As ‘tiny ships’ Dunkirk blockbuster goes global, locals look for an upturn in their fortunes

With the release of Christopher Nolan’s film, the spotlight is on the seaside town – which may now lure US visitors from the D-Day beaches

Things can look very different from the other side of the Channel. In Britain, Dunkirk has become a national byword for a very British kind of resilience and communal spirit. In France, it is simply the name of an industrial port.

The events of May and June 1940 are largely ignored in the town, and all but forgotten across the rest of France. If they are mentioned at all, it is usually as a shameful prelude to Nazi occupation and the dark years of the Vichy puppet regime.

On the site of the almost miraculous evacuation of more than 338,000 men in the face of a fierce Nazi German assault, that frantic stretch of days has been half-buried history for decades.

British history enshrines the evacuation as a critical effort that saved troops to fight another day and laid the ground for ultimate victory. In France it is seen as a disaster. If it is mentioned at all, it is often with shame.

“For Britain, Operation Dynamo was a success. But for the French it was a crushing defeat,” tour guide Marie Debureaux explains as she takes a group of visitors along the beaches where soldiers queued for days in the desperate hope of rescue.

Tourism leaflets in the town underline the difference between the Dunkirk of the British imagination and the Dunkerque that French visitors come to see. It is the English-language brochures which direct tourists to memorials, battlesites and a museum about the evacuation. French-language equivalents focus more on pointing out beaches for holidaymakers.

Now Dunkirk residents hope that Christopher Nolan’s eponymous blockbuster, released this month, will not just reinvigorate local tourism, but also help boost understanding of their town’s more recent history – and particularly France’s role in the evacuation. “We don’t learn about Dunkirk at school. I did a history degree and we didn’t even study it then,” says Camille Dourlens, in her early twenties and one of the younger members of the team at the town’s 1940 Dynamo museum.

A powerful exploration of the history of the evacuation, the museum also provides a reminder of the French authorities’ lack of interest in the events of that time. It was set up in 2000 by volunteers, runs without official staff or funds, and rarely gets visits from French schools, although British students arrive regularly. That, Dourlens says, is a loss for France, and is one reason she volunteers at the museum and is so excited about Nolan’s film: “I would like this to be recognised as a French story too.”

The British organised the retreat and UK forces made up the majority of troops shipped across the Channel. But French soldiers played a critical role defending the town’s perimeter against German forces so the evacuation could proceed. More than 120,000 French soldiers were taken to the UK.

The museum team see the neglect of France’s history in Dunkirk as a disturbing triumph of Vichy propaganda decades after the regime itself crumbled. “French people don’t know, because (Marshal Philippe) Pétain made a silence about what happened,” said Christian Belen, one of the museum’s founders. “There are quite a lot of French visitors (now), because they don’t know the story and they want to find out more. They come because of the Nolan film.”

Lucien Dayan, president of the association that runs the museum, explained that after the war France’s difficult reckoning and the enormous task of rebuilding meant that rectifying the historical narrative on Dunkirk never really registered as a priority.

“Finally, when liberation came, there was no effort to correct the narrative that the British escaped and the French were left as prisoners,” he said.

He is particularly keen to point visitors to a quote from Britain’s Admiral Bertram Ramsay committing to evacuating French forces, and a board listing the numbers of both British and French soldiers evacuated. “With this the story is clear, and the propaganda is brushed away,” he says.

The modern town is testatment to the terrible suffering of Dunkirk and its residents during the second world war, with its streets of postwar homes stretching away from a Gothic church still specked with bullet and shell damage. One of the few old buildings to survive the conflict, its facade has been left unrestored as a reminder of the devastating attacks that left around 90% of the town in ruins.

That very destruction made Nolan’s decision to film there particularly unusual and important, said Onno Ottevanger, from the Dunkirk tourist board. It is the first time for decades that a film about Operation Dynamo has actually been made in Dunkirk.

The director’s large budgets and meticulous approach allowed him to film in a place so changed by reconstruction that other directors have chosen places from Ireland to Redcar to stand in for its flat sands.

In scenes shot on the same beach where hundreds of thousands of soldiers waited for deliverance 77 years ago, a plywood concrete works hides a shopping mall and casino. When a dazed, thirsty and desperate private staggers out towards the snaking queues of would-be evacuees, two restaurants cover the facades of modern buildings that now front the beach. “It was not an obvious choice for shooting because it was so heavily destroyed,” admits Ottevanger. But the town embraced Nolan. Around 1,500 people signed up for work as extras, and a quarter of the population of 100,000 have already seen the film.

It could not be a more important opportunity for a town that has not been a major tourist destination, and is seeking to diversify away from the industrial base that has provided many of its jobs, said Ottevanger.

A popular French film set in an otherwise typical village nearby pushed annual tourist numbers up from 300 a year to 30,000, and the prospects offered by a major, artistically acclaimed Hollywood blockbuster are exponentially higher. “We wanted to be ready, because a film like this can have an incredible effect. A study showed that shooting alone put €9m (£8m) into the local economy, and we hope the effects will be a multiple of that.”

And there is room for a major expansion. The majority of tourists visiting Dunkirk on the history trail have traditionally been British, because the United States had not yet joined the second world war in 1940. So the Americans who swell visitor numbers at the Normandy beaches used for the D-Day landings have rarely continued on to Dunkirk. Now Ottevanger hopes that might change, with film and history buffs both tempted further north, and French tourists pushed to investigate their own history.

Dunkirk tourist offices already offer a tour to filming locations that talks visitors through the details of recreating the panic of May 1940 – from the €700,000 bill for wood to rebuild a 1940s jetty to the model Spitfires used to film some of the aerial shots.

Just days after the film premiered, it is already drawing in dozens of French visitors like Danièle Thire, visiting Dunkirk for the first time from Chauny. “I haven’t seen the film yet,” she admits a little sheepishly. “But I thought it would be interesting to see how they shot it.”

Authorities have been planning how to capitalise on the film almost since shooting began, including reopening a restaurant on one of the surviving “little boats” that took part in the evacuation, which is featured in the film and now has a permanent home in Dunkirk harbour. The Princess Elizabeth was a paddle steamer, built in the year of the Queen’s birth and named after her, that took tourists on trips around the British coast before it was pressed into military service nearly 80 years ago.

A “battle honour” plaque commemorates that role, and visitors can now board to eat modern French food – or “1940” options created by a Michelin-starred chef, giving the food of the time a contemporary twist.

The release of Dunkirk seemed to stir up a host of easy Brexit metaphors seized on by commentators and comedians, but here on the ground in France there are few people connecting the frantic 1940 departure from European shores with a contemporary political exit, or worrying that it will undermine the film’s impact.

“People who want to come here do it for history, in recognition of the role of these ships in the war,” Dunkirk chef Flavie Herreman said. “They will come anyway, despite Brexit.”