Saturday, June 02, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Dunkirk (1958)

DUNKIRK is an absorbing, if not completely satisfying, British film about the evacuation of the British Army from France in the spring of 1940.

For most of the film's 135-minute running time, DUNKIRK portrays two parallel stories. Corporal Bins (John Mills) and a few other men are separated from their unit in France, and the corporal ends up in charge, as the highest-ranking survivor of the group. They struggle through the French countryside, looking for the rest of their unit while continually under fire from the Germans.

Meanwhile in England, the Royal Navy is commandeering small boats. When it becomes clear that an evacuation is going to take place, two small boat owners, Foreman (Bernard Lee) and the initially reluctant Holden (Richard Attenborough), are among those who volunteer to sail their boats to France. They are unprepared for just how dire the situation is at Dunkirk but do their best to help as many soldiers as possible.

The film's two stories merge when Corporal Bins and his men make it to Dunkirk and meet up with Foreman and Holden during the evacuation.

The acting is very good, with Mills and Lee particular standouts. The film is interesting, though the travails of Corporal Bins and his men could have been condensed for a faster-paced film.

My biggest disappointment with DUNKIRK is that, other than when small boats are being rounded up by the Navy near the beginning of the film, the movie doesn't convey the scope of how many small boats participated in the evacuation. The film keeps its focus very tightly on the boats of Holden and Foreman, along with Cpl. Bins' small group on the beach.

The movie depicts an endless succession of strafings and bombings of the soldiers on and near the beach, as well as the sinking of boats as they attempt to evacuate some of the men, but the film shows very few successful rescues. This was a disappointment, especially as so much of the film focuses on Cpl. Bins and the buildup to the evacuation.

For a movie that's called DUNKIRK, I expected to see more of the event's positive stories of success as the film came to an end. I appreciate that the filmmakers wanted to personalize the story by depicting the experiences of a small group of people, but it would have been dramatically effective if the rescue of Cpl. Bins' squad could have been shown in a greater context. After all the characters' trials and tribulations, the film should have then built to a stirring climax, but instead it falls a bit flat.

DUNKIRK was directed by Leslie Norman.

DUNKIRK has been released on Region 2 DVD in Europe.

This film can be seen on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available online.

The evacuation of Dunkirk took place 72 years ago this week. I highly recommend THE MIRACLE OF DUNKIRK, one of my favorite books by Walter Lord.

Update: Here's a link to my review of the 2017 film on Dunkirk directed by Christopher Nolan, with comparisons to this 1958 film.


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