When it’s on: Sunday, 22 February (2.25 pm)
Dunkirk tells the story of the evacuation of stranded British soldiers off the eponymous beleaguered beach from two points of view. In one, an earthy corporal, John Mills, leads a group of squaddies to Dunkirk after they’ve been cut off from their unit in embattled northern France. Pursued by Nazis, fired upon by swarming Stukas and sometimes having to cross enemy lines as the Blitzkrieg advance is often quicker than their own movements, theirs is a desperate scramble for safety with no guarantee that reaching their comrades will make any difference. Meanwhile, back in England Bernard Lee’s journalist tries in vain to persuade the public that the so-called phoney war is exactly that, convinced this is a prelude to all-out attack and yet finding complacency among his friends, not least businessman Richard Attenborough who would rather focus on his company and new baby than anything happening across the English Channel.
I’ve discussed before on this site how well the British war films of the 1950s did at deglamourising many of the events that took place. Dunkirk was seen at the time as something of a victory, a morale boosting pulling together of resources when in reality it was the tail-end of a total debacle, and it’s this the film conveys. Whilst there are no heroes, it tells us, ordinary people were capable of heroic acts, from Mills’s ‘Tubby’ Binns, forced by rank to push his exhausted troops to the coast, to Holden (Attenborough) steadily becoming more involved in the rescue by a mixture of conscience and circumstance. At more than two hours it’s overlong, too many scenes that involve Charles (Lee) cynically telling anyone he meets that the Dunkirk rescues have needed to take place through basic incompetence, generals trying to apply World War One principles to the new conflict, when the action itself should convey this message on its own. Once the film reaches the beach, thousands of soldiers waiting around for rescue whilst the German planes attack ruthlessly, the pointlessness of it all resonates to shattering effect. Some boats make it safely out of the harbour. Others are bombed, everyone on board having to leap into the sea or die. Quickly, it becomes apparent that they’re relying increasingly on the intervention of smaller boats, like those piloted by Charles and Holden (Attenborough). Their very presence at Dunkirk is as much an indictment of outmoded military strategy in a time of lightning attacks as it is a pooling of British pluck and resolve, and of course it did make all the difference.
As a bit of added research for this piece, I rewatched Atonement, the 2007 film by Joe Wright that features some pivotal action on the beaches of Dunkirk (interestingly, these scenes were filmed in my home town, Redcar, and even takes in the facade of the old fleapit, the Regent Cinema, which I frequented often as a young ‘un). Atonement does a really impressive job at conveying the chaos and despair of Dunkirk, particularly as it’s introduced in a dazzling single take that must have been technically exhausting to produce. Yet even with the standards of 2007 allowing for a grittier and more visceral scene, it’s no more harrowing than the sights confronted by Mills and Company in the 1958 film. Worst for them is the constant harrowing from the air, the random selection of victims as the planes take their victims from so many thousands of bodies on the beach, but there’s also the collapsing line over which to worry, the awful possibility that the Nazis will break through and capture or kill everyone before they have a chance to be lifted. It’s effortlessly tense because it must have been exactly that.
Director Leslie Norman (father of film critic, Barry) had been involved in the British film industry since 1930, when as a nineteen year old he was helping out with the editing process. By the early fifties he was a producer, with The Cruel Sea standing out among his credits, and Dunkirk was a directorial effort for Ealing that showed similarly the best and worst of the studio. The latter comes in the form of bulging the content, all those superfluous moments that emphasise the contrast between attitudes at home and what’s happening abroad, not to mention the budgetary limits leading to obvious use of stock footage and models.
At the same time, my admiration for John Mills grows with every film I watch. A winner at the British box office throughout this era, his ability to convincingly portray a normal man forced by circumstance into committing exceptional acts comes across really well, his frantic efforts to get his men to safety, his rising gall upon realising that Dunkirk is little better than a death trap. Great work from a fine actor. Attenborough puts in an equally good performance, wholly convincing as a coward who hopes that the war will just happen elsewhere, away from his watch, but over time pulled in to become about as heroic as anybody. The effect is helped by the actor looking older than his years, aiming to look the comfortable English gentleman at a time of extreme distress.
Sadly, Dunkirk was a late flourish for Ealing, which had expired as an independent production company after producing a series of films that made only losses. The BBC had already bought the studio in 1955 and the production team was working under MGM by this stage, still able to bear the old Ealing logo on its films but depending on the money of Hollywood distributors. An ignominious end to the Ealing career of producer Michael Balcon, who perhaps appreciated better than most that its day in the sun was ended.