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Archive for August, 2017

Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. As shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon … finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping


A Promotional photo of the house from the website advertising programs


My photo of the Aigas common room where the group gathered periodically — that’s Lucy, Lady Lister-Kaye at the center in front of the woodfire stove

Friends and readers,

I’ve not blogged here for more than 3 weeks because I’ve been away: I journeyed by plane (8/10-11/17) and bus to what John Lister-Kaye calls “the Aigas Field Center,” a large mansion not far from Inverness (the closest big Scottish city) made up, on the one side, of a large 19th century-built wing (in the cake-like or phony 19th century style he names Balmorality), “baronial hall,” library, withdrawing room, a gallery with bedrooms, one of which nowadays is one Lister-Kaye’s writing rooms, a much smaller central wing from the later 18th into early 19th century Georgian style, and a later 20th century addition (warm comfortable rooms, including a modern style kitchen with Aga stove). It sits on a several hundred acre ground where there are other buildings, some for tourists and guests, others for the ranger and guide staff, some for staff of the kind seen in Downton Abbey (front gatehouse for lodgekeeper, gardening and house staff who sometimes live there, holiday guides, drivers), some for ecology restoration projects (the wildcat is one, native trees another, a large pond with beavers and “hides”), others for lectures and schoolchildren as well as adults to have learning experiences in, and lots of small animals (from chickens and roosters, to pine martens, beavers, many birds, and cattle and sheep, and the occasional deer too. Enormously old trees.


My photo of the terrace in front of part of the Aigas House (taken from window of common room)

From there starting on second day (Monday, 8/14/17), 26 or so people traveled several hours a day to public sites and buildings in and about the immediate area and to the western and northern coasts (Isle of Skye, Raasay across the way), to the Black Isle (a fertile peninsula stuck out into the North sea. We also explored the Aigas landscape: the whole of Sunday, the first full day there (8/13), was a tour of the house, the immediate grounds, of Lady Lucy’s gardens, which we were to wander in at any time of day or night after we arrived). We were privileged to be invited to go, meet and talk with a crofter’s house and acres not far from Aigas (a friend of Lister-Kaye or “Sir John” as he is familiarly called by everyone), as well as a local landowner and aristocratic lady’s (“J-j”) organic farm-garden, where she is developing bee centers, keeps sheep, grows native trees, has an extensive kitchen garden, all of which is supported by a beer distillery using hops from her land, by selling sweaters from the sheep. All of this arranged around a somewhat renovated 18th century mansion. We also had a 5 hour Saturday drive (8/12), up to Aigas where we visited Glenn Coe (where a massacre occurred and is now a site for arduous walking) and a week later (8/19), away from Aigas (where we visited the historically laden Blair Castle, there since the 12th century or so) and a couple of other sites.

Before launching into a eight day and evening travelogue, I want to imitate John Lister-Kaye (whose nature writing books are rightly much admired — at his best he can match Loren Eiseley for poetry and geology, and animal studies, Annie Dillard for weaving significant autobiography, and is often implicitly political in a mildly socialistic, occasionally paternalistic and green party mode) and provide a framework for what we saw. It seems to me gaping at places without giving them context is like presenting photos and expecting them to tell their story. They don’t. I won’t have many pictures, since I’m not a photo-taking type (I’ve never taken even one selfie) and when I do take photos they are often at odd angles I happen to be standing or sitting at. But I do have a couple of hand-outs to share as well as my photos and pictures found on the web. There were several excellent presentations, most of them at most 20 minutes long, but three stand out, Robin MacGregor’s explanation of the maps of the Scottish Highlands he gave us the first evening we met, the first Friday evening (8/11) we most of us arrived at Glasgow airport and a nearby Holiday inn on Friday afternoon.


