Opinion - Another war film, another history rewrite
2017-08-15 06:51:39 -

By Mohammed Samaana

To be fair on Christopher Nolan, he did demonstrate in his new film Dunkirk that the British could do it all alone. He single-handedly made a number of other nations angry in the process, and that’s as far as it goes for doing it alone at Dunkirk. The rest of his film was a rewriting of history, though I suppose that’s another thing Nolan did by himself.


Oxford historian Yasmeen Khan was right to criticise Nolan’s distortion of history and to point out that it was not Britain alone that fought the Nazis during the Second World War, but the entire British Empire – with the contribution of millions of soldiers from different colonies. A significant number of these were Punjabi Muslims, from a region which is now part of Pakistan, and that’s not to forget soldiers of other faiths including Sikhs, Jews, Hindus and possibly some Buddhists. 


In his film, however, Nolan completely ignored the contribution of about five million Asian, African and Caribbean soldiers, as well as troops from Britain’s own ethnic minorities.


Perhaps one of the most inspiring stories of the war was the story of a woman of Muslim background called Noor Inayat Khan. She was the first female secret agent sent by the British Special Operation Executive to Nazi-occupied France, as a radio operator. After most of her network were arrested, she chose to stay in France in order to send messages to London until she was betrayed by a French woman and arrested by the Nazis, who executed her in 1944 at the young age of 30. Noor was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949.


It is worth pointing out that historians who are interested in studying and highlighting the contribution and sacrifice made by soldiers from different parts of the empire still tend to overlook the role played by Muslim soldiers from Arab countries that were under British rule.


The French, too, were outraged as their soldiers were completely absent in a film about an important part of their history during the war. But even the French have a skeleton in the cupboard: France also used Muslim soldiers from Arab countries that were under their occupation, including Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. In Days of Glory, a film made by Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb, the discrimination faced by soldiers from Arab and African origins at the hands of their white French comrades is well highlighted.


With all the upset, Dunkirk surely made at least one British man happy, and that’s former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who endorsed the film wholeheartedly as it mirrors his imaginary views of Britain standing alone and winning without any relation with the rest of Europe. I suppose Nolan can be assured the Germans can’t complain either, albeit for the wrong reasons, as their soldiers secure their place in any film of the war. 


Come to think of it, maybe Muslims shouldn’t complain either since this is a film with plenty of men carrying guns but none of them are Muslim, a contrast to the usual action movie fare.


In all seriousness, Dunkirk is yet another film about the fight against the Nazis but which treats Africans, Asians, Arabs and Muslims with a disrespect that of which the Third Reich would have approved. Perhaps Christopher Nolan needs to be made aware that informing the public about the role of non-whites in fighting the Nazis would encourage the acceptance of those who too often perceived as inferior.

Mohammed Samaana is a freelance writer based in Belfast.

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