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Warner Brothers and Christopher Nolan had a big hit this summer with Dunkirk (2017). However, this was not the only film based on the Dunkirk Evacuation. The 1958 version set to have special screenings at Camber Sands in East Sussex, England on September 20 and 21 before a DVD and Blu-ray re-release by StudioCanal.
Dunkirk (1958) tells two parallel stories happening during the summer of 1940. One focuses on a company of soldiers who try to rejoin the bulk of the allied army, led reluctantly by Corporal “Tubby” Binns (John Mills). The other story is set on the home front, following journalist Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) and garage owner John Holton (Richard Attenborough) who worry about the conduct of the war.
In comparison to the 2017 film Dunkirk (1958) is a more traditional take on the event. The film itself is a blend of fact and fiction, being based on both a novel and a factual book. Like many war films from this period, Dunkirk (1958) aimed to tell a story of the men fighting on the ground and the leadership who order the main plans like Operation Dynamo. The aim is to both entertain and educate and acted as a forbearer to films like The Longest Day, Tora Tora Tora and A Bridge Too Far. Dunkirk (1958) was released 18 years after the event so in living memory for most people at the time. One of the cast members, Victor Maddern, served in the Merchant Navy during the war.
The similarities between the Dunkirk films that are most stark are scenes on the beach. Because they are both based on the same events scenes in the 1958 film and the 2017 one are incredibly similar such as the bombing of The Mole and of a civilian ship that was meant evacuate causalities.
Dunkirk (1958) does give people a quick education of the military situation by using maps to show how the Germans encircled the Allies and pushed them back to the beaches of Dunkirk. Army and Navy commanders also state information like a general preparing a counter-attack it could buy the allied army time for their retreat and navy commanders stating how many warships were lost in the English Channel – which is why the Operation Dynamo was activated. The voiceover at the end, that has a similar feel to the one in Zulu, stating the evacuation turned a disaster into a miracle.
In comparison to the 2017 film, the 1958 version is a more comprehensive look of the military operation and tried to cover as much as possible. Because the operation took place over the course of a few days so the film could cover most of the event in its 135 minute run time. It is a film that can please history enthusiasts whilst integrating facts into the story.
The film does a fine job of showing both the actions in France and on the home front. On the home front, Foreman is a cynic who questions how the war is fought, but is willing to go to France to help rescue soldiers. Holton had the most interesting storyline in the film – he is a businessman who has a young family and is seen as a coward for wanting to stay with them. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Holton and his wife (Patricia Plunkett) receive a gas mask for their baby and despite his wife’s fears, Holton tells her that he has to go to Dunkirk with the rest the boatmen. He essentially joins the war effort because of peer pressure.
The soldiers’ storyline focused on their comradery and Tubby being thrust into a position of leadership. They are the audience’s eyes to how the war was being fought with the Germans advancing and seeing the impact on the French countryside. They see the British army abandoning vehicles, the civilians abandoning their homes and refugees trying to flee the war. However, a questionable moment in the film was after the soldiers saw the Luftwaffe bomb a small British position and called it murder: this was after they saw the refugees getting bombed – surely that incident should have been called murder.
The film was made in the 1950s so there are limitations regarding the action and special effects. Dunkirk (1958) had to use news reel footage to show incoming bombers so there was a noticeable drop in film quality and the effects for the bomb explosion were no more than white smoke. The action highlight was when the British soldiers are being chased from a farm house by the Germans and it was a fine sequence for the time: but it was a bloodless affair, adhering to the standards of the time. Audiences being spoiled by films like Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge so it’s not really being the fault of Dunkirk (1958) itself.
Dunkirk (1958) is the film for people who didn’t enjoy Dunkirk (2017) due to the ’50s film traditional storytelling approach and willing to show the wider history. It is a solid war film for its era and fans of films like The Dambusters and The Longest Day should enjoy it.