As a child obsessed with war, I well remember watching Dunkirk, Leslie (father of Barry) Norman’s 1958 film that depicted the events of May-June 1940, when the besieged soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force were stranded on the coast of France, and the combined efforts of the Royal Navy and a flotilla of boats crewed by amateur sailors and fishermen answered their call in this hour of need and came to the rescue of our boys. I recall finding its dispassionate, pessimistic view almost too much to bear at such a young age and several scenes have remained with me down the years – most notably those relentless and chilling Stuka attacks, ruthlessly strafing our troops. Back then, I was perhaps a bit too familiar with the Boys Own style of war; those square-jawed ‘Men on a Mission’ tales of plucky derring do where, if someone was shot by a gun, they had only to fall down with just a trickle of blood to suggest their fate had been met and the bullet did indeed have their name on it. Dunkirk defied such whitewashed if stirring fiction to depict the uncompromising harsh realities of war – a grim and bloody hell of anguish and pain, fear, panic and confusion, resourcefulness, comradeship and duty.
Watching it as an adult, one can truly appreciate the impressive and ambitious scope in Norman’s film. Starkly shot by cinematographer Paul Beeson, Dunkirk further differs from the Boys Own by its almost documentarian approach. The inclusion of genuine newsreel footage and the images of soldiers returning home, the animation which depicts the relentless advance of the German army, the keep your spirits up entertainment on the home front as depicted in the cameos from Flanagan and Allen, and the recreations of harried government department briefings, all bring a degree of authenticity to a film which details the parallel stories at home and upon the field of conflict with an impeccable respect. The former is represented by the stoic Bernard Lee as a journalist seeking a story, and Richard Attenborough’s ‘I’m all right Jack’ factory owner, living comfortably from military contracts. Each man joins the flotilla of pleasure crafts responsible for coming to the aid of some of the 338,226 who were ultimately rescued. Among that number is arguably British cinema’s favourite man-of-war, John Mills. As ‘Tubby’ Binns, he’s the reliable Corporal catapulted to a seniority he never sought as he leads what remains of his beleaguered, desperate platoon to the coast in the uncertain yet fervent hope of evacuation.
Whilst undeniably epic (the film was made with the co-operation of the Admiralty, and the British and French navies, it employed some 2,000 extras across East Sussex, which stood in for Occupied France, and was, as Norman put it, “bloody difficult to make from a logistics point of view”) Dunkirk pulls off a masterstroke in largely centering its story around these three protagonists each of whom are undeniably changed by their experience. It’s a strong triumvirate and they are the beating, human heart of a film which captures the perceived notion of Operation Dynamo as part defeat and part miracle in a very honest matter of fact way. Given that it played to audiences in 1958 it’s undeniable that many of the real men who had found themselves tiptoeing through Nazi infested France with dwindling resources and diminishing hopes of survival, holding their breath at what lay behind every field and hedgerow or what lurked in the skies above their heads, will have taken their seats at the local cinema, whilst the men and women who had at least known someone (and potentially even lost someone; 3,500 British soldiers were killed during the operation) who had endured such an experience, will no doubt have sat beside them. It’s hard for us modern viewers to contemplate what emotions and memories the film stirred within them, but it’s irrefutable that this film had much more punch and impact for an audience than Christopher Nolan’s recent retelling had, by sheer virtue of being made eighteen years after the event and just thirteen years after ceasefire.
A poignant and near peerless movie, Dunkirk manages to celebrate both the heroics of battle and the unbeaten spirit of a nation with its backs to the wall, whilst at the same time expressing the futility of war in an unflinching manner. In my view, Dunkirk is a true classic which doesn’t get the credit it is due.
DUNKIRK (1958) IS OUT ON DVD & BLU-RAY FROM STUDIO CANAL ON THE 25th SEPTEMBER