World War Two films have been popular with audiences since the end of the global conflict. Stories of heroism in the face of an insurmountable evil war machine can't help but be uplifting: tales of the allies’ victory over the axis powers, either the exuberance of the American troops or the stiff upper lip of the British. However, there is one story from WWII that is particularly interesting: the retreat of thousands of British soldiers from the French beaches of Dunkirk with the aid of civilian boats. This is a defeat, yet it is thought of as one of our greatest defeats at the hands of the Germans and, we have spun it in such a way that it becomes an inspiring tale of a nation coming together in a time of crisis. As a key part of the story of the Second World War it was told in a 1958 Ealing film starring Richard Attenborough, John Mills and Bernard Lee, called Dunkirk.
Not to be confused with the 2017 Christopher Nolan film of the same name, despite its commonality, the 1958 Dunkirk follows two narrative strands. The first is from the viewpoint of soldiers trying to make it back to the beaches of Dunkirk and from there to England. The second follows a journalist whose boat is commanded by the Royal Navy as part of Operation Dynamo. There is plenty more going on that just those stories; there are references to the "Phoney War", those who profited from the war and the reserved occupations.
It is probably important to address the time in which it was made. Two of the leads, Bernard Lee, who would go on to play M in the James Bond franchise, and John Mills, as well as some of the cast and crew of a certain age, served in the war that had ended just 13 years before. Even Richard Attenborough who was just 16 when war broke out, took in Jewish refugees and served in the royal airforce. The effects of the war were more than likely still being felt during filming especially as rationing had ended just four years prior, and the British Empire was in the middle of its ignominious collapse; the war was something people remembered and took part in.
There is real connection with events that the film portrays based on the novels by Lt Col. Ewan Hunter and Major J.S. Bradford and Elleston Trevor. While there is a simplicity to the construction of the film and the message, that doesn't make it any less effective. Nolan's film, while better produced, falls short when compared to the 1958 version. This is mainly due to the way in which the film relates to the events going on on screen. Nolan's effort, due to a detachment of nearly 90 years, feels more cold and observant making the people stuck on the beaches ants under the microscope of his camera to be studied. 1958's director Leslie Norman. gives his film life and a vitality that Nolan’s seems lacking.
This Dunkirk also has 2017's version beat on acting. It has Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee, and John Mills as well as other top-notch British actors dealing with some excellent material. Each main character has identifiable flaws, traits and issues they must overcome. Corporal "Tubby" Binns (Mills) has leadership thrust upon him and he must take his men back home. James Holden (Attenborough) is a coward and war profiteer due to his ownership of a buckle making workshop. While Charles Foreman (Lee) is exasperated by his country’s apathy towards the war and rages against the quiet boredom of British life. Each is interesting and adds some depth to the story that I didn't realise there was.
Finally, and partly due to the characters, this version has the upper hand on tone. While Nolan seems fascinated with a war is hell piece, not caring much about the characters or story so much as a steady escalation of terrible incidents. However, in '58 there is a sense of everyone pulling together, there is doubt, yet a sense of duty from the civilians. The soldiers, yes, have their issues, but they connect with each other over them and thus form a stronger bond making the message of the film all the more clear. Yes, in comparison this Dunkirk feels folky and cheesy with an overt sentimentality to its characters and a convenience to the story that was true of most of these types of films. However, it is far superior to its colour successor. There is a greater connection to the period and events and thus you are engrossed in action more than being bombarded with sound and a muffled Tom Hardy flying a plane.
Technically StudioCanal and Vintage Classics have done well in restoring the film to HD, and on the disc, there are no digital or analogue errors in the English or German Language tracks to distract from the action. The film itself clocks in at just under two hours and fifteen minutes long. However, StudioCanal has added a bunch of interesting extras to keep your attention, from short films, newsreel footage and cast interviews, which all add something to the film.
The 1958 version of Dunkirk offers something really interesting. It is a film so connected to the events it portrays that it comes through in the filmmaking. Despite the fact that is over 60 years old, this film is both vibrant and exciting. History buffs and fans of classic British film should lap it up.