The year is 1940 and the British public are sceptical that after the Prime Minister announced that their nation and Germany were at war, anything is going to happen, indeed there is talk of calling this the "phoney war" thanks to the apparent inaction on the Continent. But the Nazis have been drawing their plans to invade the whole of Europe, and when Britain and France reach an agreement to defend one another against them, it triggers their move to act, with Belgium bearing the brunt of the latest manoeuvres. Someone who knew there was real danger brewing was journalist Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) and he desperately tries to drum up support among his fellow Brits to get the Army out of Northern Europe, and fast.
There was a lot at stake, as if the British troops had been trapped in Belgium and France, or worse, massacred, the United Kingdom would have had nothing to fight back against the Nazis with, and Western Europe would have fallen to the enemy. The events at Dunkirk were where the troops had to be rescued as all the while the Nazis attempted to prevent them, and could have been regarded by history as a humiliating defeat on the Allies' side before they were really the Allies, but the fact that (and this is no spoiler) a fleet of boats managed to transport hundreds of thousands of Brits and French across the English Channel to safety meant it was more often seen as snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
But how to go about filming this seismic part of the Second World War? Come the nineteen-fifties, there were a plethora of British war movies as the public loved to hear about the tales of bravery and derring-do, reminding them as austerity continued to bite of what they (and their fathers) had fought for in the previous decade. This happening in particular was a trickier proposition for the popular interest, as while it was a famed evacuation the fact remained much of the story involved our boys being strafed with bullets or pelted with missiles and bombs, not the agreed narrative when making a war epic designed to celebrate the British military might.
Seemingly aware of this, the tone Dunkirk adopted was a fractious one, with characters losing their temper and even the will to fight back, feeling they had got stuck in a hopeless situation rather than one they had to survive if there was a chance at securing a brighter future. The whole mood was, just hang in there, things may be bad now but you'll get your shot at glory, however unconvinced the troops on the ground or the populace back home may be, summed up by the soldiers we followed as they traipsed across the Belgian countryside to the coast. They were led by Corporal Binns (John Mills, stalwart of his nation's war pictures) who has reluctantly been forced into the leadership position, and has to be encouraged by his second-in-command Mike (Robert Urquhart) even as the rest of the small band are ready to give up.
Meanwhile, Foreman does encouraging of his own to get the boats out across the Channel and gather up the weary soldiers under fire from the Nazis, and to encapsulate this British indifference he had to counter, or at least a "somebody else's problem" point of view that had to be wiped out, Richard Attenborough played a small factory owner manufacturing vital parts for the Armed Forces who thinks that's sufficient when as Foreman is keen to point out, everyone can do more. The characters we saw here were more or less fictional, yet the tale they told was a true one, and if it was more instructive than stirring, until the closing stages anyway, this telling of Dunkirk was achieved with impressive vision from British super-producer Michael Balcon. Of course, while it was a hit in its day and went onto be a staple of television broadcasts for many years, you can't but mention it was overshadowed by Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk in 2017 which applied twenty-first century techniques to a nineteen-forties plot and was one of the biggest movies of the twenty-tens, but the '58 version had a power of its own, and should not be dismissed. Music by Malcolm Arnold.
[Studio Canal's Blu-ray restoration looks incredibly clear with only a few signs of wear. Those excellent extras in full:
Interview with actor Sean Barrett (absolutely charming)
Dunkirk Operation Dynamo Newsreel (with actual footage of the operation)
Young Veteran Ealing short
John Mills home movie footage (in colour)
Behind the Scenes Stills gallery.]