Miracle of Dunkirk: one story, two films, 14 Oscar nominations

Yet over nine days in May 1940, more than 300,000 British, French and Canadian troops are rescued. (AFP)
Updated 28 February 2018
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Miracle of Dunkirk: one story, two films, 14 Oscar nominations

LOS ANGELES: With the cream of the British army cornered by a lightning German advance into northern France, Winston Churchill is told they will be lucky to get 30,000 men out alive.
Yet over nine days in May 1940, more than 10 times that number of British, French and Canadian troops are rescued, many plucked from the beaches by a flotilla of “little ships” crewed by civilian volunteers who set out from England.
The audacious rescue, codenamed Operation Dynamo but immortalized as the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” is the subject of two movies vying for best picture at the Oscars on Sunday.
Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” sees events through the Allies’ eyes as they face what looks like certain death in France, while Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” follows the travails of Britain’s newly-anointed prime minister back in London.
Despite its relentless high-octane score and action scenes, “Dunkirk” isn’t really a war film, according to Nolan, who told AFP he wanted to make a “survival story” unlike anything “seen or experienced before in a cinema.”
For Wright, “Darkest Hour” is a nuanced portrait of a man berated as the irresponsible and reckless architect of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign from the previous world war, who nevertheless stepped up to become a national hero.
“He kicked and he screamed and got a lot of things wrong in his career, and in his personal life, but one thing he got right was he resisted the tide of fascism, bigotry and hate,” the director told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
The movies have amassed 14 Oscar nominations — eight for “Dunkirk,” including best film and directing, and six for “Darkest Hour,” of which best actor is looking like a shoo-in for Gary Oldman, who is unrecognizable as Churchill.
Historians including the British novelist and journalist Michael Korda have argued that Operation Dynamo should be seen as a military defeat with a happy ending, rather than something to be jingoistic about.
Churchill himself echoed the sentiment in a lesser-known section of his famous “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech on the last day of the operation on June 4, 1940.
“We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations,” he said.
No war movie gets a free pass from the history scholars, of course, and experts have found faults with the accuracy of both movies.
“The German army scarcely interfered with the evacuation. There was no ground fighting in the town or port, so Nolan’s opening scene is spurious,” huffed British journalist and historian Max Hastings in The New York Review of Books.
Meanwhile, British military historian Antony Beevor said neither director has been particularly faithful to a monumental week or so when the direction of the entire war could have turned in Nazi Germany’s favor.
“I am afraid that British movie directors do not have much respect for historical truth. They feel compelled to ‘improve’ it even when it is not necessary,” he complained.
Among Beevor’s bugbears is what he sees as Nolan’s downplaying of the role of Britain’s own naval destroyers, which actually did most of the evacuating.
But it was this romantic notion of an armada of civilians leading the rescue effort — the movie’s dramatic center of gravity — that provided the inspiration for Nolan.
He and his wife, producer Emma Thomas, had crossed the same stretch of water in a small boat a decade earlier, in what he described as “one of the most difficult and frankly dangerous experiences of my life.”
“It drove home to us how heroic this was,” Thomas said in an interview. “And no one was shooting or dropping bombs on us.”
The English-born director of the “Batman” movies — known for his technical and narrative daring — shot on, above and off the very beaches where the evacuation took place with real World War II planes and warships.
Some of the original “little ships” that picked up the soldiers were also pressed back into service for “Dunkirk,” which stars Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance.
Beevor is as harsh on Wright as Nolan, dismissing as “ludicrous and totally fictitious” a scene in “Darkest Hour” in which Churchill takes a London Underground train and engages passengers on the rights and wrongs of conflict.
As filming reached its climax last year, the Brexit bombshell hit and the prospect of another retreat from Europe gave the film an unexpected and unwanted political resonance.
With the idea of Britain alone against the world again in the air, Nolan warned against “the Dunkirk spirit” being abused.
“Dunkirk is always being used by politicians as a symbol of something,” he said.
“But whenever anyone tries to link it with contemporary politics, they are flying in the face of the fact that it happened in 1940.”


