Cast & Crew
In the spring of 1940 in Belgium, British troops, including Corp. "Tubby" Binns, watch newsreels reaffirming the strong bond between the British and French nations. Afterward, Binns wonders what the atmosphere is like back home and his squad-mate Mike observes that English civilians likely do not realize there is a war on. In London, a representative at the Ministry of Information releases a statement on the strength of British and French unity to reporters and refuses to answer questions by journalist Charles Foreman about the rumor of German troops massing on the Belgian and Dutch borders. Charles later meets his wife Diana at a local pub and angrily decries the government's silence. When mild-mannered engineer John Holden stops in at the pub and laments that they have run out of Scotch, Charles criticizes him for being spoiled because his company has a large government contract. After John lightly dismisses the war as "phony," a wounded Navy officer just released from the hospital angrily berates him. On the day that Germany invades Holland and Belgium, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigns and is replaced by Winston Churchill. Binns, Mike, Pvt. Dave Bellman, Pvt. Barlow, Pvt. Fraser and numerous units of the British Expeditionary Force are forced to withdraw from Belgium. On a mission under Lt. Lumpkin, Binns and his men blow up a bridge to slow down the enemy approach, but are left behind by the hasty withdrawal of their unit. Ordered by a courier to withdraw toward the coast, the soldiers are then strafed by German dive bombers and Lumpkin is killed, leaving Binns in command. Back in London, Charles meets with the French press liaison Jouvet at the embassy and is stunned when Jouvet reveals the Germans have broken through the French Maginot Line and there are no reserves to bolster the weakened French forces. Mingling with thousands of refugees on French roads, Binns and his men attempt to learn about current conditions, but are disparaged by the angry populace. After Binns orders the men off the road to move faster, they watch in horror as the civilians are strafed by German Stukas. That afternoon, Binns and his squad arrive at a small British military post where they are fed and given supplies before a bombardment begins. Fraser is killed and the post's sergeant major orders Binns to leave, despite Binns's offer of support. Soon after departing, Binns and the others witness the post's annihilation by another bombardment. At BEF headquarters, commander-in-chief Gen. Gort is dismayed by the disarray of the retreat. When Gort receives information that the Belgian line is crumbling he realizes that in order to save the British Army, they must be pulled out toward the sea, the only avenue of escape. In Dover, Vice Admiral Ramsey hears the distant shelling at Calais and, reviewing suggested plans for the BEF evacuation, decides that Dunkirk is the only possible harbor. At nightfall Binns and the squad take refuge in a farmhouse only to be driven out early the next morning by German troops. Dave is seriously wounded and Mike protests bitterly when Binns insists that they must leave the injured man behind. In England, a general call has been broadcast for all boats over thirty feet to be registered with the Navy, but the boat owners are given no further explanation. Gathering at the harbor with other boat owners, Charles runs into John, who is distressed that his vessel has been commandeered when he purposely lied about its length to avoid registration. Disturbed by the men's angry reaction to his admission, John returns home to his wife Grace, who is alarmed at having been issued a gas mask for their baby. When Grace pleads with John to promise that he will never leave them, John abruptly refuses and telephones the naval office to inquire whether he may pilot his boat, Heron , to Sheerness. The next morning while preparing his boat, Charles witnesses several hundred weary and wounded British troops coming ashore and understands that the boats are to be used to evacuate the Army from France. Taken aback, Charles asks the Navy representative if he might pilot his craft to France, but is initially refused. When Charles and others insist they know their vessels best, permission is granted. Charles is gratified to see that John has joined the crowd, taking along teenager Frankie as first mate. In a countryside barn, Binns attempts to rouse the men long before dawn to continue their retreat. When the men respond with indifference, Binns considers continuing alone until Mike reminds him of his responsibilities. Binns succeeds in stirring the men into action, but they are immediately pursued through the forest by German troops. When Mike collapses in exhaustion, Binns and another soldier return