Get the details right for war movies too

Leaving out historical details such as the Asian support in Hollywood war movies only adds to the myth that one nation alone stands between the world and the bad guys

Sometimes for fun, I read war nerd comments about a movie I have just watched.

It makes me feel good to know that, no matter how big a war nerd I think I am, there are people out there whose pedantry is on another level.

"Anyone notice the camo pattern on that shirt? Not in use until three years after the time period of the movie. Idiots."

"It took three American Sherman tanks to take out one German Tiger? In a real battle, the Tiger would have made mincemeat out of all three Shermans plus a dozen more Allied tanks."

"So she decides to take a break from her military hospital unit to live alone, in a war zone? And they let her? What crazy army would allow that?"

"Firing a machine gun of that calibre from the hip? Haha. The recoil would have sent him flying."

After watching a movie I really enjoy, such as the tank movie Fury (2014), the revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds (2009), the sci-fi action of Predator (1987) or a drama like The English Patient (1996), I turn to war nerd forums to find out why I should be ashamed of myself and should burn the DVDs immediately.

I am a recovering war nerd.

For a week, I was ranked No. 2 in Singapore in the World War II History section of the QuizUp app. My nerdiness has been tested in combat.

So, of course, I had to know what fellow nerds thought of one of this season's biggest movies, Dunkirk, still showing in cinemas.

I couldn't spot any issues, but like a Game Of Thrones television fan who is slightly ashamed of how he hasn't read the books, I consulted the professionals to validate my feelings.

To no one's surprise, the oracles of artillery and the wizards of warfare discovered problems in the Christopher Nolan movie about the 1940 evacuation of Allied forces from France.

According to them, the flight formations of the German aircraft are wrong and the German dive bomber, the StuKa Ju 87, does not have the right shrieking siren tone.

The list goes on.

But no YouTube expert picked up on details that other more traditional writers have in the week after the movie's release.


The old-school writers say the movie leaves out the contributions of French troops, who fought a brave rearguard action to keep the Germans at bay during the evacuations.

The bigger omission, according to British writer Sunny Singh, is of the troops from British colonies in India and Africa, many of whom served in transport and naval units. As many as one in four crewmen on British merchant ships came from India, he says.

While there were black troops on the French side, there were zero brown faces on the British side.

I know - here I go again, another justice warrior out to destroy pop culture and oppress creative geniuses such as Nolan.

A friend of mine who writes fiction told me as much. He's from India.

"Anyone who wants Indian heroes or whatever in their movies should make their own movies. It's not Nolan's job to make sure that races are properly represented," he railed.

While my friend makes a fair point, perhaps he doesn't feel as strongly as I do that art is speech and speech has consequences.

It would have cost Nolan nothing to have had a few darker-skinned persons in the background, on board the ship or on the "moles", the improvised piers.

And he might have done something special with it.

In Black Hawk Down (2002), Ridley Scott's depiction of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, the movie ends with the image of American troopers, having just survived a brush with death, being handed dainty glasses of water. These are carried on trays by formally dressed members of the Pakistani peacekeeping forces.

It's a jarring, surreal and memorable scene, but it is a way of doing right by history, while making a good movie better.

Black Hawk Down has one major hole. Scott left out how the American forces were aided by 100 Malaysian peacekeepers, one of whom was killed in the operation, with nine injured.

Leaving out the Malaysians is not quite lying by omission, but there are consequences.

It subtly adds to the myth created by Hollywood, that one nation, and one nation alone, stands between the world and the bad guys, while that nation's allies do nothing.

Under the current American administration, the myth of the ungrateful, cowardly and tight-fisted ally has hardened into foreign policy.

In World War II, forces from all over the Empire - including here in Singapore, with the Malay Regiment - rallied to the British cause.

Dunkirk is a good movie, but it could have been an even better one if it had been more accurate.

So war nerds: As one of you, I plead that you make as many YouTube videos about the colour of a soldier's skin as you do the colour of his uniform.

• Dunkirk is showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 13, 2017, with the headline 'Get the details right for war movies too'. Print Edition | Subscribe