Dunkirk (1958) 4/5 (3)


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Rating: The Good – 74.4
Genre: War, Drama
Duration: 134 mins
Director: Leslie Norman
Stars: John Mills, Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee

An oft forgotten WWII movie dramatising the large scale evacuation of retreating Allied troops from the French countryside and ultimately the port of Dunkirk. We all know the story – a country awakens to the reality that another continental war is on its doorsteps only to rally and demonstrate its grit as hundreds of fishermen and private boat owners sail their own crafts into the war zone to pick up the battered troops from the beaches.

The incident became a banner call for the Allied resistance and it’s surprising we’ve seen so few attempts to capture it on film. That said, Leslie Norman’s treatment is a fitting testament given its balanced and comprehensive approach. We see the operation from most relevant perspectives. John Mills’ corporal and his ragtag squad are in retreat through a countryside crawling with German infantry and stalked by their Stukas (dive-bombers) above. Richard Attenborough is the business owner who reluctantly agrees to offer his recreational boat up to the Navy only to fully commit to the evacuation once he sees the tattered troops getting off the boats. As the film moves between its settings, we get a richer flavour to the time and place behind the story than we might otherwise have got if the story focused on one of them alone.

Mills is eminently watchable as usual as the reluctant commander while Attenborough and fellow boat owner Bernard Lee are terrific as the two civilians embodying the contradicting attitudes to the war as it morphed from its “phoney” stage to the stark reality of what the troops on the continent were experiencing. The beach sequences are ably handled and given impressive scope by Norman. Especially impressive is the manner in which David Devine and W.P. Lipscomb’s screenplay teases out the different social, military, and political perspectives both on the ground amongst the troops and back in England from the army headquarters to the public houses. A nicely nuanced piece of war cinema if ever there was one.

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