‘Dudkirk’ (2017) versus ‘Dunkirk’ (1958): Postscripts

Postscript 1: ‘Dunkirk’ (1958)

As I mentioned in my little review, ‘Dudkirk,’ a couple of days ago, there was a movie about Dunkirk made back in 1958, under the auspices of Ealing Studios in the UK.  I discovered that it is available for rental streaming or download from Amazon, so last night after finagling with Apple’s AirPlay function, we managed to watch ‘Dunkirk’ via my wife’s iPad on our Samsung TV.

Dunkird-1958The aging black-and-white ‘Dunkirk’, directed by Leslie Norman and starring Richard Attenborough, John Mills, and Bernard Lee, was vastly better than the senses-blasting indigestible stew served up by director Christopher Nolan.  It does have  two story lines (instead of Mr Nolan’s juxtaposed three), but they they are commensurate tales that come together in the end, with civilian journalist and small-boat owner Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) meeting on the beach with army corporal ‘Tubby’ Binns (John Mills), who had led his abandoned patrol on a harrowing journey through occupied territory, only to find themselves trapped at Dunkirk with three hundred thousand desperate comrades.  Both Foreman and Tubby are appealing characters whom we get to know, maybe not as well as we’d like, but far more closely than anyone in ‘Dudkirk’.  The revelation and transformation that the Dunkirk evacuation represented for England was embodied in businessman, and also small-boat owner, John Holden (Richard Attenborough), who couldn’t be bothered with the ‘phony war’ until shamed into captaining his own boat and witnessing for himself the dire reality of Hitler’s advance—and the death of Foreman, victim of the constant strafing of the beach by German Stukas.

That is to say, there are stories here, and history, in addition to good writing, good acting, and remarkable production (with a little news footage carefully interwoven).  Here we are, almost 60 years later, and what has Director Nolan done?  Rather than bringing lucidity and understanding to one of the most storied events of our recent history, he has eviscerated it to little more than a flash-and-bang video game.

Postscript 2: The Role of the RAF

The 1958 and 2017 ‘Dunkirks’ differ in another respect.  The new film spends a lot of time on the RAF Spitfires, filming aerial dogfights with German fighters and attacking Heinkel bombers.  I was surprised to see no British aircraft in the 1958 film.

The 2017 scenes are well-done, but unrealistic, as when a Spitfire entirely out of fuel somehow manages to down an enemy aircraft, land on the beach, and is then set ablaze when the pilot fires a revolver at it, as a crippled horse is dispatched in the movies.  But how can an empty fuel tank explode in flames?


Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation (P.D., from the Collection Database of the Australian War Memorial, via Wikipedia)

In any case, why did Director Nolan make such a big deal about the planes, and Director Norman ignore them?  The answer is that Mr Nolan had no interest in history, while Mr Norman knew full well that, for the men on that awful beach, under constant bombardment and strafing from the Luftwaffe, the Royal Air Force was practically invisible.  Writer Brent Baxter describes the situation in a article, ‘The role of the RAF in the miracle of Dunkirk‘:

As the BEF [the British Expeditionary Force] retreated, the RAF was tasked with protecting the evacuation. Over the nine days of Operation Dynamo, the RAF flew 171 reconnaissance, 651 bombing and 2,739 fighter sorties. Fighter Command claimed 262 enemy aircraft, losing 106 of their own, losses worse than they would experience in the upcoming Battle of Britain.

In spite of the RAF’s untiring efforts, to the men on the beaches awaiting passage home, the Luftwaffe’s bombers seemed to have unfettered access to the skies over Dunkirk. On one day alone, Stukas, Heinkels and Dorniers dropped 15,000 high explosive and 30,000 incendiary bombs on Dunkirk harbour and the approaching fleet of British ships and boats.

The challenges piled on the RAF over Dunkirk can not be easily overstated. Inexperienced pilots had to fly across the Channel to face vast swarms of enemy aircraft, with many flown by experienced pilots. Their outdated tactics made it difficult to effectively engage the enemy and when their formations broke up the green youngsters found themselves on their own, fighting for their lives against five times their number or more. [My emphasis]

So it is no surprise, at least to the English who first saw this film only 18 years after the event, that an RAF airman on the beach is forced to defend his service, resisting the suggestion that he take off his uniform to save himself from scorn.


Edited for clarity 31Jul17.

5 thoughts on “‘Dudkirk’ (2017) versus ‘Dunkirk’ (1958): Postscripts

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I have a DVD of the 1958 film. In contrast to the Nolan film the 1958 version has great scale, there are literally what appears to be thousands of extras on the beaches. The political situation is explained. The army and navy chiefs are given room. Mills as always manages to portray a simple, honest man. Bernard Lee is the conscious of the film, but equally Attenborough shows the dilemmas not only of being in a reserved occupation but as the father of a new baby. There’s so much detail, Lord Haw haw is heard on the radio and one of the characters suggests that he might be right. The ending of the Nolan film is disgraceful and a complete invention, much like in ‘darkest Hour’ which portrays the aristocrat Churchill on the tube, what nonsense

  2. I think I saw the 1958 version as well, and only now have found this article that reminds me of that version. Thank you for bringing it back to me, as well as Mrs. Minivar.

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