A simplified map of geology, waterways of Scottish Highlands

Robin MacGregor was a lawyer and accountant when younger, now is a guide leader and is an expert on Scottish geology and World War One. He began by impressing us with the difference between lowland and highland Scotland: the north comes a plate previously attached to North America, is mountainous, rocky, a lot of sedimentation, while the south is green, meadow-y. The present small population results from a 2 century diaspora it’s fair to call ethnic cleansing, or sheer ejection by chieftains become landlords determined to make a large profit on the land by filling it first with sheep and later with deer (for rich people to come and slaughter. He talked of how romanticized the descriptions of its civil social society, which is now based on commercialism laid over family biology bonds and the original tribal laws and customs of clans, as well as results of warfare and sex. We might call them an edge people, a people descending in written history from Celtic culture which was pushed back by the more modern Roman culture, successful war machine from the Mediterranean, found along Northern Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, down to Basque country. Tribal people forced into the peripheries where it’s hard to make a living on much non-arable land. Little of Northern Scotland is more than 37 miles from the sea, it’s crossed by faults as are the lowlands. and rivers. Large cities include Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Sterling, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness. One of the maps had pictures of food and fish that are indigenous to each area.


I’ve made this one bigger in the hope the print can be read

The most peculiar of these maps was of the clans — which are still remembered by many Scottish people and are seen in their last names — Lady Lucy is a descendant of clan Mackenzie. Robin named all the clans including his own, MacGregor, and told us about their specific rivalries, whose side they were on at Culloden (a central historical moment, a watershed defeat in Scottish history taking 45 minutes). I was cheered to realize that the novels and mini-series of Outlander (the books are found in most decent bookstores and the TV programs have been big hits) are in large outlines historically accurate: so clan Fraser is where the stories say, its relationship with clan Mackenzie generally accurate. He did keep emphasizing that Scottish and English people while intertwined utterly are nonetheless part of different cultures, with distinct identifications and histories.


One wing of that fabulously wealthy woman, Elizabeth Windsor’s Balmoral Castle, first started in the 19th century by Victoria

I believe it was Saturday evening (8/13) that in one of the buildings on the estate, Magnus House, Sir John gave his extraordinary lecture (he’s been giving it since 1986) “Balmorality.” I feared it would include yet another rehash of the Jacobite disasters (hundreds of people killed each time, not counting the states’ savage reprisals) or be just about the myth of Balmoral beauty promulgated by Victoria’s vacation life. It was in effect a debunking of some silly clothing, and recent made-up customs (especially believed in it seems by US people) and a genuine history of the mid- to later 19th into the later 20th century. He contrasted the reality of the experience most Scots people knew against the imposed picturesque narratives of the wealthy who came north to exploit the people left and their land. He explained why northern Scottish landscape looks and often is so empty, how it came to have species of animals and plants not indigenous to it at all, the abject poverty of what we can call the 99% until the early 1980s. In 1972 one could easily find people living in huts with no central heat, not running water, poor windows and ventilation, no electricity, without shoes. He stressed that a lot of the emigration from early 19th century on became voluntary: when the Scottish reached North America, they realized a much better life was on offer for them all.


Victoria Hamilton as the Queen Mother Mary (Wife of George VI) photographed in the highlands as soothingly beautiful, with vast old houses whose cost no one minds, with hardly a servant about to keep everything up, was an embodiment of the most recent melancholy-sentimental myth-making

“Balmorality” stands for the way wealthy, naive and often non-Scottish people project images of Scotland (as seen in Downton Abbey‘s visits to Scotland for Christmas and again in Queen Mary’s visits to Scotland in the Netflix series, The Crown) the way Edward Said’s “orientalism” stands for the way prejudiced western people describe and pervert and misunderstand Islamic, middle eastern and South-Asian cultures. He showed Landseer paintings of animals who couldn’t exist (great stags with astonishing antlers), quoted the abysmal poetry of William McGonegal, which he averred was nonetheless often more accurate about the highlands than say Burns or Scott. He explained one of the uses of Aigas house was a site for restoration ecology: restoring Scottish land to be as productive, fruitful, and beautiful as it can. Rebuilding the place that capitalism, rentier-landlords, colonialism destroyed. Put the wolves back, the lynx, small and large animals almost gone extinct, make a habitable lifestyle cooperated in by all.


