UI military historian to discuss accuracy of 'Dunkirk' at Virginia screening

UI military historian to discuss accuracy of 'Dunkirk' at Virginia screening

CHAMPAIGN — An expert military historian will talk about what "Dunkirk" got right and got wrong about the epic story of British troops trapped on the beach near the beginning of World War II.

He'll deliver commentary about the film at the 1 p.m. Aug. 20 showing of "Dunkirk" at the Virginia Theatre, one of only a handful of theaters nationwide screening the picture in large-screen 70 millimeter.

John Lynn is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois. He specializes in military history and also served as the Oppenheimer Professor of Warfighting Strategy at the Marine Corps University at Marine Corps Base Quantico.

Lynn, whose first scholarly paper was on the fall of France, said "Dunkirk" gets a lot of things right.

"It plays with reality, but in an artistic and understandable way," he said.

Shot on location in France, "Dunkirk" tells how more than 300,000 British and French soldiers were evacuated from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk under fire from German planes.

Some scenes are right from history, Lynn said, such as the sinking of a British destroyer that took 600 evacuees down with it.

But the emphasis on small boats piloted by civilians doesn't tell the whole story, he said.

"If you take the film literally, you come to the conclusion that every ship of large size was sunk by the Germans," Lynn said.

"The mythology of Dunkirk is that the little people saved all the soldiers. Don't forget the Royal Navy was there."

A large section of the film is called "The Mole."

"Most of the troops taken off at Dunkirk were taken off the pier, the mole," Lynn said. "In the movie, every large ship that comes up to the mole is either torpedoed or bombed to the bottom of the sea."

"You don't evacuate 300,000 men in fishing boats. I don't want to downplay (the civilians') great importance, because among other things, the small launches were able to ferry troops from the beach to bigger ships that couldn't get in so close."

He also said "the role of the French is largely ignored" in holding off the Germans to allow the British to make it to the beaches.

"The only time you see the French doing that is at the beginning, but they basically held the perimeter so that the British could escape," Lynn said.

"The British couldn't have got off the beaches the way they did without the French."

He also said the flight of three Spitfires taking on the Germans while running out of gas had elements of artistic license.

Nor does the movie explain why German tanks didn't follow the Brits closely to the beaches, on low ground that could have been flooded, he said.

Lynn has plenty more to say, but you'll have to go to that matinee to hear it.

Film showings at the Virginia, 203 W. Park Ave., C, are at 7 p.m. Aug. 15 through Aug. 19 and 1 p.m. Aug. 19 and 20.

General admission tickets are $8 at the theater.