Christopher Nolan’s "Dunkirk" has opened to excellent box office numbers and critical acclaim. It has even earned some early Oscar buzz. However, it has left a somewhat bad taste in the mouth of the nation of France.

Historical Background

On May 10, 1940, the German Army attacked France. The sheer speed of the invasion caught both the French and their British allies completely off guard. French generals believed that their massive fortification system, the Maginot Line, would either slow down a German offensive long enough to allow for effective counter attacks or stop them all together.

However, the German use of “blitzkrieg" (“lightning war”), made the Maginot Line obsolete. Within days the allies found themselves in full retreat.

By early June almost half a million men found them selves trapped in the northern French port city of Dunkirk. With most of the French and British aircraft that were stationed in France destroyed by this point, they found themselves under endless air attack with no hope of rescue.

What followed is one of the most amazing feats in military history. Called Operation Dynamo, the Royal Navy put afloat just about every ship it could get its hands on, including over 300 civilian vessels, and began rescue operations.

In less than ten days over three hundred thousand soldiers were ferried from Dunkirk to ports in England. There, after a short rest, they would form the core of the allied force that would return to France four years later and destroy Hitler’s Third Reich.

France Upset

In "Dunkirk" the French Army is given a short shrift. We see them in the opening scene manning a sandbagged defensive position and giving one of the movie’s main characters, Tommy played by Fionn Whitehead, the chance to make it to the beach.

Other than that French soldiers, as a group, only make one other appearance when they are denied the chance to board one of the evacuating vessels by a British soldier.

And to add insult to injury, the only French soldier with any lengthy screen time, played by Damien Bonnard, commits a cowardly act. He is the first person Tommy meets on the beach. He says nothing, but because he is in a British uniform and has just buried a dead comrade in the sand, Tommy chalks it up to shock. We later learn that he had switched uniforms with the dead man in order to sneak on to a British ship.

During the Dunkirk evacuation, the French bore the brunt of the fighting to keep the port open. By the end, over six thousand had been killed and another forty thousand had been captured. Nowhere is this mentioned during the movie or the closing credits.

French newspaper Le Monde wrote a less than kind review, saying ‘Dunkirk’ shows a “scathing rudeness [and] deplorable indifference” to the “40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against a superior enemy in weaponry and numbers”.

Well, known British historical author, Max Hastings countered, “The French will have to make their own film if they want their national story properly told,”.

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