After conquering Broadway, ‘Hamilton’ eyes global tour

Updated 16 June 2019
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After conquering Broadway, ‘Hamilton’ eyes global tour

  • Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show charts Caribbean-born Hamilton who rises through his smarts and determination to become a key military aide to George
  • The push for more overseas performances comes as “Hamilton” mania remains as strong as ever in its home market

NEW YORK: After triumphing on Broadway, the lower 48 states and London’s West End, “Hamilton” is eyeing its first non-English production as well as tours throughout Europe and Asia.
The much-decorated musical, currently being staged nightly in London and New York as well as four other US cities, last month announced plans to launch in Sydney in early 2021 in a production expected to tour Australia before going to Asia, its producer said in an interview.
The “Hamilton” team is also working with a German hip-hop artist and playwright to develop a German-language version of the work.
The show, which is performed by a mostly non-white cast and mixes pulsating rap numbers with ballads and traditional musical numbers, has been credited with invigorating Broadway, thrilling audiences of all ages and across the political spectrum.
Producer Jeffrey Seller told AFP he sees a lot of international interest in the show. Australians frequently stream its soundtrack, Germany has long been receptive to American musicals and a Mexico City show, perhaps in Spanish, is also a possibility.
“My hope is that our story is resonant to people all over the world as a story of revolution, as a story of ambition, as a story of self-realization,” said Seller, who has been called the “CEO of Hamilton Inc.”
“I think Alexander Hamilton’s journey is universal.”
The push for more overseas performances comes as “Hamilton” mania remains as strong as ever in its home market.
Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show charts Caribbean-born Hamilton — introduced as “a bastard, orphan son of a whore” — who rises through his smarts and determination to become a key military aide to George Washington during the American Revolution and later the architect of the US financial system in the republic’s early days.
Hamilton was killed in a duel in 1804 by Aaron Burr, a foil throughout the show and the character who sings “The Room Where It Happens,” a jazzy show-stopper about political horse-trading.
Nearly four years after its Broadway debut, the show completely sold out during the just-ended 2018-9 season, garnering almost $165 million, or nine percent of Broadway’s total in a record-setting season.
Business is also brisk for three national touring companies, which typically perform three- and four-week stints in American cities of varying size.
The “Angelica” touring company — named for Hamilton’s sister-in-law in the musical — made its Louisville premiere earlier this month at the Kentucky Center. The venue seats 2,400, about 1,100 more seats than the musical’s Broadway home at the Richard Rodgers Theater.
Anticipation for the show boosted subscriptions for touring Broadway shows in Louisville this season by nearly 20 percent, said Leslie Broecker, Midwest president for Broadway Across America, who calls the show a “catalyst” in attracting new audiences.
Shannon Steen, a University of California professor specializing in performance studies and race theory, attributes the show’s domestic success to Miranda’s skill at blending musical genres while appealing to diverse political constituencies.
The show “confirms this idea that America can serve as a city on a hill for global democracy,” a theme that resonates with conservatives, Steen said.
At the same time, signature lines such as “immigrants get the job done” have emerged as applause points for critics of US President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration policies, which parallel similar debates in other markets.
The show’s themes about immigration “will likely not resonate in the same way (as in the US), but it will be interesting to see how those things are taken up by audiences in other countries,” Steen said.
International investments will be tailored by market. Seller expects an English-language version of “Hamilton” to play in Paris perhaps for an eight- or 10-week run as part of a European tour around 2022-23.
He said the French have not shown much hunger for past American musicals, but that this show — which features a prominent French character in the Marquis de Lafayette — could spawn a French-language version if it sells well.
But Germany has for years been a robust market for US musicals, including “Wicked” and “Lion King,” and “they have the population to support it for a long run,” Seller said.
Stephan Jaekel, a spokesman for Stage Entertainment in Germany, which has been overseeing auditions for “Hamilton,” said the aim is to open in the fall of 2020 in Hamburg, but that a final deal has yet to be signed.
“We much look forward to presenting it to German audiences and hope to be able to start ticket sales soon,” Jaekel said in an email.
Seller hopes to announce the show in the coming months.