Last week, I went to see Dunkirk, which has been getting pretty much unanimous rave reviews from film critics worldwide. And I have to say I agree with them – this is one of the best war films I’ve seen (and I’ve seen rather a lot), totally gripping from beginning to end, and very unusual in this day and age due to its [a] brevity, [b] complete absence of dialogue for much of its duration, and [c] complete absence of American superheroes for all of its duration. Some have struggled with its three intertwining timelines, a week for the events at the mole and on the beach, a day for one ‘little ship’ (skippered by Mark Rylance in easily the best ‘1940s dad’ performance I’ve seen since, umm, films made in the 1940s), and one hour for a Spitfire pilot. Yes, this can be a bit disorientating at times, but surely disorientation is one of the key emotions experienced in battle? Don’t take my word for it; take the word of one of the few survivors who was there in 1940 and has also seen the film.
Because of the sort of Facebook and Twitter accounts I follow, I was already aware of some other misgivings among what might be termed ‘the anachronism police’ about the presence of many dodgy bits of tech – a 1950s French destroyer standing in for 1910s British ones, for example, not to mention the clear visibility of 1970s container ship cranes in one scene. As soon as I saw the film, it seemed to me that these were nit-picks too far; for what it’s worth, far more jarring than any of the maritime stuff for me, at least, was the fact that many of the apartment buildings on the sea front at Dunkirk were obviously built in the 1960s or 1970s. But this was an inevitable consequence of the director’s decision to shoot the film at Dunkirk itself, rather than at some less developed location (for example, the 1958 film of the same name starring John Mills was shot principally at Camber Sands in Sussex). And one of the great strengths of this film is that by shooting it in Dunkirk, the absolutely vital juxtaposition of the mole and the beaches, together with the sheer extent of the latter at low tide, is shown far better than it could have been at any alternative location.
Yes, Christopher Nolan could have shot all of the ship and port scenes in CGI instead; after all, that went so well in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, didn’t it? And at the end of the day, this sort of ‘casting’ of ‘wrong’ locations, and ‘wrong’ ships, to ‘play’ historical ones, has a very, very long pedigree. In the pioneering 1927 silent film The Battles of Coronel and the Falklands, for example, Super-Dreadnought battleships like HMS Barham stood in for pre-WW1 battlecruisers of the Invincible class. I’d hazard a guess that in 1927, far more members of far more cinema audiences in the UK would have had a pretty good idea of what the ships that actually fought at Coronel and the Falklands in 1914 looked like then their modern day counterparts would possess about the appearance of the ships that actually fought at Dunkirk. But did they mutter darkly in the 1920s equivalent of social media, i.e. the pub, about the lack of authenticity in the film? Far from it, if newspapers of the day are to be believed. For example, the Mid-Sussex Times of 25 October 1927 actually trumpeted the fact that ‘some of our famous fighting ships are to be seen’ in the film, and that it was shot in the Mediterranean and the Isles of Scilly, not the South Atlantic, but despite this (or, perhaps, because of it), ‘every man, woman and child who love their country and its navy should make every endeavour to see it’. So here’s a thought: maybe, just maybe, cinemagoers of the past actually weren’t any more naive than those of today, and knew full well that the important thing was the story and the message coming to them from the screen, not the specific pieces of hardware chosen to stand in for long-departed others.
My point is that in film (or theatre, come to that), everything is performance, everything is dissembling, and in some respects, ‘authenticity’ is the intruder, not the reality. In September, we’re going to see the new play Queen Anne in the West End, and I gather that the actor playing John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, is Chu Omambala, whose name suggests he probably doesn’t share the Churchill family’s Dorset roots. So what, as long as he can act, and as long as he can catch the essence of that remarkably slippery individual? (I suspect he’ll need rather more good luck with the latter than the former.) And even if he can’t, well, there have been countless worse castings: John Wayne as Genghis Khan and Tony Curtis as a Viking, to name but two – ‘cultural appropriation’ watchdogs, eat your hearts out – or, if you prefer, Tom Cruise (5 ft 7 inches) as Jack Reacher (6 ft 5 inches), and Mel Gibson (5 ft 9 inches) as William Wallace (7 ft) (allegedly) (and let’s not talk about that Scots accent). So if actors don’t necessarily bear any resemblance to the people they’re playing, why should it matter if ships don’t, either? One of my favourite films as I was growing up was Battle of the River Plate, which featured the real HMS Cumberland and HMS Ajax, albeit with the latter then actually serving in the Indian Navy, but which featured as the Graf Spee – wait for it – the heavy cruiser USS Salem, still with her giveaway USN pennant number on her bows. Another of my favourite films of those days was Yangtse Incident, which was made just in time to use the real HMS Amethyst – but not the real Yangtse, for obvious reasons, which was replaced by the River Orwell in Suffolk. In several of the battle scenes, it’s possible to make out East Anglian cows munching contentedly in the background.
In a nutshell, then, so long as those making a film or TV series do their homework properly, and make it as authentic as it possibly can be within the constraints of reasonable cost, then that’s absolutely fine with me. The important thing is to be as true as possible to the spirit of the events being portrayed, and as respectful as possible to those who participated in them, and on those criteria, I’d say that Dunkirk succeeds admirably.
And while we’re on the subject of ‘authenticity’ and left field castings, be they of French destroyers or non-Dorset Dukes of Marlborough – why not a female Doctor Who, for Heaven’s sake?
Now, I need to declare a blatantly name-dropping interest here. I’ve met Jodie Whittaker; she starred in the debut feature of rising young film producer Michael Berliner, who might possibly just be vaguely related to the ‘LadyQJ’ of my Twitter account. She’s funny, delightful, and a truly superb actor/actress (take your pick on appropriateness of job description depending on your age and general grumpiness). Indeed, if you haven’t seen Adult Life Skills yet, shame on you, and I’m immediately blocking you from this blog. But my thoughts on Jodie as Doctor Who, you may ask?
Right, then. I started watching Dr Who in the Hartnell era, and stuck with it all the way until the Beeb pulled it. I eagerly awaited, and was duly disappointed by, the Paul McGann film. I was excited by the concept’s rebirth with Christopher Eccleston, then David Tennant, then Matt Smith, then Peter Capaldi (who utterly nailed it), but as I matured, so one persistent, nagging misgiving about the entire concept of a (reasonably) immortal, shape-shifting, usually pretty asexual, alien traveller in Space and Time, remained with me.
And that thought was this: ‘Why can’t the Doctor be Welsh?’
Let’s face it, Richard Burton would have totally nailed the part (how could the Daleks have survived against the soliloquy from Hamlet delivered like that?), as would Anthony Hopkins, washing it all down with a nice Chianti in the backwoods of Gallifrey. If you want someone younger, look no further than Ioan Gruffydd or Matthew Rhys. Or from left field, Rhys Ifans – now he would give us one heck of an intergalactic ride.
But in the meantime, my friends, as we await that blessed day when the final glass ceiling is broken, and the Doctor emerges from the Tardis to utter the immortal opening line ‘Orright, butt?’, then in my book once again, a woman in the part is also absolutely fine – and, yes, authentic.
Finally, there are some exciting updates about my books on the ‘News’ page of this site, and there’ll be an extra post this week, on Wednesday, focusing on the unbelievable developments at Northamptonshire Archives. If you don’t know what those developments are, you can get up to speed here. It may not surprise you to learn that, following my long campaign over Carmarthenshire Archives, I certainly won’t be pulling my punches, and I’ll be providing some advice based on my own experiences during that campaign.