The story design of the chapters of this book is a history of Aigas House,and stories attached to it and its lands — beginning with an iron age fort, moving on to a Jacobean house, then the couple of hundred years the house now represents; how it was a run-down home for poor aging people until he took it over, renovated it at great cost

His second lecture, which I regret not taking better notes on, was originally going to be reading aloud in the drawing room from his books on Wednesday (8/16), while we had roarding fire and drank and ate. Instead he gave another hour and one-half lecture at Magnus House, this time on his recent life-writing cum-nature writing book, The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood. In a way he retold the same history of Scotland starting with his parents’ lives (though the family is England, and its estates in Yorkshire, with money coming from mines) in terms of his personal life, with an extended section on the man who he feels brought him to be what he is and does today: Gavin Maxwell


Sir John is hardly seen without one of three dogs very much attached to him


Gavin Maxwell when young

Sir John’s talk included Maxwell’s intimate relationship with the poet Kathleen Raine (whose poetry I had read but did not know she was all her life in love with Maxwell who was however homosexual (one of the reasons for his reclusiveness); I remembered Raine as a poet strongly influenced by Virginia Woolf in French.

As someone who taught Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences and Technology for over 17 years at George Mason (to junior level students) and in the first ten years read with students, concentrated on nature writers (I assigned Eiseley, Dillard), people who cared about non-human animals and conservative (I assigned Joan Goodall, Sy Montgomery) I recognized where his deep Thoreau-like impulses to retreat came from: a detestation of the ludicrous cruelties of so many human institutions. It was a litany of his miseries in public schools, of how he was forced into working as an engineer for a profit-driven inhumane company polluting vast lands and waterways, of the great poverty he first saw in gypsies and the state schools he also apparently attended, and the story of how he broke away to live differently. Gavin Maxwell’s retreat and stubborn return to nature, the book, Ring of Bright Water, was a great revelation, their relationship one of the most important in his life. It must be admitted Maxwell was a little mad: he broke with Raine because she was accidentally responsible for the death of an otter she bought for him.


This statue of an otter overlooking Front Bay honors Maxwell

I’ll end on a poem by Kathleen Raine, who I once intended to write a foremother poet blog on but never got to it. A chapter in Didier’s book on l’ecriture-femme is dedicated to Raines and she is one of those poets chosen by Catherine Kerrigan in her An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets:

Heirloom

She gave me childhood’s flowers,
Heather and wild thyme,
Eyebright and tormentil,
Lichen’s mealy cup
Dry on wind-scored stone,
The corbies on the rock,
The rowan by the bum.

Sea-marvels a child beheld
Out in the fisherman’s boad,
Fringed pulsing violet
Medusa, sea gooseberries,
Starfish on the sea-floor,
Cowries and rainbow-shells
From pools on a rocky shore,

Gave me her memories,
But kept her last treasure:
‘When I was a lass: she said,
‘Sitting among the heather,
‘Suddenly I saw
‘That all the moor was alive!
‘I have told no one before.’

That was my mother’s tale.
Seventy years had gone
Since she saw the living skein
Of which the world is woven,
And having seen, knew all;
Through long indifferent years
Treasuring the priceless pearl.

If I seem strangely to have begun and ended on women writers, what bothered me all week was the preponderance of people in the tour (2/3rds), the rangers (about the same), the staff were women. the relief was to find myself in a genuinely socially-rooted society, one where people identify and pull together: they believe they have a right to health care, a right to education up to and including university, a right to housing, a right to a decent life together. It was Lady Lucy who provided the very good food and ran the place. But all the people named as important historical figures, described, pictured were men. In other words, it is at the same time still a patriarchy. In my next I hope to tell of Lucy’s descriptive tour of her gardening on Sunday afternoon (8/13)– really a creation comparable to areas of Central Park in little — and what I saw of women’s lives through her, the Crofter Ann MacDonald and some other Scots women writers and artists too.


A wide and far shot of the property probably in winter — there are the tiny remains of an iron fort too

Ellen

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Agatha Poldark: this is from one of her earnest conversations with Ross; but she has the same expression when she urges Morwenna that she cannot marry Drake (2015 Episode 6)


Agatha now near death, muttering, asking Elizabeth’s now frightened forgiveness because she knows she should not have responded to George’s tormenting of her with tormenting him (2015 Episode 7)

Dear friends and readers,

My header this time refers more or as much to Graham’s books, The Black Moon and The Four Swans, and the 1977 second season episodes 6-7 as it does to this new third season episodes 6 & 7. Horsfield has begun to depart as radically and anachronistically from Graham’s books as Jack Pullman did in the first season of the 1975 Poldark Episodes 1-4, which so incensed Winston Graham. She is not merely taking liberties but she is changing the meaning of the events crucially.

