit by and let him shoot a dog”, which is also jokey and corny, although one may remember that British soldiers had only been on that beach because some months before their country had decided that it was not going to sit by and let some Germans shoot a lot of Poles.
The Nancy Starling is thus in part allegory, and not a bad one; Buckley had early on warned Catrin not to mistake facts for truth. When a showing of it concludes—Caitlin, suddenly a filmmaker out of Sullivan’s Travels, is in the gallery watching The Nancy Starling for the first time—the movie turns out to have done its job; a weeping woman announces “It’s our picture, innit—they’re our girls”, which in an only slightly complicated way the Starling women were, being both the audience’s imagined possessions and in some cases its faces in a mirror. Caitlin has recently shown a card sentimentally depicting two dogs to a determinedly polite Hilliard—he wants something–explaining that it was from the Starling girls: “Rose thought that if she could fix a propeller in a film she could learn to mend an engine in real life—they’re both mechanics now, ATS girls”, which some of the 190,000 in the ATS did become, the heir to the throne being one of them. Their Finest accurately depicts the Second World War as something endured, waged, suffered and won by a nation, which was true for several of the nations that waged it, but the distinction of having actually chosen to stop Hitler and then doing it was restricted to the British Commonwealth. It turns out that irony—saying one thing but meaning another, sometimes a remarkable number of other things–is not available only for debunking the war but also a way to restore to the war some of the meanings that Churchill gave to it in 1940. Older forms of representation will be ironized, which they will survive, new forms of representation will incorporate and rework these ironies, and things done and endured by whole cities will remain as familiar in our mouths as household words. Good art will make them freshly remember’d, and Their Finest is pretty good art.