World War II

The Dunkirk evacuation on film before Christopher Nolan landed there

The historic British operation finally gets the big-budget Hollywood treatment.

Hollywood has explored the American experience of World War II numerous times. Key events involving the US armed forces have been immortalised on celluloid with much fervour. However, 77 years ago, it was an extraordinary British operation described as a “miracle” that decided the course of events during the war.

If Operation Dynamo had failed, Germany would have beaten the British and the US would have probably never joined the war. This iconic event has never been given the big-budget Hollywood treatment until Christopher Nolan decided to enshrine its memory. Nolan’s Dunkirk, starring Tom Hardy, Mary Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles and Kenneth Branagh, will be released on July 21.

In May 1940, the German troops advanced into Belgium after conquering Poland and the Netherlands. The British and French troops, cornered from from all sides, huddled at the beaches of Dunkirk in France. Behind them was the German forces with their Panzer tanks; overhead were their air force. What saved 3,38,000 men from slaughter was the remarkable collaboration of soldiers and civilians in a concerted effort to bring their boys back home.

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An animated history of Dunkirk.

The two major cinematic depictions of the Dunkirk evacuation have been British productions: a 1958 film and a 2004 BBC docudrama, both named after the operation.

Common between, and, perhaps, ailing both the productions is the time devoted to the behind-the-scene politics and manoeuvring that led to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill initiating Operation Dynamo. In the 1958 film, directed by Leslie Norman, the narrative is two-fold. On the one hand, journalist Foreman (Bernard Lee) and his friend, businessman Holden (Richard Attenborough), join forces along with other locals to take their boats and vessels from England to Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers.

Back in France, a company of soldiers led by Corporal Binns (John Mills) fight and escape German forces to finally reach Dunkirk and wait for divine intervention. Clocking in at 134 minutes, Norman’s Dunkirk tries to cover a lot of ground – the local mood in England, British government officials squabbling with each other, the war in France, and, of course, the evacuation.

Dunkirk (1958).
Dunkirk (1958).

The earnest performances by the actors makes the sum work despite the parts. The best scene comes near the end, where the troops take some time out on the beach to pray en masse. The sudden shelling by the Luftwaffe traps some of the soldiers into wondering whether they should run in the middle of Holy Communion.

The 2004 BBC docudrama examines the evacuation in exhausting detail. Divided into three episodes and running over three hours, the series shows the events of the 10 days (May 26 to June 4, 1940) during which Operation Dynamo was executed. The star of the show is Simon Russell Beale, who is fantastic as Churchill. Beale not only looks the part but also turns in an authoritative and often sympathetic performance as a man under tremendous pressure to save his country from absolute defeat. Without Beale, the docudrama is a humdrum affair that can barely keep a history nut’s attention from wavering.

Dunkirk (2004).
Dunkirk (2004).

A lesser-known French take on the event, Week-end à Zuydcoote (Weekend at Dunkirk), depicts the ordeal through the eyes of young French sergeant Maillat (Jean-Paul Belmondo, fresh from Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless) as the French troops appear torn between evacuating with the British and holding ground for a final face-off with the Germans. The film never moves away from the war and is focused on the troops at the beach, particularly, Maillat’s conversations with several soldiers that often take a philosophical turn.

Most recently, the battle on the Dunkirk beach was captured in a five-minute continuous tracking shot in Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007). Here, the hero Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), a British soldier, escapes the German forces and reaches the beach at Dunkirk. The non-stop shot takes a panoramic view of the war-ravaged beach as Turner walks around, absorbing everything. Wright adds a touch of fancy to the scene (a distant Ferris wheel with a man hanging from it, children playing, soldiers enjoying a merry-go-round) that makes it stand apart from the earlier, gritty representations of Dunkirk. It’s a sequence too beautiful for war, and, simultaneously, one that features top-notch choreography and technical finesse.

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Dunkirk (2017).
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