It will be said that if this pleases and is understood by the TV audience of 2017 (much larger than the numbers of people who will read the Poldark books in question), so what? I answer the original presentation is understandable by a contemporary audience and would teach them much more about the history of women, which sheds light on their present condition. The new sensational dramas where remarkably contrivance has replaced plausibility may excite an audience more, but if the reaction of the online and paper press is any measure, the reaction is increasing mockery (see the in-house Guardian snark of Viv Goskop, on Episode 6 and Episode 7).


George’s contrived question: what would you give, Morwenna, to see Drake acquitted


Morwenna as a frightened animal caught in headlights in a traffic accident (2015 Episode 6)

Take how Morwenna Chynoweth (Elise Chappell/Jane Wymark) is pressured into marrying the sadistic hypocritical vicar Osborne Whitworth (Christian Brassington;Christopher Biggins): in the book and in the 1970s series it is a slow application of pressure; from Elizabeth (Heida Reed/Jill Townsend) and George Warleggan (Jack Farthing/Ralph Bates), from her mother, and from her sense of what her class status demands, what the norms of her society demand of her. Several scenes. As Verity wanting Captain Blamey and the abused penniless Demelza leaping at a chance to be a landowner’s wife in Ross Poldark; the widowed harasssed Elizabeth in Warleggan, so Morwenna has no “right” to “a choice of life;: subdued and oppressed by loaded phrases like “your natural place,” “your bounden duty,” “a false and romantic idea,” “obduracy” rather than the “gratitude” due someone (BM II:4, 276, III:12, 519), Morwenna falls back on vague mutterings like “I cannot see myself . . . I cannot think that this is [to be my life]”. In the book and the 1970s Elizabeth genuinely hesitates and feels unable openly to countermand her husband George’s plans for Morwenna, asking herself “why she was not more afraid of him.”. “Flight” is not an option. Instead we are given the improbable swift bargain that Morwenna agrees to marry Drake to stop George from hanging him for having Geoffrey Charles’s Bible in his cabin. In both the book and the 1970s, the threat of another riot is what gives him pause — plus he knows GC did give Drake the Bible as a gift. Is this weak of Morwenna? how do women fare up against laws and customs against abortion, supporting male rape, smaller incomes, men with power and property, the demand they marry successfully, have children? instead as re-told by Horsfield the story becames fodder for a joke.

I enjoyed the new episode 6 and 7, for all the reasons of the 2017 art (uses of montage, fine acting, the costumes, setting), but the book and the 1970s versions are in this case superior and in my summary and evaluations of these in my comments I do the two earlier episodes the respect and justice of serious recapping before we go any further. This for those who’d like to remember and for those who’ve never seen these. Then I’ll proceed to comparison.

The 1977 Episode 6


Dr Behenna pitying Elizabeth stuck with George, but giving bad advice for Valentine’s rickets


George like some dark spirit unreasonable, harassing Elizabeth (1977 Episode 6)

The 1977 Poldark Episode 7


At Tehidy Demelza charmed by Armitage


Caroline disappointed in Dwight (bored), also charmed (1977 Poldark Episode 7)

Morwenna’s and now Elizabeth’s is not the only coerced relationship. In the book and 1970s Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson/Angarhad Rees) falls in love with Armitage because he is the first young man ever to court her, the first time she is romanced, offered poetry, valued for her singing: Ross was much older than she, and took her as his servant; his marrying her was ethical of him, and he has learned to value her sexually and as a wife from a realistic relationship. She couldn’t care less if he accepts a political position or not. She does see that if he did, he would do some good, and says this but she is not disgusted with him for his lack of ambition for status. Demelza? Importantly left out of this new iteration is Bassett’s (John Hopkins/Mike Hall) support of William Pitt in the book (a deep reactionary, who made of the 1790s a kind of McCarthy era) and his voiced expectation that Ross would support Pitt. This is not brought into the 1970s series, but not as much is made of either refusal.

It is to Horsfield’s credit that she sees that the trajectory of the three books is to pressure Ross into compromise, into accepting the patronage system and working within it, but she is using it to present Delmelza as falling in love with a callow romantic young man. In the book and the 1970s series Demelza says she loves Ross still and after sex on the shore, much more than Armitage. People have complicated adult conflicting emotions. Certainly Ross does.


