Does history have to be about the present? I ask after seeing Christopher Nolan’s much-discussed Dunkirk, which is indeed as good as everyone says, among the best war movies ever made (he says in the heat of the moment).

The film covers events from May 26 to June 4, 1940, when 350,000 men, a large number of them French, were evacuated across the English Channel in perhaps the most celebrated defeat of all time.

Dunkirk opens with a group of troops making their way through the backstreets of the deserted city before the inhuman thud of German bullets cuts them down; only one, Tommy – played by 20-year-old Fionn Whitehead – leaps over gardens and roofs to make it to the Allied lines, where the French soldiers are grimly holding the rear behind sandbags. Bon voyage, l’Anglais, one mouths to him, signifying that it was the French Army that allowed the British to escape. Tommy then comes across the scene of thousands of men queuing on a beach, helpless against enemy fighters and wearily looking at the menacing sea. It is cinematically superb, filmed in 70mm to give that wide-screen effect, and uses almost no CGI, which is why the Spitfire dog-fights are thrilling in a way that brought out the dormant 14-year-old in me. (In reality the Channel was not this rough during June 1940, but it certainly adds to the tension.)

The film covers the land, air and sea in three separate, connected narratives. Back in Blighty Mark Rylance plays a humble Dorset man taking his small ship along with his son and young assistant; in the air Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden have just one hour’s flying time, and are hopelessly outgunned by the enemy because the decision has been made to preserve the bulk of the Royal Air Force for the forthcoming Battle of Britain.

Naturally, for a hugely grossing historical film tipped for Oscar success, Dunkirk’s meaning has been pored over by the Greater and Lesser Commentariat. In particular there has been much agonising about whether a war film about a highly mythologised national event can be ideologically correct. The question progressives often ask themselves about potentially retrograde art is: ‘‘Am I allowed to enjoy this?’’

Richard Brody in the New Yorker wrote that it was Nolan’s “tribute to the collective purpose, the national unity, the total mobilisation for a total war in which Britain’s very existence, the very existence of national culture, is at stake”. Others, however, were keen to distance the film from the heresy of nationalism: Quart magazine interpreted it as “a brilliant tribute to cross-border cooperation in a time of nativism” and suggested that “Opening a year after the UK narrowly voted for Brexit, Dunkirk is simultaneously a celebration of British patriotism and an appeal for collaboration with your global neighbours – and a reminder that the two ideals are not, and have never been, mutually exclusive.”

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