First of all, let nobody say Christopher Nolan lacks a sense of humor: for the second time, he’s kept Tom Hardy under a voice-distorting face mask for almost an entire movie. I am morally certain that Nolan understands this as a wink to the audience as well as a challenge to Hardy; the director likes a little reference, even if, say, it’s an incongruous one to nineteenth-century British literature. Which is why I’m also morally certain that if you think Nolan’s Dunkirk does not include the larger narrative of British history, you’re missing the point of the movie.

Spoilers follow, I suppose.

The movie’s main character, played by Fionn Whitehead, is named Tommy, which the OED (and common literary knowledge) will tell you is a generic name for a British soldier—an underappreciated British soldier, in his best-known appearance:

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Tommy, fall be’ind,”
But it’s ” Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
O it’s ” Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind

The film ends with Tommy—having survived, often in ways unsuitable for plaster saints—reading, from a newspaper, Churchill’s speech in the Commons on the war situation of 4 June 1940: “We shall go on to the end.…” Tommy does not stop, as many quoters do, with “we shall never surrender,” but continues, with a cut to an image of a burning Spitfire before a return to his reflective face, to Churchill’s conclusion:

even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

The Empire, the new world, the burning Spitfire: the army has been rescued from Dunkirk, but the trucks, the big guns, the ammunition and gasoline, like the burning Spitfire—what Churchill called “the first-fruits that our industry had to give”—have been left on the beach, and only the new world can supply that deficit to Britain; only the Empire can fund the fight. It is Tommy who is asked to say and understand this in Nolan’s film—not the distant prime minister.

The ambivalence of the imperial legacy is present in Nolan’s film as well. Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson pilots a civilian pleasure yacht called Moonstone. The most famous Moonstone is of course Wilkie Collins‘s, a diamond plundered by a Tommy redcoat. It brings woe to its English possessors until it is returned to its rightful place in India.

Dawson has lost a son in the RAF earlier in the war; he loses a surrogate son in George, who dies on his mission after pledging to be useful. But he plunges on, defying Cillian Murphy’s shell shocked protest that a man his age should not be in the action: why not, Dawson asks, when men his age dictate the war.

In Dunkirk it is this older generation, the generation raised on empire, who are out to do what they think is their duty. Dawson does; so too does Kenneth Branagh’s Bolton, who holds the mole, stands his ground against certain death, and remains to evacuate such of the French as he might. (You might add Michael Caine, whom the keen-eared will have spotted in a vocal cameo as the voice of Fighter Command.)

Tommy, together with Harry Styles’s “Alex,” Murphy’s unnamed “Shivering Soldier,” and all the other nameless men, are at the mercy of these men who understand their duty, who carry the plundered, possessed legacy of empire—”whatever the cost may be,” as Churchill says—and who dictate the war to their purpose.

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