Invented scene of high anger between Ross and Demelza (not in book or 1970s) where she is disgusted because he won’t obey the world’s ways and he is angry she wants him to follow her advice because it’s hers (2015 Poldark Episode 7)

In the book and the 1970s Ross says he cannot forget his love for Elizabeth but he at the same time loves Demelza and differently, as his wife. I’ve read that the film-makers are hesitating over going on to a fifth season because Turner and Tomlinson will ask too much money. Hitherto it was also said that would demand they move forward ten years (Stranger from the Sea is set in 1810, with Jeremy and Clowance grown into young adults): should they “age” Turner and Tomlinson (a lot of trouble) or hire new actors (and lose the audience they hope is into worship for this pair of people). If so, why invent Ross’s suspicion Elizabeth’s baby is his. Why have him and Demelza give one another pointed looks over his refusal to accept any responsibility for what is happening to baby and soon young boy Valentine? The tragic results of this in a twisted personality emerges in The Miller’s Dance and The Loving Cup (Poldarks 8 and 9) and the catastrophic dark conclusion of Bella (Poldark 12). why prepare for what you don’t intend to film, especially if in the book Ross has no suspicion the child could be his and is not an 8th month baby (why would he? he hardly ever has seen the baby) until the scene in the churchyard with Elizabeth in The Angry Tide. The treatment of this in this new series is ludicrous. If you don’t want to comb or brush Ross’s hair and leave his black curls all awry (but in the era he would care for his hair or, as in Ross Poldark, he’d fear lice), don’t give this to the baby as a sign.


Obligatory romance scene between Dwight and Caroline (2015 Poldark Episode 6)

Enough is the same as in the books and the 1970s episodes to give the new drama and interpretations depth, interest, passion. Yes when Dwight Enys (Luke Norris/ Richard Morant/Michael Cadman) comes home, he is depressed and guilty that he survived; he cannot lend himself to sexual passion at first; Caroline (Gabriella Wilde/Judy Geeson) wants an aristocratic idle prestigious life and he yearns to return to his profession. Theirs is another reluctant relationship, a half mismatch. Yes there is a beautiful romance between Drake (Harry Richardson/Kevin McNally) and Morwenna, the boy Geoffrey Charles (Harry Marcus/Stephan Gates) values the inner spirit of Drake, who is very young and risks bodily harm to spite George with toads; who when he loses Demelza falls into a deep depression. Yes Sam (Tom York/David Delve) falls in love inappropriately with the wanton Emma (Ciara Charteris/Trudie Styler). Yes at the end of The Black Moon George is incensed at Agatha (Caroline Blakiston/Eileen Way) and refuses to allow her to have her 100th party, and she retaliates by planting suspicion in his mind that Valentine was a full term baby, after which as she lays dying she regrets having hurt Elizabeth for life this way.


Tholly Tregirls (not Jud) (Sean Gilder) is the gravedigger but when Agatha’s plain coffin is brought with no ceremony, Ross buries her — this is a moving moment

But why must we have these debasing exaggerations. At no point in the book or the 1970s does Demelza mock Sam’s religion. Emma is a daughter of Tholly but she is kindly. In the book and 1970s George does not openly rejoice at war because he is hoping to make more money; Farthing is made into a cardboard silly (transparently so) villain. Although George is deeply suspicious once Agatha alerts him, and does go about to question people (Drs Choake, Richard Daws, Behenna Hugh Dickson/ and Enys), it is not until The Angry Tide that he feels he has evidence to demonstrate that Elizabeth’s child is Ross’s son — which at that point brings ends the book in great tragedy. And neither Elizabeth nor Ross is really sure — how could they be? Horsfield disrespects her audience in many of the changes of these two episodes — or she is desperate for very high ratings (and a budget to support a fifth season).


