As some are aware, based on my recent review, I was not impressed with Christopher Nolan’s new “Dunkirk”. I had waited for months for the movie’s release and although skeptical at first, I gradually bought into the buzz and expected to like it. It was a huge disappointment. I found myself in the distinct minority of viewers who were not impressed by it. The movie has gotten rave reviews from most and made a ton of money. There are critics who feel the movie is one of the best of this year. Some have talked of Academy Award nominations. At least one reviewer has called it the best war movie ever made. If I had not been doing war movie reviewing for the last seven years, I might have questioned my sanity. However, I am comfortable in my assessment, partly because I have seen a better movie about Dunkirk.
Before going to see Nolan’s movie, I reacquainted myself with the 1958 version directed by Leslie Norman (“The Long and the Short and the Tall”). I had not seen it since the early months of my blog. The film was #89 on Military History magazines “100 Greatest War Movies” list. Although I read two histories of Dunkirk in preparation for seeing Nolan’s movie, rewatching the 1958 movie also helped with refreshing my memory of what happened in Operation Dynamo. Little did I know that this classic black and white movie would contribute to my disappointment when I left the IMAX.
“Dunkirk” covers the period from May 26 – June 4, 1940. It opens as though you are in a London theater watching a newsreel chronicling the “Phoney War” situation. One theme that is established is that the British public was in denial about the German threat. The movie juxtapositions footage of the Nazi war machine (accompanied by martial music) with shots of smiling British soldiers (to the tune of harmonica music). If that is too subtle for you, two British vaudevillians (Flanagan and Allen playing themselves) sing “We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line” intercut with an animated map showing the German invasion of France.
The movie has two storylines – civilian and military. The civilian perspective is portrayed by Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) and John Holden (Richard Attenborough). Foreman is a journalist who represents those voices in the wilderness that tried to warn the public of the dangers of unpreparedness. Holden is a small business owner who is benefitting from war contracts, but is confident the war will not affect anything but his bottom line. The military component is a small section (the British equivalent of an American squad) that are on the run after being separated from their unit. Led by Corporal Binns (John Mills), they eventually make their way into the Dunkirk perimeter. This “lost patrol” witnesses refugees being strafed and moves on to find succor from an artillery battery. When they leave, they see the effect of Stukas on a last ditch stand.
While Binns and his comrades are avoiding the Germans and working their way to Dunkirk, Operation Dynamo is put into action. A call for “small boats” to aid in the evacuation nets the patriotic Foreman and the peer-pressured Holden. Holden is reluctant to go, not just because he feels his buckle business is crucial to the war effort (and his boat is six inches too short), but because he has a wife who insists his place is at home with her and their new baby. She’s never seen a war movie, so she expects him to choose her over his bros. It’s a small war (and a shrinking perimeter) so these two storylines are bound to intersect on the beach of Dunkirk.
Each of the storylines features a character arc. Holden evolves from a milquetoast collaborator-in-waiting to a heroic yachtsman. Binns is your cinematic soldier who has leadership thrust upon him. Already chafing at wearing the stripes of a corporal, Binns is reluctant to shoulder the leadership of his small band. He will be forced to go from being one of the grumblers to being of the brass. Both arcs are simplistic and predictable, but necessary for the picture’s goals. The goals included reminding a Cold War audience of the dangers of underestimating an enemy and the need for teamwork in the face of an existential threat. A reference to 1930s Britain choosing butter over guns is an obvious plea to 1950s Britain to not make the same mistake. These goals will naturally be reached with the signature British traits of stoicism and stiff upper lips. Traits required in 1950s British war films.
Unlike Nolan’s film, Norman foregoes the RAF component and limits himself to the small boats and the small unit. (He does manage to thrown in the canard that the RAF did little to defend the beach and mole.) However, he does include tastes of the bigger picture. There are scenes where the camera pulls back to show the decision makers. For instance, we see Gen. Gort making the decision to evacuate in spite of French wishes. Adm. Ramsey demands the Royal Navy rescind its orders pulling most of the destroyers out. (A scene filmed in the actual command bunker in Dover.)
The movie is well made. It makes use of the British war movie repertory cast. Mills is solid in an unchallenging role. Foreman and Attenborough are adept at playing the two strains of British civilians. Holden’s transformation is a bit pat and were the movie to be remade, he would stay a villain. But this was the 1950s, not the 1960s. No one else is given much of a chance to shine. Binns’ section is pretty generic, but Robert Urquhart is fine as Binns’ nagging mate. You have the stripes – lead! The cinematography stands out. The interior scenes feature a lot of deep focus. The exterior scenes blend in actual footage, not quite seamlessly, but well enough to prevent any wish that CGI would have been available. The best effects are in the area of sound. There is a lot of realistic aerial and artillery bombardment and the noise that goes with them. This is especially true of the harassment of the beach. The extras do a good job reacting to death from above.
While the plot does not break any new ground and the movie has a stodgy agenda, it does avoid overt patriotism and propaganda. Most importantly, it is strong historically. It makes an excellent companion to Nolan’s picture. It is best to see it first. Where Nolan made the decision to concentrate on personal storylines exclusively, screenwriter David Divine gives both a micro and macro view. His personal stories may not have the visceral impact of Nolan’s, but he has a better balance in telling the story of Operation Dynamo. (It is noteworthy that the name of the operation is not mention in Nolan’s film.) On the other hand, Norman’s film could easily have been named “Operation Dynamo”. Where you can glean the basics of Dunkirk from Nolan, Norman is more tutorial. Binns’ men represent the “odds and sods” who were cut off from their units in the chaos of the German penetration of the Ardennes Forest. The artillery battery stands in for all the units who made suicidal stands to buy time. Binns and the others first attempt to escape via the mole, but end up on the beach relying on a small boat to pick them up. Foreman and Holden exemplify all of the small boat captains that risked their lives to cross the Channel. Their actions were typical. The movie also throws in some anecdotal morsels like the leaflets encouraging the British to give up and the medical personnel drawing lots to see who would stay with the wounded. Divine can be criticized for omitting any references to the French, but I have no real problem with that. If the French wanted to be lionized, they should have been more supportive of the operation. (I am aware they did the lion’s share of defending the perimeter towards the end, but to me that was more along the lines of surrendering with a fight than an act of sacrifice for an ally.)
“Dunkirk” is not a great movie. It is too inside the box to achieve that accolade. It is, however, a classic that holds up well and deserves the renewed interest that should come its way. (You can see it on You Tube for $1.99.) I do not normally prefer older movies over modern war films. The classics were constrained by technology and censorship which made realism a bigger challenge than with modern efforts. While “Dunkirk” falls into the Old School, it manages to not be obsolete because it is historically sound and still tells an entertaining story well. It’s this fidelity to history that gives it its main edge over Nolan’s film.
GRADE = B+