5 reasons to watch the epic 1958 version of Dunkirk

Sixty years before Christopher Nolan’s epic, John Mills and Richard Attenborough starred in a blockbuster reconstruction of the Dunkirk story that lit up the box office and inspired The Smiths.

5 September 2017

By David Parkinson

Dunkirk (1958)

For many in the post-baby-boom generation, Operation Dynamo was synonymous with the cover of ‘How Soon Is Now?’, the 1985 single by The Smiths that featured Sean Barrett praying in a scene from Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk (1958).

Starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough, this epic Ealing Studios dramatisation of the evacuation of more than 330,000 British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk has now been digitally restored as part of the BFI’s Coast and Sea project. It was unveiled at special premiere screenings on the beaches at Camber Sands where the film was shot, before being released on Blu-ray and DVD.

Thanks to Atonement (2007), Their Finest (2016) and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), the military miracle that could never have happened without everyday patriots risking all has returned to the headlines. It’s even become entangled in the Brexit saga. What better time, then, to revisit Ealing’s laudably objective reconstruction?

Here are five reasons it’s special.

1. It was Ealing’s last war film

Having made propaganda shorts for the Ministry of Information, producer Michael Balcon established his own shorts unit, and Alberto Cavalcanti’s Young Veteran (1940) shaped the docu-realist style that would characterise Ealing’s war films. Intent on showing ordinary people doing their bit (sometimes in the teeth of upper-class and top-brass incompetence), features such as Went the Day Well? (1942), The Foreman Went to France (1942) and San Demetrio London (1943) reinforced the notion of everyone being in it together. In what would be the studio’s penultimate production, Balcon sought to recapture that sense of unity by rekindling the Dunkirk spirit.

Dunkirk (1958)

2.  The drama is rooted in documentary realism

Avoiding the patriotic triumphalism that had clouded many accounts of wartime derring-do, Balcon stuck to the trusted Ealing formula that had served him so well in The Cruel Sea (1953). Leslie Norman had produced this naval epic and his familiarity with the maritime mindset ensures that the ‘little ships’ sequences are staged with a steely restraint. As a former editor, Norman also knew the value of an expository montage, and Gordon Stone makes telling use of newsreel footage, animated maps and studio reconstructions to establish and demolish the mood of domestic complacency and to reinforce the sense of danger, chaos and confusion on the beach.

3.  Sound and image combine to devastating effect

Many in the audience in 1958 would have lived through the war, and the sound of Luftwaffe raids would have been all-too familiar. Sound supervisor Stephen Dalby captures the terrifying shriek of the Stukas as they swoop to strafe French refugees, BEF (British Expeditionary Force) artillery posts and the stranded soldiers in the dunes. But the silences that follow are every bit as daunting, as they invariably signal a temporary reprieve. Norman conveys this sense of helpless anxiety by cutting between Paul Beeson’s widescreen shots of the retreating columns wading towards the waiting vessels and tight facial close-ups of everyday blokes struggling to control their emotions as they wait like sitting ducks.

Dunkirk (1958)

4.  No gung-ho heroics, just credible characterisation

David Divine and W.P. Lipscomb’s screenplay was adapted from two novels: Elleston Trevor’s The Big Pick-up and Dunkirk by BEF veterans Lieutenant Colonel Ewan Butler and Major J. Selby Bradford.

Trevor contributed the story of the detached unit led by Corporal ‘Tubby’ Binns (John Mills), whose reluctance to assume command contrasts with the Home Front indifference of new father and flourishing war contractee John Holden (Richard Attenborough) and the seething disillusionment of sceptical journalist Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee). The latter’s insistence on skippering his own boat across the Channel shames Holden into following suit. Coming from across the country and the class divide, the supporting characters reinforce the themes of resentment and relief at retreating to fight another day.

Dunkirk (1958)

5.  Cock-ups and courage are given equal weight

Reflecting the national mood of post-Suez cynicism in the late 1950s, this account of the inglorious miracle that narrowed the wartime gap between civilians and the services tempers its celebration of the indefatigability that saved the BEF (after less than a month on continental soil) with judicious criticism of government dithering, MOI obfuscation and military ineptitude.

A loathing of appeasement informs Foreman’s frustration at Britain’s failure to rearm in the face of growing Nazi aggression, while Anglo-French relations are strained over the inefficacy of the Siegfried Line. Similarly, a wounded soldier picks a fight with a perceived profiteer, while many back in Blighty are lulled into a false sense of phoney war security. Once combat begins in earnest, however, strategic naiveté forces a withdrawal that turns into a shambles through a lack of leadership. Ultimately, disaster was averted, but, seemingly, more by luck than judgement.

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