Although public interest in a seminal chapter of World War II was revived last year by an expensive Hollywood re-enactment of the event, an earlier black and white account of the conflict made by the English during the late 1950s had already reminded audiences just how significant this episode in 20th Century history really is. Mark Fraser revisits a work which, while more modest in scope than its younger American cousin, is just as effective in getting its points across – even when one of them may well be wrong.
Looking back at what happened along the French shores of Dunkirk between May 26 and June 4 in 1940 – during which some 338,000 allied troops were rescued from the advancing German army – then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill suggested a major factor behind the success of the massive military withdrawal of manpower was what happened in the air.
“We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory,” he wrote shortly after the event.
“Wars are not won by evacuation. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the (Royal) Air Force (RAF). This was a great trial of strength between the British and German air forces.”
Naturally, Churchill also acknowledged that the other major contributor towards Operation Dynamo’s ultimate success was the mobilisation of “a great tide of small vessels” (lifeboats, tugs, yachts, fishing craft, barges and pleasure boats), which travelled across the English Channel to help collect the 193,000 stranded members of his “beloved army”.
But it was his unequivocal praise for the “intense effort” of the RAF – especially the way it “bit into German fighter and bomber squadrons … scattering them and driving them away” – which ensured the air force’s performance in this conflict was neither ignored nor forgotten.
While the role of the allied pilots in the evacuation is given a firm tip of the hat by Christopher Nolan in his big budget 2017 movie Dunkirk, another film about the event made almost 60 years earlier practically skips over what went on in the air, instead focusing on the saga from three different angles – the plight of a small British platoon of soldiers as it retreats from France, how the war is being perceived by the public back in Old Blighty, and why a handful of English civilian boat owners selflessly risk their lives to help rescue members of the allied armed forces.
Released in 1958 by MGM and the-soon-to-be-defunct Ealing Studios, Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk is, in many ways, an entirely different beast than its updated counterpart despite being set against the same set of historical circumstances.
Unlike the Nolan picture, which concentrates heavily on the spectacle of battle and employs a number of impressive set pieces to do so, Norman’s film looks at war from a more holistic perspective, incorporating enough melodrama to give it a broader human touch.
Although the role of the RAF is essentially overlooked (and, in fact, is criticised via some dialogue towards the movie’s end), other far-reaching implications of Dunkirk aren’t. Aside from depicting the difficulties faced by the British soldiers as they try to make it back to the coast (by foot or whatever means available) following a hasty retreat order from their military commanders, the 1958 version also shows how the early days of the Second World War was dividing English society, particularly when it came to issues pertaining to civil complacency and war profiteering.
Based on two novels (The Big Pick-Up by Elleston Trevor and Dunkirk by Lt Col Ewan Butler and Major J Selby Bradford), from which the screenplay by David Divine and WP Lipscomb was adapted, Dunkirk does not begin with the titular conflict, but starts just before the retreat, when Neville Chamberlain was still British PM and his country’s military was able to dismiss rumoured Nazi invasion plans as “utter bilge”.
When the film opens, a group of English soldiers are enjoying a night out at the movies in a French village, unaware that their world is about to collapse around them as they absorb the latest Pathe Gazette propaganda and cheer at cartoons of Adolf Hitler being punished for acting like a looting buffoon.
Amongst the audience is a small squad led by Lieutenant Lumpkin (Kenneth Cope), which later learns of the allies’ efforts to withdraw from France after completing an unsatisfactory demolition mission involving the temporary halting of an advancing German column.
When Lumpkin is killed during a subsequent air attack, his second-in-command – Corporal “Tubby” Binns (John Mills) – reluctantly takes on the responsibility of guiding the men to safety, a journey fraught with danger and peril.
Meanwhile, back in London, a justifiably pessimistic newspaper reporter Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee), who eventually becomes the film’s chief voice of reason, is frustrated that the English public seems to think its government is fighting a “phony war”.
