Two stories in one - an easygoing British Corporal in France finds himself responsible for the lives of his men when their officer is killed. He has to get them back to Britain somehow. Meanwhile, British civilians are being dragged into the war with Operation Dynamo, the scheme to get the French and British forces back from the Dunkirk beaches. Some come forward to help, others are less willing. Written by
Paul Galpin <email@example.com>
Uneven but the final half hour is worth the price of admission alone
Surprisingly, precious few films exist depicting the events of Operation Dynamo during World War II. The emergency evacuation of thousands of British, French and Belgian soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk while the Nazis closed in around them was described as a "colossal military blunder" by Winston Churchill and could have ended the war there and then. However, the assistance of hundreds of civilians who sailed from the south of England in a small armada of speedboats, yachts and fishing boats to rescue their battered allies provided a united front in what was then dubbed the 'Phoney War' and an astonishing tale of bravery to boot.
Leslie Norman's Dunkirk does not shy away from the buffoonery of high command which led to Allied troops being pushed further and further back until they were surrounded from every angle, but also explores themes of heroism in the face of invasion. Telling two parallel stories, we witness the events leading up to Dunkirk from the front-line, where inexperienced corporal 'Tubby' Binns (John Mills) finds himself in suddenly in charge after the death of his superior and separated from the bulk of his company in hostile territory. From the Home Front, cynical journalist Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) is attempting to snap his fellow countrymen out of their laid-back state to pay attention to a war that is creeping on their doorstep.
Charles is met by people who agree with his concerns, but also those who are blissfully unaware of his country's dyer situation. In particular, local businessman Holden (Richard Attenborough) is making himself a tidy profit from the Phoney War and laps up the propaganda played over the radio. Attenborough's coward is the film's most intriguing plot-line and certainly the most complex character on show. Although he has relatively little screen-time compared to Mills and Lee, its Holden's reaction to the horror on the beach which subsequently changes his entire outlook that lingers in the mind once the film is over.
Mills' lovable Tubby looks like the more conventional hero, wise- cracking and back-slapping his men, but as the situation worsens his ability to command is questioned as leaves one of his men to die and fails to inspire his troops to move when told. Mills gets the bulk of the screen-time, and while his journey to the beaches provide some technically impressive set-pieces, there's an unevenness to the juxtaposition of the intertwining tales when they really deserve equal billing. Tubby's escapades means that it takes a long time to get the evacuation, but when it does, the sights of hundreds of soldiers wading out into the ocean in the hope of rescue and the horror exploding around them still holds up today. It's a moving and beautifully filmed final half hour that is worth the price of admission alone.
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