With a large family, trips to the cinema are not cheap. The clamour to see Dunkirk, however, proved irresistible. It was led by my eldest daughter, Edith, whose attachment to World War II movies can be traced back to an old VHS copy of The Battle of Britain. She still quotes verbatim passages of dialogue from the film and, by way of homage, a huge Spitfire print occupies the prime wall space above her bed. Sadly, Dunkirk’s screening coincided with Edith’s trip to Lourdes with the Order of Malta, so her brother and sisters enjoyed the treat she had lobbied for in her absence.
The critics are split on Christopher Nolan’s depiction of Churchill’s miracle of deliverance. Perhaps it was the lachrymose after-effects of a boozy lunch, but I found the film hugely moving and saw its laconic script as a mark of genius, not folly. More than anything else, the movie reminded me of a book that precisely captures the precariousness of those few days in May 1940 when Britain fought – and failed – to maintain a military toehold on the continent.
Fighter Pilot, by Paul Richey, is an extraordinary account of the Battle of France. Serving with the RAF’s Number One Squadron, Flying Officer Richey was shot down three times. He was 23. The book is characterised by its honesty and vivid imagery. Richey describes the “savage thrill” and “primitive exultation” of shooting down enemy aircraft. But, as a devout Catholic, he lamented the taking of life. His son later wrote that “Whenever he shot down a pilot he would try to find a church and say a prayer for him and his family. He described one time where he looked for a church but it was locked up. He knelt on the steps and said a prayer.”
Fighter Pilot has no time for vicarious grief or public emoting. Richey, for better or worse, belonged to a generation who did much and said little. The description of how he takes his leave from his father before heading off to fight might confound some modern readers. As a father to a son myself, I remember finding it deeply affecting.
There are parallels between Fighter Pilot and Dunkirk. It sounds oxymoronic to talk about powerful understatement, but that is what both book and film give us. Cinemagoers who find Dunkirk hollow and meaningless misinterpret Nolan’s desire to reveal something about the British character of the day.
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