Unable to swallow the official there’s-absolutely-nothing-to-worry-about-here line, the scribe also has contempt for local businesses making good money from the conflict – including local buckle manufacturer/service station owner and war sceptic John Holden (Richard Attenborough), whose eyes are eventually opened during the course of the story.
In the end both men have their small vessels commandeered by the military. They also volunteer (Holden – whose wife Grace [Patricia Plunkett] has just had a child – somewhat reluctantly) to take their boats across the English Channel themselves as part of the rescue effort.
Thus the stage is set for third act, in which the stranded soldiers and their civilian wannabe saviours meet on the shores of Dunkirk, all becoming bomb fodder for the Luftwaffe.
As war movies go, Norman’s Dunkirk holds its own – which is no mean feat given, at times, it suffers from the quaintness of a 1950s English studio production.
Fortunately, its old fashioned sensibilities are not driven by tiresome sentiment, overbearing stiff-upper-lips, unnecessary romantic subplots (there simply aren’t any) or nostalgic atmospherics.
Rather, because its cinematic execution now looks outdated – particularly when compared to Nolan’s 2017 spectacular film – Dunkirk has, in effect, been rendered archaic, even as it espouses still-relevant anti-war messages.
Although the movie boasts a few modest battle sequences, the bigger moments, such as the launch of a major German offensive and some of the air attacks, primarily rely on stock footage; while the use of exploding miniatures and models during the coastal siege show just how far modern special effects have come. Also contributing to this visual ambience of yesteryear is the odd appearance of back screen projections.
Adding to all this is the well-mannered and profanity-free dialogue, which too comes from somewhere in the past – the script containing the same kind of vernacular found in other English films from this era.
Furthermore, Norman’s direction (not to mention the effective black and white cinematography by Paul Beeson) is straightforward and non-splashy, meaning the no-nonsense mise-en-scene is functional enough to survive a late night television screening.
Yet despite all of this, the movie contains a few nice touches that modern audiences should appreciate.
Apart from successfully capturing the chaos at the beaches of Dunkirk (which seem to be more crowded than Nolan’s shorelines), one particular battle scene – wherein a humane English battery major (Peter Halliday) and his tough-but-fair sergeant major (Warwick Ashton) order Binns and his squad (along with a couple of other stragglers) to retreat from a hot spot while they remain behind with the artillery to bear the brunt of a Stuka bombing – stands out as a classic piece of anti-war cinema. If anything, it’s one of the scarce moments in the film when anything really good is said about the British command.
As mentioned above, though, another significant aspect of Norman’s movie is the fact it doesn’t give the RAF much credence – something which probably would have stuck in Churchill’s craw had he seen it before his death in 1965.
Indeed, during the beach sequence, the air force is accused by some members of the army of being conspicuous by its absence, causing one stranded pilot (Froome, played by Michael Bates*) to complain to a sympathetic sergeant (Christopher Rhodes) that “we only had four fighter squadrons in the forward area”.
“What do they expect to get over here?” Froome asks.
“There are only about three airfields in England that can send fighters this distance.”
While there might be some validity in these sentiments, at least one contemporary historian sees things a little differently. In his 2012 book The Second World War, Antony Beevor shines some light on this accusation when he maintains that the “hapless British troops” who cursed the RAF had failed to realise its fighters were engaging with German bombers inland; furthermore, one quarter of its planes had just been wiped out during the earlier Battle of France.
Interestingly, Churchill himself felt compelled to make sure the record was set straight when, back in 1940, he publicly claimed: “Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the air force at work; they saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack. They under-rate its achievements.”
Fortunately for the RAF, its reputation was salvaged in the Nolan movie via spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) who end up, in different ways, making meaningful contributions to the overall rescue mission.
Given this, it’s arguable Churchill could well have preferred the 2017 version of Dunkirk, despite the fact it was made in a different era for a younger generation of filmgoers.
*At least I think this is who it is.