Dunkirk On Screen: Three Films To Watch During The 80th Anniversary

How have the difficult circumstances surrounding the Dunkirk Evacuation been depicted on-screen over the decades?


In the middle of every disaster there is hope. And that could not be truer of the Dunkirk Evacuation.

When Hitler ordered the invasion of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and The Netherlands on May 10, 1940, the British Expeditionary Force found itself outgunned, outflanked and ultimately outright beaten in the days and weeks that followed.

The culmination of this came on May 26, 1940, when newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorised Operation Dynamo, an audacious rescue mission to save what was left of the British, French and Belgian armies off the beaches at Dunkirk.

To get those men off the beach, Churchill called upon the resources of both military and civilian assets, commandeering almost 800 water-based crafts to get across the English Channel and pick-up the stranded troops.

But how has cinema tried to depict the events of the Dunkirk Evacuation?

Here, looking at films spanning 60 years, BFBS explores Operation Dynamo through the lens of three notable movies…  

Dunkirk (1958)

In Leslie Norman’s 1958 film Dunkirk, the horrors of the retreat by the British Expeditionary Force through France and the subsequent evacuation during Operation Dynamo are laid bare.

It’s worth remembering that many of the cast and crew who worked on the production in the 1950s were alive and remembered the events of May and June 1940, and in writing the screenplay, David Divine and W P Lipscomb had access to survivors of the operation directly.

The film centres around three plotlines that ultimately come together as one story on the beach at Dunkirk.

Bernard Lee (famous later for playing M in the James Bond movies) stars as the war-cynical Charles Foreman, a newspaper reporter who at the start is seen taking to task officials at a news conference about the activities of German forces on the eve of their invasion of France and the low countries.

Early on, Foreman explicitly states twice that he hates the war and doubts Britain will even win it when the crunch comes. In those opening scenes, the expression “the phoney war” is used again and again and serves to remind the audience that the country was yet to be tested against the might of a disciplined enemy, but of course that’s all about to change.

The second storyline focuses on a left-behind British platoon who discover as they are retreating from the hard advancing Germans that their BEF colleagues behind them have already left, leaving them cut off and alone.

Learning the hard way, the men realise they are fighting a losing battle.

The plotline following these soldiers feels a little bit predictable: the young officer leading the stricken men is killed off early leaving the film’s star, the late Sir John Mills, to command his fellow soldiers back through the soon enemy occupied towns and countryside, eventually reaching Dunkirk battered and bewildered. Every step of the way, it seems the soldiers are only just escaping death, and it becomes a little drawn out.

The third plotline is focused on of the commandeered little boats sent over the channel and their civilian crews. Here, we learn that journalist Charles Foreman is himself the owner of a small boat, bringing him out of the safety of his London based newspaper office (it was pre-Blitz) and into the sudden firing line of the of the war. We meet other characters at this point, including an innocent 17-year-old boy who’s lied about his age for a chance to see some action, and the film’s other big name, the late great Sir Richard Attenborough. The three must work together to survive.

The stories come together on the beach at Dunkirk as the film climaxes with one of the most emotive endings in fifties cinema. Of course, the once war-cynical Charles Foreman has been morally transformed by the journey he has been on to the beach at Dunkirk, and that is really what the film is about. Prior to the Dunkirk Evacuations in May 1940, many people in Britain were war-cynical, but in going through both the tragedy and miracle of Dunkirk, the country became less divisive and more united behind the war.

The thing Dunkirk (1958) does well is show the mismatch between the technological and tactical differences of the German land forces and the British Expeditionary Force. It doesn’t take anything away from the bravery of the British troops to say that they were well-beaten by the Germans, and this film depicts that unapologetically.

Dunkirk (1958) is available to steam on Amazon for £3.49

Atonement (2007)

Grab your tissues for this one. Atonement was a monster of a success when it was released in 2007, nominated for seven Oscars and an incredible 14 BAFTAs.  

Atonement was based on the 2001 novel of the same name by author Ian McEwan and starred Keira Knightly, James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The plot hinges on a pre-war event witnessed through the eyes of an affluent 13-year-old girl called Briony, who wrongly believes she has witnessed the rape of her teenage cousin by a young man, Robbie - the Housekeeper’s son. Robbie is convicted and sent to prison.

Four years later, we find Robbie in France retreating from the German lines as part of the British Expeditionary Forces having been released from prison early to fight in the war. As he makes his way to the beaches of Dunkirk, Robbie picks up an injury which soon becomes infected.

The tragic story spans six decades and is told emotively through the eyes of the different characters who were present on the night of the alleged rape, and whom were affected by the incorrect witness account Briony gave to the police when she was 13. The film is about how each of their lives panned out as a result, with one of those consequences being Robbie stricken on the beach at Dunkirk.

The key theme this film encapsulates is the innocence of those sent to war. It’s a real tear jerker.

It’s worth saying that Atonement can feel a little slow to begin with, but definitely worth sticking with. It’s unmissable.

Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017). Credit: Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s epic depiction of the events of May 26 to June 4, 1940, were told with brilliant use of special effects and breath-taking cinematography in the 2017 film, Dunkirk.

The film tells the story of Dunkirk from the perspective of intertwining stories which run in a non-chronological order. This can be confusing to start with, but once going the jumping back and forth between the strings of the story adds to the feeling of confusion, even despair, that the men on the beaches would have felt as the operation to evacuate them unfolded.

The film is packed with cinematic nods to the 1958 film of the same name, discussed earlier on. In that film, we see a teenage boy caught up in the action on the beaches of France having lied about his age to take part in the operation. In Nolan’s Dunkirk, an almost identical actor is cast to play the role of the boy, a fisherman’s hand, who can’t see anything other than adventure as he jumps aboard a “little boat” as it pulls out of harbour, Dunkirk-bound. Nolan even dressed the character the same. Later, we see a man in among the crowded troops on the Mole at Dunkirk awaiting embarkation who terrifyingly looks up to the camera high above as the sound of a diving German bomber comes in for yet another attack, a scene almost frame for frame the same as a key moment in the 1958 film.

The notable difference between the two films, though, apart from the fact one is in black and white and the other is full of CGI effects, is the inclusion of the Royal Air Force’s perspective in the operation to save the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk.

In the 2017 film, the perilous danger faced by the Spitfire pilots overhead is laid bare, something that has been overlooked by other accounts of Operation Dynamo throughout the decades. If you did not know that the RAF lost 145 aircraft during the nine-day operation, after watching Dunkirk (2017), you would not be surprised to learn so.

The film also gives a face to one of the unsung heroes of Operation Dynamo, Captain William Tennant, who was tasked with being the Royal Navy liaison officer based on the mole at Dunkirk, overseeing the evacuation in terms of getting the men onto boats efficiently. In the film, the role is played by Sir Kenneth Branagh, although the filmmakers opted to change the characters name to Commander Bolton.

The film, which won three of the seven Oscars it was nominated for, is available to stream on Netflix.

Cover image taken from Dunkirk, 2017. Credit: Warner Bros.

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