for him and the squad is rescued by a lone British driver who offers the squad a lift in his lorry. After driving all day toward the coast, Binns, Mike and the driver are startled to come across countless abandoned and destroyed BEF vehicles. Halted at the perimeter by British rearguard, they are ordered to continue to the coast on foot. Upon arriving at the water's edge, Binns and his men join thousands of soldiers waiting in lines snaking all along the beach. Several dozen troops wade into the sea toward various sized vessels as they are strafed by the Germans from the sky. As night falls and the Heron nears the French coast, John and Frankie are horrified to see Dunkirk in flames. Charles and his mate Joe watch as a large ship takes a direct bomb hit and sinks, leaving many men flailing in the sea. Amidst the confusion, Binns keeps his men together as they near the lengthy mole packed with troops waiting to load onto ships. When a section of the mole is bombed, repairs are quickly rigged. Binns and his men finally board a large ship, but it is bombed and sinks before it can pull away. Several survivors are picked up by Charles and Joe. At Dover, Ramsey insists that destroyers are necessary for any hope of success in the evacuation of more than 170,000 soldiers still waiting at Dunkirk. The next morning, Charles' boat is hit and he is rescued by the struggling Heron . During another bombing later in the day, Barlow is wounded and Binns takes him to a nearby hastily set-up infirmary. When the Heron drifts in to shore, Mike offers to help John repair the engine and Charles and Frankie walk along the beach. That night Binns asks Charles if the English people hold the Army responsible for the ignominious retreat, but Charles reassures him that the Army is not to blame. The next morning Charles is amazed when several soldiers stand in line for Sunday prayers and Frankie kneels with the soldiers. A Stuka attack breaks up the formations and, to Frankie's horror, Charles is killed. John and Mike repair the Heron and, although stunned by Charles' death, John orders twelve soldiers to be rounded up as he intends to return to Dover on his own. Binns and his remaining squad members board the Heron but only a few miles out in the channel, the engine dies. The boat begins drifting back towards France before a naval vessel comes to the rescue. Binns, Mike, John and Frankie gratefully return to England late that day. Several days later, Binns and Mike are back drilling in preparation for the defense of England.
Flanagan And Allen
Lt. Col. Ewan Butler
W. P. Lipscomb
Lt. Col. John Pidler Dsc Rn
In 1958, when Dunkirk was released to an international audience, viewers not only knew the significance of the event but were still familiar with each stage of the battle and evacuation. However, today's history-challenged audiences are likely to be unfamiliar with this early event in World War II, which occurred a year and a half before America's entrance into the war. The situation that led to Dunkirk began in May 1940 when the Germans attacked the Low Countries, and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) along with the French troops moved in to assist. But, the Germans proved too well prepared and too well armed, and the Allies could not halt the relentless Nazi push toward the coast. Once at the coast, the Germans turned north to capture the ports at the English Channel and to annihilate the BEF with the help of the Luftwaffe. The commander of the BEF then made the decision to evacuate - less than a month after British troops had landed on the continent to support The Netherlands and Belgium.
The BEF began to withdraw, forming a perimeter around the port at Dunkirk with the help of French and Belgian troops. The plan was to evacuate using a fleet of destroyers, merchant ships, and about 700 civilian-owned fishing boats, commercial ships, and pleasure craft. Operation Dynamo began on May 27, 1940, as the perimeter around Dunkirk began to shrink and German planes attacked the troops waiting on the beaches. Finding a way to the ships proved hazardous for many soldiers, some of whom waded into the sea to board the waiting boats. The high point of the evacuation was May 29-30, when 121,000 troops were rescued despite heavy fire from the Luftwaffe. By June 3, the situation was so dangerous that ships ran only at night. The last ship to leave Dunkirk with its precious cargo in the wee hours of the morning of June 4 was the navy destroyer HMS Shikari, but Operation Dynamo would not have succeeded without the participation of private civilians who at great risk to their own lives ferried soldiers on their private boats. Unfortunately, the two divisions of French infantry left behind to defend the perimeter were captured by the Germans.