Like Demelza Drake takes on a dog for a companion (there is a pro-animal theme in Graham, 1977 Poldark Episode 7)

Most of all what is hard to take is the violation of the characters as Graham conceived them and in the second season of the 1970s Poldarks (1977-78), to which Alexander Baron and John Wiles remained true. Demelza has made Ross the center of her meaning; he deeply bonds with her. They do not bicker; the sex she knows with Armitage is not fundamentally serious; his love for Elizabeth is vestigial. This core of validation of a marriage for love despite life’s ordeals is lost. A eecondary one is the defiance of the world’s perverse values; as in the first season, Horsfield again reverses and reinforces deep compromise (though how seriously we are to take this here it’s hard to say except we can see in her scripts art as saleable commodity).

Not that Turner and Tomlinson do not play their roles with what depths they are offered from the script and direction. Elizabeth is an interesting character as is George; he is the world’s successful man, she the woman caught up because she has twice been for sale. There is opportunity for Drake to come back (as a man he is given a profession to develop his talents as a blacksmith; he gets himself a dog), but for Morwenna she is rescued too late, and is forever shattered. Sam and Emma are a contrasting pair, with Emma as a hard well-meaning (she is well-meaning in the book, not a slut) and Sam a kind idealist, who church officials want to put down as revolutionary (this is lost altogether as his religion is turned into bigoted fanaticism over sex when it is also about all souls being equal before God). The lowest are the desperate Rowella (who sees in the Vicar an opportunity to rise somehow) and the vicious state clergyman given a big income and status. She does not have sex with Whitworth for her sister’s sake (what nonsense): her sister, Rowella, does not have sex with the Vicar for her sister’s sake, but for herself — as eventually will be seen unless Horsfield changes the story line altogether in the fourth season and I can’t see how they can (I see the librarian to whom Rowella is married off is in the coming cast)


Rowella (Julia Dawn Cole) and Whitworth about to use one another sexually (1977 Poldark Episode 7)

My reader should read the books and watch the previous Poldarks which are available in good digitialized versions. See my blog on “Poldark Rebooted: 40 Years On,” and Graham’s Four Swans and The Angry Tide.

Ellen

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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

Friends and readers,

I’ve just read that Dunkirk is this summer’s “big movie.” In his column about it in The Washington Post, Richard Cohen wrote “since July 21 opening, it has taken in more than $100 million in North America and been hailed by ecstatic critics everywhere.” Richard Cohen professes to “admire it even more the second time. It is a stupendous achievement, although more than a little odd. It’s a film for the Trump era. It is deaf to history.” He then goes on to trash it.

My view is more akin to Anthony Lane in the New Yorker — unless I’m misreading him. I wish it were better. It is worth seeing as long as it’s not prefaced by what it was prefaced with in the AMC movie-theater I went to: 20 minutes of trailers for coming film and TV shows, each more horrifyingly violent, fascist,and racist than the one before: advertising a TV film on the Detroit riots which appears to be a Trump vision of cities where the majority of people are African-American as places of wild carnage; two films ratcheting up paranoia over ISIS and terrorist states (of which obviously the US is not one; we are the good guys). Or, one could say, in comparison with these, this is a sane decent truthful film.

What the film-makers do is attempt to make us experience what it was like to be on Dunkirk beach on those few nights. Chistopher Nolan dramatizes what it feels like to be in what MacNamara called “the fog of war.” We experience Dunkirk from the point of view of several individual men trying to escape the beach onto a ship, any ship. Nothing makes sense; there are few boats to rescue them, and the boats that have come are torpedoed by German airplanes. No false explanation, no heroics except for the people on the one small boat we are permitted to experience and the stubbornness and hysteria of those who want to live. It feels like a fragment off another movie the rest of which has been mercifully cut. That’s the point: each person’s experience of war is like a fragment and many young soldiers have no idea what the real quarrel is about or what group of people have incited it.

Cohen complains that we are given no history, no context. He is indignant because he assumes most young people (those who go most to films) will have no idea what this is about. Well, first of all there is an explanation (if brief) at the opening: this is World War Two, the British are caught on this beach, attempting to flee the Germans who are occupying France; they have been beaten back to the channel. Actually his word is “dolts.” No we are not told what happened: that thousands of small British boats (pleasure, yachts, fishing and working boats) crossed the channel and rescued some 300,000 or so off the beach. (The boats were mostly requisitioned.) A huge number of people also died, were badly wounded. The film has a right to set up suspense. Cohen is complaining that Nolan did not make the film he would have made, which appears to be a lecture on the “evil rapacious regime” run by Hitler. Worse, says Cohen, Nolan has done this deliberately since it stands to reason the conversation (if there were some — there is very little) would naturally include references to Germans. “Nolan had an obligation” to make this as well as the Nazi concentration camps and the destruction of the rich European culture of the 1920s clear. Really?

