Classic Film Review: The Original epic set in “Dunkirk” (1958)

I seem to recall diving into the original “Dunkirk” film, a black and white epic made in 1958, and never getting very far into it.

As war movies go, it’s a drab, formulaic affair, even by the “Longest Day” standards of its era. And director Leslie Norman is best-known for a minor horror tale of the day, “X the Unknown,” and lots of TV. So once I became a film snob and dug through my first copy of Halliwell’s “Filmgoer’s Companion,” I’d dismiss the film and him, no matter how much I like the genre.

Powering through it, now restored to peak condition and on Film Movement and available on BluRay, the real rub stands out. It takes over an hour to get going.

This MGM-financed Ealing production is state-of-the-art black and white of the day, intercutting documentary footage of the evacuation, German Stuka dive bombers and even bits of the actual “Miracle at Dunkirk” in with its staged recreations and fictional heroes. There is obvious rear projection of soldiers riding in vehicles, more obvious inside-studio footage recreating chunks of the beach and most-obvious-of-all “tank” footage, soldiers wading into the “surf” or clambering aboard a “little ship” to take them home. We can see the painted cyclorama behind them right down to the seams between sections and where it joins the water, meant to mimic calm seas.

John Mills was a star, a bit old at 50 to be playing an Army corporal. But Richard Attenborough and Bernard Lee weren’t household names. And that’s it for the “names” in the cast.

Lee was four years away from the role that made him immortal, as James Bond’s boss “M” in the Sean Connery Bond pictures. “Dunkirk” gave him his biggest lead role, as a cynical, posh journalist, dismayed at his government’s ineptitude in the months leading to the disaster, pressed into patriotic duty when his motor yacht, “Vanity,” is commandeered by the Royal Navy.

All involved seem, first frame to last, to be soberly concerned with “getting it right,” this key piece of Britain’s World War II legend. That weighs on the film and all but suffocates it.

But it starts with great promise. A voice-over narrator and documentary footage of British leadership and world events set us up for the end of the “phony war,” after the invasion of Poland and Norway, before the German axe fell on France in May of 1940.

Lee’s reporter, Charles Foreman is unable to get any satisfaction out of press “communique” briefings from the military, Mills’ Wiltshire regiment watches newsreels, complete with Hitler-mocking cartoons before shipping out to France, and music hall performers meant to be Two Leslies perform the new ditty “Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line.”

Garage-owner turned government manufacturer Holden (Attenborough) is more concerned with the new baby at home and turning out his allotment of Army buckles than in “doing his part.”

Britain isn’t taking all this seriously, in other words.

There’s more of this than is needed, and the Battle of France scenes, with Mills’ Cpl. “Tubby” left in charge as his squad is separated in the “confusion” of the first orders to pull back eats up much of the film’s first hour.

“I never wanted the bloody stripes in the first place,” he gripes.

There’s an intriguing “playing at war” unreality to the scenes of troops waking up in remote, scenic Belgian fox holes, realizing others have retreated, puzzled fellows in crisp new WWI-era uniforms, stumbling about, looking for their main unit, camping in an abandoned farmhouse.

And then they blow up a bridge, stumble into a long line of refugees, watch them strafed by bombers and it all hits home.

“They seem to hate us.”
“Refugees hate everyone, Tubby.”

“Dunkirk” starts to find its way after folks at home learn they’re to report any vessels over 30 feet in length to the government. Before they know it, manufacturer Holden and his “Heron” and reporter Foreman are lobbying to pilot their own boats into service, parading past Parliament and under the Tower Bridge on their way down the Thames, and then into the Channel and into the thick of it.

But that brief moment of inspiration and pageant quickly passes, and we’re into the last of our WWII move cliches, even if they’re set against the sweeping backdrop of the beach and “mole” evacuation. Moments of panic, but a stately calm is the order of the day, grousing about the RAF, the lack of support “back home,” considering surrender.

To its credit, there isn’t a lot of “top down” history shown here, just Vice Admiral Ramsay arguing for the return of “the big destroyers” which the Navy needs to take out of action to defend the island nation from invasion and protect the convoys that will feed Britain. This “Dunkirk,” like Christopher Nolan’s far superior “remake,” is only interested in the enlisted man’s point of view, the way civilian boat owners experienced this retreat.

There are echoes of this film in other treatments of Dunkirk, including Nolan’s. There was a 2004 BBC TV movie that featured a very young Benedict Cumberbatch, the French drama “Weekend at Dunkirk” telling the story of French troops who have to decide whether to stay or evacuate, and dramas from “Atonement” and “The Snow Goose” to the Oscar winning “Darkest Hour” have touched on it, recreating it in some way.

But for all its attempts at “sweeping epic,” Norman’s film comes off as malnourished, sedentary and slack, a drama lacking any sense of the clock ticking down on men’s fates and little sense of the stakes back home. It’s a dry, almost lifeless account, with even the deaths seeming stodgy and silent-film-acting melodramatic.

Seeing it suggests what drove Britain’s greatest current director, Nolan, to tackle the material and take his suspenseful, gripping and more visceral approach to the material. Nobody had this “darkest hour” triumph justice, certainly not this mediocre 1958 epic.

MPA Rating: Approved, violence.

Cast: Bernard Lee, John Mills, Richard Attenborough, Robert Urquhart

Credits: Directed by Leslie Norman, script by David Divine and W.P. Lipscombe based on a novel and two non-fiction books on the subject. An Ealing/MGM production re-released through Film Movement.

Running time: 2:15

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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