Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is already being hailed as a modern masterpiece. The tale of the famed British evacuation of a French beach during World War II is designed to be a visceral, immersive experience, and by most accounts it accomplishes just that.
Nolan has frequently stressed the historical accuracy of the film. He made sure to shoot the film in the summer for example, to replicate the weather during the battles. He spoke to veterans who fought at Dunkirk, avoided CGI for the most part, and took great pains to ensure the props and military gear were true to history, reportedly using WWII ships from nine different countries.
Which makes it all the more puzzling that Nolan let one major historical inaccuracy color Dunkirk: the complete erasure of the Indian and African soldiers who, in real life, played a crucial part in the story. As several writers and historians have noted, this omission is by no means a minor oversight.
As Sunny Singh, a British-based author, wrote for the Guardian on Tuesday, Nolan’s film “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.” There is also an almost complete erasure of the African soliders who made up a substantial portion of the French forces on the beach.
[Dunkirk] 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.
According to the Times of India, the Royal Indian Army Services Corps was made primarily of Punjabi Muslims, with some Pathan soldiers. Their role ferrying equipment and supplies was essential to the British war effort, including at Dunkirk.
So, with all the pains Nolan took to portray ships and airplanes accurately—even describing, in detail, why he chose to give the Nazi planes yellow noses even though that cosmetic change didn’t happen until later—why was the same accuracy not applied to casting the soldiers who are the heart of Dunkirk?
It’s not as though it’s some herculean task. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman showed Desi troops in battle or getting on trains to join the war effort in World War I. These details are minor but significant in terms of reminding the audience how diverse the war effort was. And they’re historically true.
As Yasmin Kahn wrote for the New York Times on Wednesday, this omission is not only ahistorical, but reinforces a false narrative that Great Britain took a lone stand against a fascist tide. This inaccurate version of events has a deep impact on British South Asians in particular, she adds:
Generations of British schoolchildren, including me, sat through history lessons about World War II and never heard about the connection to Asia. British South Asians have only tentatively started to see their own place in this “British” story.
It’s a shame that Nolan, given the opportunity to share with his audience a true and accurate account of who bought this pivotal battle, ultimately decided to give us ahistorical, and completely whitewashed, rendering of what happened on that beach.
I reached out to Nolan’s representatives for comment on the controversy. I will update if I hear back.