Sean Barrett, Bernard Lee and Richard Attenborough in Dunkirk (1958)

In Defeat There is Victory

Movies which are based on actual war events can leave some people very cold whilst resonate strongly with others and it all comes down to knowledge. Take the movie "Dunkirk" there is a lot of praise for this movie from people who were there or have studied events who say it is very accurate whilst for those whose knowledge of the events is far sketchier it lacks something. I am in the second group because unfortunately during my time at school history lessons focused on ancient history rather than WWII and whilst aware that Dunkirk was a defeat I had know idea of the facts surrounding the part civilians played in helping evacuate the troops. It makes me slightly conflicted because whilst I learned a lot from watching "Dunkirk" I also found myself struggling to follow at times because of limited knowledge which I do wonder if that was also the case back in 1958 when it was released.

There are two stories in Dunkirk one featuring a small troop of men who having lost their commander are lead by Corporal Binns (John Mills - Town on Trial) who whilst having the stripes is not use to leading men and the hard decisions which need to be made. At the same time we have the story of civilians back in Britain from journalist Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) who is frustrated with the lack of urgency from the military to manufacturer Holden (Richard Attenborough - The Gift Horse) who is not only making money from the war but is a bit of a coward. It is these men we follow along with others when they are ordered to sail their boats down to Naval HQ and on seeing the injured being brought back volunteer to sail across to help with the evacuation of Dunkirk where Binns and his men have finally arrived.

John Mills in Dunkirk (1958)

Now as already pointed out my knowledge of the actual facts surrounding Dunkirk were minimal before watching Leslie Norman's "Dunkirk" and I can't possibly say how accurate it was when it came to events. On that note it is a little difficult to follow if your knowledge of the events leading up to the defeat are slim because elements are mentioned which aim to explain what is going on but is done in a manner where it expects the audience to have some prior knowledge. But whilst I can't say how accurate it is I can say that it felt authentic and it is a movie with some hugely powerful scenes especially when we see the Luftwaffe bombers striking not just the men at Dunkirk but also French refugees shifting away from the advancing Nazi threat. For a movie which was made in the 50s visually it is stunning with great use of explosions and effects to deliver danger and drama, maybe some of it is not on a grand enough scale but even so it is still visually powerful.

What I can also say is that "Dunkirk" does a fantastic job of delivering individual emotions starting with Corporal Binns played by John Mills. You get a real sense that when he has to lead his men he is ill equipped to do so, not use to taking charge or making tough decisions and when he has to puts even more pressure on him from the men he is leading disagreeing. This is more than ever demonstrated when he is forced to make the tough decision to leave an injured man behind as trying to take him with them would have slowed them down but also the man stood more chance of survival if treated by German doctors.

At the same time we get the civilian reaction and we get a glimpse at those who think it is a phoney war and the annoyance of Foreman at the lack of urgency from the Forces when it comes to the war. But we also witness how Holden with a wife and baby is not keen to put himself forward, semi cowardly in his actions but with that sense of duty eating away at him. This trio of characters end up combining in a moment of surprising drama on the Dunkirk beach which in a way is shocking but reiterates that by this time Great Britain was uniting and whether a soldier or civilian they were in it together.

What this all boils down to is that "Dunkirk" is a good movie which does a good job of getting across the events of Dunkirk but I feel it is probably a great movie for those who have a stronger knowledge and connection to those events.