The Road To Dunkirk's Not Paved With Anything in 'World on Fire'

Matthew Romain as Geoff and Jonah Hauer-King as Harry Chase at Dunkirk in World on Fire Season 1

Matthew Romain as Geoff and Jonah Hauer-King as Harry Chase in World on Fire Season 1

Ben Blackall / © Mammoth Screen 2019

Several short scenes begin this episode of World on Fire: Lois singing, Harry and his soldiers walking down the road, and Nancy announcing from Berlin that Belgium has fallen. The series hops around a lot, and while this can sometimes be irritating or confusing, sequences like this pack a punch. This week, we see Dunkirk from several characters’ points of view, but you won’t see the familiar sweeping scenes of the beach crowded with lines of soldiers or massive amounts of CGI to create a spectacle. It’s always the close-ups, as it were, that create the drama and make us care about what happens to them.

Harry: “These boys are with me. I am the officer in charge and they are coming with us.”

Lois has continued her singing career despite her advanced pregnancy, and she and pianist Connie arrive at an RAF base for a gig (I am reasonably sure that a pregnant woman would not have been allowed to perform). Even Connie can’t get Lois to share her plans for what she’ll do when the baby is born. But at the moment, Connie is more worried about her husband Eddie (Ansu Kabia), the trumpeter in Albert Fallou’s jazz band in Paris, and since France is about to fall, she has reason to be concerned. But we see him briefly on the road to the coast, trading jokes with enlisted men of color.

The administration asks if Lois could “move around less.” She and Connie pretend to misunderstand. Some of these boys have mothers, he explains, much to their amusement. When they arrive, an officer is playing Chopin on the piano. He apologizes and introduces himself to Lois — Wing Commander Vernon Hunter (Arthur Darvill). He’s middle-class, cultured, and intrigued by her. He asks tactfully about Lois’s husband, and she tells him there isn’t one. He’s impressed by her openness and strength and offended that people have criticized her. After the concert, he asks if she will write to him, and she hands him an envelope with her address.

Arthur Darvill as Vernon having tea in World on Fire Season 1

Arthur Darvill as Vernon in World on Fire Season 1

Ben Blackall / © Mammoth Screen 2019

Harry and his men in Belgium are now heading for the coast, filthy and exhausted, along with a long stream of refugees. German planes fly overhead, and everyone on the ground ducks for cover. Harry orders his men not to fire because it will invite retaliation, and the civilians on the road will suffer. He sees a small child standing frozen in terror and runs to shelter her, and she and her dog join his group, much to his sergeant Stan’s disgust. They come upon a group of abandoned trucks and discover a severely traumatized officer, Geoff (Matthew Romain), sheltering beneath one. Inside the truck are a handful of soldiers, all shell-shocked, including some French Senegalese soldiers.

They tell Harry that they were not able to surrender because the German troops kill everyone. Stan is skeptical and thinks they’ve deserted, and Harry, for the first time, tells him off. Harry arranges for Claudette (and her dog) to join another group of Belgian refugees and, in a heart-wrenching farewell, tells her to be brave. They finally reach a casualty clearing station and field hospital where an overwhelmed Webster is in charge, assisted by Albert. It’s good to see the relationship continue beyond Paris and their interaction as colleagues and friends.

Webster tells Harry he can’t take any more patients, certainly not the eight shell-shocked soldiers, including the fragile Geoff. Harry has no choice but to continue on with everyone, much to Stan’s disgust. They both know that having men who can’t obey orders and are so vulnerable lessen their chances of survival. He orders Stan to get a wound he’s been concealing patched up, about all the field hospital can offer. Stan grudgingly cooperates.

Planes fly overhead, but they’re dropping leaflets, not bombs. The flyers show a map of the area and indicate how German troops will converge on the two British and French units holding a vulnerable gateway to Dunkirk. When they reach the battered, war-torn town, Stan and Harry’s relationship explodes. Stan says he doesn’t believe in shell shock, but he does believe in cowardice, and Harry, tired of Stan’s contempt and cynicism, officially dismisses him. They part formally but with respect. As Harry and his group settle down for the night, they quietly sing “Bye-bye Blackbird,” Lois is also singing it on stage at the RAF gig, and Eddie plays the tune on his trumpet.

Harry tethers his group the following day, knowing that anything could make them panic and scatter, to get them safely to the beach. A British soldier, noticing the dark-skinned Senegalese men, intervenes and tells them that the rowboats are for British soldiers only. Harry is furious and insists they accompany him. We get a panoramic shot of the ships waiting to take them to Britain only when Harry and the others are on the rowboat.

Back in Britain, Douglas visits Robina, who is her usual chilly self. He shows her the headline that the British Expeditionary Forces, which Harry serves, have been abandoned. She agrees that it’s worrying, but Harry will be home soon, and then negotiations with Hitler can begin. Douglas takes Jan out to play football, and Robina raps on the window to stop them, concerned for her herbaceous borders. Douglas tells Jan to ignore her, and they grin conspiratorially at each other and continue playing. As Douglas leaves, he tells Robina that they’ll be in touch. She asks if that’s the protocol now. (Is she flirting? What a terrifying thought.) For the sake of Jan, Douglas explains.

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Tom is now serving on the ship HMS Keith, a name he despises as lacking in dignity, and is at Dunkirk, rowing men to the British ships. He’s his usual smart-aleck self, joking and throwing out insults, but he threatens to shoot a desperate civilian who tries to force his way onto the boat. It’s Grzegorz Tomaszeski, who we last saw miles away on the run. Grzegorz manages to get onto another rowboat, along with Eddie and Stan, as we hear Nancy’s broadcast announcing the fall of France. Tom and his passengers abandon their boat and flee for cover as planes fly overhead, strafing the easy targets on the boats and dropping bombs. Tom is hit and falls.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, Mr. Rossler has to deal with his employee Frau Pessler, an avid Nazi who he suspects is spying on the family. He is furious when he goes into the factory and finds that she has hung Nazi flags to celebrate the recent victory over Belgium. Worse, there is a letter on his desk about his daughter Hilda. Frau Pessler confronts him — she knows Hilda and her mother are in hiding, she knows about Hilda’s condition, and she threatens him. In desperation, he hits her with an iron and kills her. There’s only one person he can turn to, Nancy, who helps him dispose of the body, ironically wrapped in Nazi flags.

The next morning, Douglas turns up again, brandishing a newspaper with a headline about the Dunkirk evacuation. No, Robina hasn’t read the news. She takes the newspaper for the crossword puzzle and she dismisses him. Alone at home, Douglas tries to identify faces in newspaper photographs, and his anxiety is sky-high. And in Warsaw, Kasia Tomaszeski is still alive, a steely killer of German soldiers. The enormous stress and constant danger are telling on her. We wonder how long she’ll be safe.

Janet Mullany

Writer Janet Mullany is from England, drinks a lot of tea, and likes Jane Austen, reading, and gasping in shock at costumes in historical TV dramas. Her household near Washington DC includes two badly-behaved cats about whom she frequently boasts on Facebook.

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