If Cohen were the only person reacting in personal angry ways, I would not be writing this blog, but a number of critics (not all are ecstatic) are indignant. Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street journal wants to know why Churchill’s role is so minimized. This is a dumbed-down film from the maker of Batman. Well, ’nuff said.’ I’ve come across ordinary people’s comments making adverse comments about the film too. The friend I went with, seeing I liked the film, didn’t want to say she didn’t, so simply contented herself with agreeing this was like a fragment (to her ears that was an unfavorable criticism), and saying “I should have read the reviews, my fault [for going].” It wasn’t what she expected.

Dunkirk, this movie, seems to have hit some sore nerve in others, made sorer by having a dangerous (evil? implicitly rapacious) man in the White House. I picked Cohen to summarize because he makes the connection openly: “This [the need to inform] is especially the case in the age of President Trump when it is necessary to appreciate that the ugliness he has exploited could escape its confines and metastasize.” My objection: why is it his age? and what makes Cohen think this ugliness has not already metatasized? Is Cohen not paying attention to the thousands and thousands of deaths in Yemen (hundreds of civilians each week), joined by hundreds killed, imprisoned, starving, in other states whose dictators Trump regularly calls to congratulate?

The ordinary viewer seems to want heroism, something monumental. This movie was apparently made on a small budget. During most of the action, we see only three Spitfire planes, and we see only one small fishing boat crossing the Atlantic. The boat makes it, and is filled to the brim with soldiers, and turns round back to the (of course) white cliffs of Dover. Where else? Two of the spitfires are shot down. All three importantly shoot down as many German airplanes as they can, because the German airplanes during this evacuation, were throwing bombs, firing, doing all they ferociously could to annihilate (one of our War Department head’s favorite words — General Mattis) everyone in sight. The proportion is right. Ridiculously, many people still think the Spitfires were glorious experiences, and in Penelope Fitzgerald’s gem, The Bookshop, never tire of seeking memoirs. There are very few, because something like 80% of the British airplanes (especially the Spitfire) were destroyed, 3 out of 4 (with all on board killed). One of the two very great anti-war BBC mini-series of the 1970s shows this viscerally; most of the characters in Piece of Cake are dead before the series ends.


Mark Rylance as the father/captain of the small boat

The small fishing boat is central. It is in this boat we experience what is best and what are the flaws in this film. Rylance embodies not so much (as Lane has it) the “gallantly narrow squeak through”, “the makeshift,” and is not just your stoic Englishman “wearing throughout the ordeal, a white shirt, a tie, and a sweater, as if he were doing a bit of Sunday gardening rather than hauling a shoal of his countrymen, drenched in oil” from death by drowning in that dark blue cold sea or bombs, fire, shots. He makes it a patriotic British film. He loses a son while crossing — killed by accident by the first numb and shuddering man they rescue, who under PTSD, becomes frantic when he realizes the boat is headed back for France and attempts to try to force Rylance to turn round. He is revealed as Cillian Murphy and knocks Rylance’s son down to the hold where he receives a fatal concussion.

But does Rylance flinch? well, maybe, but he carries on quietly, regardless. Later Murphy is seen pulling others into the boat, leg, body, arms over. All are doing their duty by this time — when they see they have a chance to live. Rylance is clearly a shining example to his second son with him on the boat. When we get back to shore, we learn a third son has been previously killed. But there he sits at the kitchen table, now drinking his tea, reading the paper while an overvoice of Churchill calling out the famous exhortation, “We will fight them on the beach …,” defending their island to their last breath.

Nolan punts at the film’s close; he gives it a close. The one Spitfire that survives is seen floating down out of gas and the man is able to throw off the glass top and Tom Hardy emerges. Elgar’s music is heard softly and then swells up. As the men arrive, the people on shore are waiting for them, blankets, more tea, biscuits, sandwiches in hand. Like some chorus in a play. Late in the film Jack Lowden (perfect as Nicholas Rostov in Davies’s TV War and Peace) is seen busy doing effective things. From afar in the train soldiers glimpse British people at work on the railways, undaunted. Kenneth Branagh is the other famous box-office pull older actor in the film: he is the grimly cheerful man, facing up to this colossal catastrophe, who stands at the head of whatever it is, binoculars in hand.


