What with Christopher Nolan’s envisioning of the World War Two events coming soon, I wanted to check out the first big screen interpretation.
During the terrifying events of World War Two, Nazi Germany was advancing across Europe and the Allied forced attempting to stop them were slowly crushed against the coast line. Dunkirk marks the point of the final evacuation by sea of hundreds of thousands of soldiers trapped and vulnerable to Nazi bombers and attack.
I can see why Christopher Nolan would want to make his own interpretation of the events at Dunkirk. This is tense!
Based off the events, but also the novel by Trevor Dudley Smith, the 1958 film follows two perspectives: one, a small unit of soldiers left behind as their battalion retreats, who are forced to navigate through Nazi-occupied France alone and two, civilians in England who are eventually tasked with sailing their own boats to the war front. It is a film of juxtaposition at first, we have war torn France and soldiers barely holding themselves together as the mortifying German Stuka bombers constantly rain destruction around them, meanwhile we see the degrees of anger, fear and even apathy from those completely removed from the war.
The leading stars of this movie include John Mills, Bernard Lee (M from the original James Bond movies) and a youthful Richard Attenborough. Mills plays the untested corporal who finds himself leading his men through claustrophobic and dicey moments of avoiding death or Nazi capture, Lee and Attenborough play two men who see the war very differently yet nobly join the fray. Attenborough is probably the most memorable and most unique character, playing a man who desperately wants to avoid the war (although he does “supply” the troops, it is seen as profiting from the war) going so far as to not register his boat and even cutting six inches from it to not match specifications. By all accounts, this character should be hated, but Attenborough’s performance is both timid and conflicted, making him both sympathetic and eventually noble.
The film doesn’t glamourise the war, or even the people in it, in fact it displays the events as a colossal disaster that is only redeemed by the courage of those facing it.
The war scenes, as expected from older productions, does use some real footage to evoke accuracy and scale, but most impressive is the budget of the in-camera production! With roughly $1,000,000 in budget, the film is still quite a spectacle, even brief miniature work towards the end is decent. Everything set on the beaches towards the end is incredible in size and scale, while smaller events such as ducking and weaving through the French countryside, gun emplacements, military vehicles and patrols, all very well implemented.
Director Leslie Norman (who would go on to direct episodes of 1960s The Saint with Roger Moore) plays around with the dread of overhead attack. There’s always a sense of entrapment and once upon the beaches a great sense of vulnerability. We see early on what Stuka bombers can and are willing to do, that they can attack civilians without mercy, the idea of helpless soldiers without shelter is terrible.
As a film it has aged well, I would say there are only minor issues visible, such as some sound mixing doesn’t quite work in certain scenes. The ending feels slightly rushed, whether for budget reasons or not, we don’t see the evacuation. We see plenty of the carnage and fear before and during and the failed attempts at evacuation, but the film sort of just stops and “everyone was evacuated”. It doesn’t diminish the reality of the previous scenes, but it becomes a little matter-of-fact in the closing moments.
I was a little concerned watching this before Nolan’s film might ruin it for me, but on the contrary I think I am even more intrigued! A surprisingly bleak, real accounting of a terrible but crucial and courageous moment in history.