After spending the summer reading a lot of history of the British Expeditionary Force in France, I thought I should finally watch the movie Dunkirk, as, surprisingly, I’ve never seen it before. Luckily the DVD was cheap so…
Dunkirk an exceptional film, one of the best war movies I think I’ve seen. It’s pretty close to being an anti-war film: there are no gung-ho heroes here, no glory, just men getting on with their jobs, and a pretty stark look at how brutal war is, for both civilians and soldiers.
The story interweaves two threads, that come together at the climax. In France, reluctant corporal “Tubby” Binns (John Mills) has to lead his cut-off squad back to their main unit. Back in England, counterpointing this, businessman John Holden (Richard Attenborough), sitting in a reserved occupation and using his wife and new baby as an excuse not to get involved, slowly comes to the realisation that it’s not possible not to get involved. (Interestingly, Bernard Lee has a higher billing than Attenborough, and his character, Holden’s friend Foreman, has a bigger role, but narratively it’s not Foreman’s story, it’s Holden’s.)
All of the leads are, unsurprisingly, superb, all utterly convincing in the intense-but-understated characterisation that you’d expect from a film of the era.
The film regularly cuts to actual war footage to show action in several key scenes, and it fits pretty seamlessly and adds to the realism of the battle scenes.
“Battle scenes” is perhaps misleading, because there are very few actual “battles”. In fact, Tubby’s men fight the enemy once only, in a brief two-minute segment where you barely see any soldiers. The rest of the action consists of people being bombed to hell by an unseen enemy, which is chilling to watch and something I can’t even imagine what it’s like to experience.
There’s actually a third thread to the narrative, as it occasionally cuts to senior officers discussing the course of events in great chunks of plot exposition. There are even animated maps of the German advance, giving the whole thing a documentary feel. But it really works, it puts the characters’ struggles into context, and it adds to the feeling of awfulness surrounding the whole affair. And despite the “documentary” feel, these scenes don’t reduce the tension at all. These’s a scene where the Vice Admiral at Dover is on the phone to the Admiralty demanding they reverse their decision to pull out their destroyers (due to heavy losses), and despite the fact that I know exactly, historically, when and why this scene took place, and what the outcome was, I still found myself on the edge of my seat waiting for the Sea Lord’s answer.
Overall, this is a tremendous film that I’d recommend to anybody, even if you don’t usually like war films.
Plus, as an added bonus, I had completely forgotten the soundtrack was one of Malcolm Arnold’s, Britain’s best 20th-century composer.