That’s James D’Arcy with him

His faith is rewarded when he sees (as we do) the flotilla of small boats speeding in, and pulling people one by one, aboard. It is moving. I don’t say it’s not. But the emotion worked up to this point didn’t need Elgar. Nolan cut one of Churchill’s often forgotten lines: we do not win wars by magnificent evacuations (words to this effect). I admit the sentence is seen in the newspaper print but I who have poor eyesight was able to read it. And until near this conventional movie ending, Noland attempts to be as true to experience as his limited budget will allows.

The film begins with a soldier running frantically through the streets of a French village (seemingly empty) leaping over a wall, to find himself on the beach, where he sees long lines, crowds of soldiers waiting at its edge. Hitherto the films I’ve seen which included Dunkirk, made it look like a party (almost); not here. If I’m not mis-remembering we see a horse killed (again just one — very economical, we can call it epitomizing). This Frenchman does manage to grab someone on a stretcher and together with another man (stranger to him) they push their way onto a boat. Later he is almost murdered by the British on that boat when they discover he is not English; at first they think him “the enemy” (not German, the word is not use); when they find he speaks French, that seems just as bad.

Attention is paid to making us experience what it is to be in a war zone directly attacked by ferocious weapons determined to destroy you (me, the individual). This reminded me of a play written in 1929 which Jim and I saw in a London theater the last time we were in England: R. C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End. the audience was made to feel through noise and lights that bombs were raining down on us – as they would have the men in the play. That’s why we are not told the names of the individual stories we glimpse. What happens is and slowly he begins to talk and act to help others. Of course he helps others.

There are no women with real roles. We see them in the teams of people down in a hole in the boat, on shore, serving food, handing out blankets. This is kept up and is a conscious choice for when Rylance and son get home, there is no wife/mother at the table. See Meherer Bonner’s well-taken complaint about having no women; on story lines they are over-rated and impose meaning. This film displayed the meaninglessness of death; it held no briefcase for justified “good” wars. On this watch Howard Zinn’s lecture on three “justified” or good wars: the US revolutionary, the US civil war, and World War Two.

But in our time where what is shown to us in films is cruelty, inhumanity and torture almost as a norm, deep distrust and far from social behavior, individual ruthlessness, this is tonic. It is good. No it’s not a true expose, like Danger USB (the other great mini-series of the 1970s, about a bomb disposal unit), not searingly anti-war so that you not soothed, cannot be mistaken, like Kilo Two Bravo. Kilo Two Bravo was not distributed in the US (though it was in the UK under the name of the place where the British troops came upon a landmine, Kajaki). Dunkirk is reaching a huge audience.

I wonder how it would compare with the 1958 Dunkirk with Richard Attenborough and John Mills. The reviews declare this older film to have been one of the best war films ever made (!): the wikipedia article shows this earlier Dunkirk was presented with a historical context.


Richard Attenborough, John Mills (Platon Karatayev in the 195 War and Peace), Bernard Lee

Quite a number of people on my Trollope19thCStudies listserv at Yahoo have been moved to tell of parents, grandparents and if they are old enough, their own memories or experience of Dunkirk. It is not that long ago. I had a friend who was on the listserv for a few years (not a Trollopeian, she gave it up), who would tell me of what it was like at age 6 to hear the German airplanes come over the channel nightly. It’s only 90 miles. Nowadays if a soldier carries some form of iphone, he may be kept informed – though not of the larger picture or politics. I had an uncle “missing, believed killed”in World War Two who it turned out was not killed; he hid out on an Asian island. When he returned home, he acted differently than most people: he would not go to parties or large gatherings of people; he’d break off suddenly in response to others, but would not say what had bothered him. He was a fruit and vegetable peddler in New York City for a while, and then was given a job (compensation) at the post office. He slept in a separate room away from from my aunt. There were no children. I feel my aunt led a sad lonely life. They had been married before he went away to war.

Ellen

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