skip navigation


TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here

Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (0)


powered by AFI

teaser Dunkirk (1958)

Just eighteen years after the Germans thrashed the British at Dunkirk during World War II, producer Michael Balcon recreated the event onscreen, turning this infamous retreat into a moral victory for the British. In a straightforward, naturalistic style, Dunkirk (1958) depicted one of the most famous evacuations in military history when 330,000 British soldiers were retrieved from the beaches of northern France in 1940.

In 1958, when Dunkirk was released to an international audience, viewers not only knew the significance of the event but were still familiar with each stage of the battle and evacuation. However, today's history-challenged audiences are likely to be unfamiliar with this early event in World War II, which occurred a year and a half before America's entrance into the war. The situation that led to Dunkirk began in May 1940 when the Germans attacked the Low Countries, and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) along with the French troops moved in to assist. But, the Germans proved too well prepared and too well armed, and the Allies could not halt the relentless Nazi push toward the coast. Once at the coast, the Germans turned north to capture the ports at the English Channel and to annihilate the BEF with the help of the Luftwaffe. The commander of the BEF then made the decision to evacuate - less than a month after British troops had landed on the continent to support The Netherlands and Belgium.

The BEF began to withdraw, forming a perimeter around the port at Dunkirk with the help of French and Belgian troops. The plan was to evacuate using a fleet of destroyers, merchant ships, and about 700 civilian-owned fishing boats, commercial ships, and pleasure craft. Operation Dynamo began on May 27, 1940, as the perimeter around Dunkirk began to shrink and German planes attacked the troops waiting on the beaches. Finding a way to the ships proved hazardous for many soldiers, some of whom waded into the sea to board the waiting boats. The high point of the evacuation was May 29-30, when 121,000 troops were rescued despite heavy fire from the Luftwaffe. By June 3, the situation was so dangerous that ships ran only at night. The last ship to leave Dunkirk with its precious cargo in the wee hours of the morning of June 4 was the navy destroyer HMS Shikari, but Operation Dynamo would not have succeeded without the participation of private civilians who at great risk to their own lives ferried soldiers on their private boats. Unfortunately, the two divisions of French infantry left behind to defend the perimeter were captured by the Germans.

The British suffered over 68,000 casualties in addition to losing over 240 ships, over 100 airplanes, almost 64,000 vehicles, and 500,000 tons of supplies. However ignominious the retreat, the event preserved the core of the British Army to fight another day, and it unified Great Britain in support of the war effort.

To give Dunkirk the air of authenticity, Balcon and director Leslie Norman integrated newsreel footage into the events of the narrative, a technique that some reviewers described as "documentary-like." Newsreel shots of British and French leaders conferring together and footage of British troops arriving in Belgium objectively set up the situation that led to Dunkirk without devoting a lot of screen time to exposition. During battles scenes, actual footage of German planes is seamlessly intercut into key sequences enhancing the film's sense of realism. A voice-over narration in the opening sequence and at the conclusion adds to the documentary quality.

Dunkirk features three protagonists, who represent different attitudes and perspectives on the war. John Mills makes the most of his role as Bins, a Cockney soldier who finds himself separated from his unit, along with a handful of other men. Because he is the only corporal in the group, he takes command of the situation, stumbling across the open French countryside as the Luftwaffe rain down bullets and the German artillery destroys every structure in sight. Bins did not ask for his role as group leader and curses the day he got his stripes, but he takes responsibility in a way that illustrates the quiet heroism of the common soldier. Richard Attenborough costars as John Holden, a successful small business owner who refuses to believe the severity of the situation with Germany, referring to the conflict as "a phony war." He represents an attitude prevalent prior to Dunkirk in which complacent middle-class Brits did not want to get involved in world affairs, rationalizing that another world war was simply too terrible to occur again. Bernard Lee, who would later gain fame as M in the James Bond series, plays Charles Foreman, a cynical journalist annoyed by the complacency of the public and the blunders of the British military. All three end up at Dunkirk, but in different capacities. Bins leads what's left of his group to the beach for evacuation, while Holden and Foreman use their private boats to help rescue the soldiers and return them safely to England.

