Monday, August 07, 2017

Whitewashing History

The Guardian has an article by Sunny Singh that asks why Christopher Nolan's film Dunkirk only shows white soldiers fighting and dying.  In fact, the article explains, there were many Indians as well as Asians and Africans recruited from the British empire who fought there too.  The French army also contained many North Africans.

How would knowing this change change modern day attitudes toward immigrants?  That's the basic question the article  asks.

This jumped out at me because I recently read (and posted about) Amitav Ghosh's novel The Glass Palace which also focuses on how Indian troops were vital to the British army in Asia, yet they never got credit (or blame.)  One Indian soldier to another after a Japanese surprise attack in Malaya, from that post:
"You know, yaar Arjun, over these last few days, in the trenches at Jitra - I had an eerie feeling.  It was strange to be sitting on one side of a battle line, knowing that you had to fight and knowing at the same time that it wasn't really your fight; knowing that whether you won or lost, neither the blame nor the credit would be yours.  Knowing that you're risking everything to defend a way of life that pushes you to the sidelines.  It's almost as if you're fighting against yourself.  It's strange to be sitting in a trench, holding a gun and asking yourself:  Who is this weapon really aimed at?  Am I being tricked into pointing it at myself?""I can't say I felt the same way, Hardy."

And Singh's criticism of the movie seems to echo this - that the Indian (and other forces from the empire) will be erased from the story.  

Here are some excerpts from the Guardian article:

"To do so [leave out the darker troops], it erases the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, which were not only on the beach, but tasked with transporting supplies over terrain that was inaccessible for the British Expeditionary Force’s motorised transport companies. It also ignores the fact that by 1938, lascars – mostly from South Asia and East Africa – counted for one of four crewmen on British merchant vessels, and thus participated in large numbers in the evacuation.
But Nolan’s erasures are not limited to the British. The French army deployed at Dunkirk included soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies, and in substantial numbers. Some non-white faces are visible in one crowd scene, but that’s it. The film forgets the racialised pecking order that determined life and death for both British and French colonial troops at Dunkirk and after it.
This is important, firstly, because it is a matter of factual accuracy in what purports to be an historical portrayal – and also because it was the colonial troops who were crucial in averting absolute catastrophe for the allies. It is also important because, more than history books and school lessons, popular culture shapes and informs our imagination not only of the past, but of our present and future."

It's interesting when you contrast this historical inaccuracy with film makers who say they can't put blacks or Asians into certain roles, because ti would be factually inaccurate.  But here they can put whites into the roles of the Indian and Asian troops, equally inaccurate.  

And Singh believes this whitewashing of history makes it easier to condemn immigrants today and vote for Brexit.

"Could we still see our neighbours as less than human if we also saw them fight shoulder-to-shoulder with “our boys” in the “good” war? Would we call those fleeing war “cockroaches” and demand gunboats to stop them from reaching our white cliffs if we knew they had died for the freedoms we hold so dear? More importantly, would anti-immigration sentiment be so easy to weaponise, even by the left – in the past and the present – if the decent, hardworking Britons knew and recognised how much of their lives, safety and prosperity are results of non-British sacrifices? In a deeply divided, fearful Britain, Nolan’s directorial choices succeed as a Brexiteer costume fantasy, but they fail to tell the story of Operation Dynamo, the war, and Britain. More importantly, they fail us all, as people and a nation."


  1. Ah, Steve. So many ways of response on this one! I came round today to delete my notes on the remodel of the Loussac Library and saw your 'Dunkirk' mention (a film we plan to see this week in London).

    I was drawn to it like an American to 4th of July fireworks: patriotism and spectacle. What could possibly go wrong with that?

    I'll pause on my reply today. No 'oohs' or 'ahhs'; just some time given over to thinking on what it all could and, perhaps, should mean.

    Thanks for the homework.

  2. Steve, coming into a country to settle, one has much to learn. One of these efforts requires trying to get 'under the skin' of what makes someone patriotic in their understanding of pivotal moments in a country's history.

    The evacuation of Dunkirk is most certainly one of these 'soul of place' moments and it cannot be discussed without strong emotion here.

    That said, I looked in to the facts of service records for what British Empire called 'colonial' units, some which were 'coloured'. Those military units were there at Dunkirk, but not in large numbers due to this being first response in what became a much-longer, much-larger war. Logistics worked against large-scale movement of foreign regiments as there was the looming threat of global war necessitating use of 'colonial' troops in action against aggression in those colonies.

    That certainly became the case.

    But to deal with the director's choices in this film, of not taking into account the many French regiments that were conscripted from North Africa, this is where the film's focus on the English soldier, could appear to be racist.

    But it may not be, if we look at this as a film of the British take on its fight -- that nationalistic venture into the myth of place and pride in history.

    I will end by inserting this helpful submission on the film itself, from a film chat stream. Clifton (below) gives things some thought, to the effects of the film and its 'home fires' imaginings.


    Clifton Sutherland

    I agree with Publius. There is no denying that colonial troops played a pivotal and noteworthy role in the war, and that they were at Dunkirk to boot. But, given the narrative constraints of the story Nolan was trying to tell, tied with the relative accuracy of character portrayal in respects to the average British soldier, the story was meant to focus on that specific aspect, not the diversity of soldiers there, nor the tactics or politics or the german side- all sorts of narratives were not utilized, in order for the story of survival to be more emphasized.

    I would love to see more movies about colonial troops- they could tell a really good, true story about their contributions to the war effort, overcoming distrust or racism to perform valiantly, etc. etc. How awesome would a movie about Guhkras be?

    There is no need for forced diversity in a movie- the experience of WW2 was so immense, filmmakers could make movies SOLELY out of the stories of white men for hundreds of years, and still not tell everything. There are so many stories to tell, each can, and should get their own.

    Does that mean multiple stories cannot be told at once? Of course not. But complaining about a movie solely because it has too many white people, and isnt delivering a proper PC, social justice message is not only petty and stupid- it does a great disservice to all those who fought and died.

    1. Thanks, Jacob for digging deeper. I don't disagree with Clifton's sentiment that it's somewhat unfair to criticize one film maker about one film because it doesn't tell 'the whole story.' But calling such criticism 'petty and stupid' misses the point.

      I think Singh's point is that when every film about an event focuses on the same cast of characters, it imprints on people's minds that they were the only ones there. That said, the unrepresented can complain - and getting attention to and awareness of the topic is useful - or they can make their own movies. Though I imagine war movies are more expensive than most. But the descendants of colonial soldiers can write books that might attract film makers with adequate funding.

      But then Amitav Ghosh's book (which is more Hollywoodish than I would have liked) hasn't been made into a film, though it focuses on Indian troops in SE Asia more.

      If Singh's critique causes people to think about the missing troops when they see the film, that's a good start.

  3. Agreed. I won’t defend Clifton’s use of battle-words as he only hurts his argument by using them.

    Some have suggested a way Nolan could have kept his survival-narrative focus was to have employed the report that Asian (Indian) colonial soldiers were ordered abandoned to their fate. The English commanding officer on the beach ignored those orders and the Indian soldiers were evacuated.

    It could have worked nicely: Indian troops in the film and a ‘good-on-him’ for the English. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. (India) reports the film has had the biggest opening of an English-only language film.

    A bit of controversy helps. Let's go from there.


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