By downplaying individual heroics and obvious sentiment in favor of a stoicism that reminds us of the old British platitude to keep a stiff upper lip, the film emphasizes the theme of strength through unity. For example, Bins's group of men work together to survive their trek across the open countryside of France; civilians work closely with the military to ensure the success of Operation Dynamo; and, the voice-over concludes by asserting that Britain had survived Dunkirk "alone but undivided, a nation made whole." The idea is suggested in smaller moments as well, as when a key character dies on the beach at Dunkirk. Someone asks, "Was he a civvie?" And Bins quietly answers, "What's the difference?" In other words, from this moment forward, all of Britain was behind the war, and everyone was a soldier.

Despite the depiction of ordinary soldiers and citizens acting bravely and responsibly, the film manages to criticize certain attitudes, institutions, and decisions in a forthright, honest manner. Prior to Dunkirk, the British citizenry is depicted as complacent, sluggish, and ignorant of the severity of world events, specifically through the character of Holden, the small business owner who actually benefits from the war but doesn't believe it to be valid. The film also offers an unflattering portrait of the British military, which blunders through the Low Countries, completely outmatched by the Germans. The best example is a clever scene in which music hall entertainers Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen sing the ditty "Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line," a propaganda tune that boasts of Allied plans to destroy the German defense line known as the Siegfried Line. The song is intercut with shots of an animated map that illustrates just the opposite: The Germans rapidly move across France and Belgium pushing the unprepared British into retreat. Confusion reigns on the battlefield, and French civilians are forgotten or ignored. Also, when civilians volunteer to join the evacuation effort, the top brass refuses at first, though the British navy clearly doesn't have the ships to rescue all of the soldiers. As Foreman the journalist notes near the end of the film, "What a shambles we've made of this whole rotten business."

Producer Michael Balcon was already a legendary figure in the British film industry at the time of Dunkirk's release. Balcon had produced many of Hitchcock's early English films before heading Ealing Studios from 1938 to 1959. Responsible for quirky comedies with eccentric characters that captured the essence of the British personality (The Lavender Hill Mob [1951]; Whisky Galore [1949]), Ealing distributed its highly popular films through Rank until 1955 when the studio was purchased by the BBC. After the sale, Ealing made fewer films and declined in prestige as it was consumed by television production, except for a handful of films that were distributed through MGM's British arm. By the end of the 1950s, the "Angry Young Men" of the new British cinema were garnering critical acclaim and box office success with a more naturalistic acting style than the previous generation's Royal Academy graduates; this movement reflected a preoccupation with urban, working class issues, and employed a gritty visual style. Ealing's focus on eccentric British types, use of theatrically trained actors, and preference for the whimsy of village life seemed out of touch in comparison.

In 1959, Balcon formed his own company, Bryanston Films, and in 1964, he took control of British Lion. His years after Ealing became a frustrating period in which he struggled to actually produce movies while handling the red tape of owning a studio and heading a distribution company.

Dunkirk, which Balcon claimed was the largest film he had ever produced in scope and scale, became one of the last projects he produced for Ealing. It was directed by Ealing regular Leslie Norman, and it featured a few of the studio's faithful actors in small bits. Patricia Plunkett plays a small role as Holden's whining wife, and Joss Ambler and Frederick Piper appear in uncredited parts as two of the civilian volunteers with boats. While not a comedy, and somewhat stolid in retrospect, Dunkirk manages to echo the best of Ealing in its devotion to the British spirit and its affection for uniquely British characters.

Producer: Michael Balcon with Michael Forlong
Director: Leslie Norman
Screenplay: W. P. Lipscomb and David Divine from the novel Dunkirk by Ewan Butler and J.S. Bradford and the novel The Big Pickup by Trevor Dudley Smith
Cinematography: Paul Beeson
Editor: Gordon Stone
Art Director: Jim Morahan
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Cast: Corporal Bins (John Mills), Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee), John Holden (Richard Attenborough), Grace Holden (Patricia Plunkett), Diana Foreman (Maxine Audley), General Viscount Gort V.C. (Cyril Raymond), Mike (Robert Urquhart), Barlow (Ray Jackson), Miles (Ronald Hines), Frankie (Sean Barrett), Dave Bellman (Meredith Edwards), Harper (Roland Curram), Medical Officer (Lionel Jeffries), Military Spokesman (Anthony Nicholls), Themselves (Flanagan and Allen).
BW-136m. Closed Captioning.

by Susan Doll

back to top