The British suffered over 68,000 casualties in addition to losing over 240 ships, over 100 airplanes, almost 64,000 vehicles, and 500,000 tons of supplies. However ignominious the retreat, the event preserved the core of the British Army to fight another day, and it unified Great Britain in support of the war effort.
To give Dunkirk the air of authenticity, Balcon and director Leslie Norman integrated newsreel footage into the events of the narrative, a technique that some reviewers described as "documentary-like." Newsreel shots of British and French leaders conferring together and footage of British troops arriving in Belgium objectively set up the situation that led to Dunkirk without devoting a lot of screen time to exposition. During battles scenes, actual footage of German planes is seamlessly intercut into key sequences enhancing the film's sense of realism. A voice-over narration in the opening sequence and at the conclusion adds to the documentary quality.
Dunkirk features three protagonists, who represent different attitudes and perspectives on the war. John Mills makes the most of his role as Bins, a Cockney soldier who finds himself separated from his unit, along with a handful of other men. Because he is the only corporal in the group, he takes command of the situation, stumbling across the open French countryside as the Luftwaffe rain down bullets and the German artillery destroys every structure in sight. Bins did not ask for his role as group leader and curses the day he got his stripes, but he takes responsibility in a way that illustrates the quiet heroism of the common soldier. Richard Attenborough costars as John Holden, a successful small business owner who refuses to believe the severity of the situation with Germany, referring to the conflict as "a phony war." He represents an attitude prevalent prior to Dunkirk in which complacent middle-class Brits did not want to get involved in world affairs, rationalizing that another world war was simply too terrible to occur again. Bernard Lee, who would later gain fame as M in the James Bond series, plays Charles Foreman, a cynical journalist annoyed by the complacency of the public and the blunders of the British military. All three end up at Dunkirk, but in different capacities. Bins leads what's left of his group to the beach for evacuation, while Holden and Foreman use their private boats to help rescue the soldiers and return them safely to England.
By downplaying individual heroics and obvious sentiment in favor of a stoicism that reminds us of the old British platitude to keep a stiff upper lip, the film emphasizes the theme of strength through unity. For example, Bins's group of men work together to survive their trek across the open countryside of France; civilians work closely with the military to ensure the success of Operation Dynamo; and, the voice-over concludes by asserting that Britain had survived Dunkirk "alone but undivided, a nation made whole." The idea is suggested in smaller moments as well, as when a key character dies on the beach at Dunkirk. Someone asks, "Was he a civvie?" And Bins quietly answers, "What's the difference?" In other words, from this moment forward, all of Britain was behind the war, and everyone was a soldier.
Despite the depiction of ordinary soldiers and citizens acting bravely and responsibly, the film manages to criticize certain attitudes, institutions, and decisions in a forthright, honest manner. Prior to Dunkirk, the British citizenry is depicted as complacent, sluggish, and ignorant of the severity of world events, specifically through the character of Holden, the small business owner who actually benefits from the war but doesn't believe it to be valid. The film also offers an unflattering portrait of the British military, which blunders through the Low Countries, completely outmatched by the Germans. The best example is a clever scene in which music hall entertainers Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen sing the ditty "Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line," a propaganda tune that boasts of Allied plans to destroy the German defense line known as the Siegfried Line. The song is intercut with shots of an animated map that illustrates just the opposite: The Germans rapidly move across France and Belgium pushing the unprepared British into retreat. Confusion reigns on the battlefield, and French civilians are forgotten or ignored. Also, when civilians volunteer to join the evacuation effort, the top brass refuses at first, though the British navy clearly doesn't have the ships to rescue all of the soldiers. As Foreman the journalist notes near the end of the film, "What a shambles we've made of this whole rotten business."
Producer Michael Balcon was already a legendary figure in the British film industry at the time of Dunkirk's release. Balcon had produced many of Hitchcock's early English films before heading Ealing Studios from 1938 to 1959. Responsible for quirky comedies with eccentric characters that captured the essence of the British personality (The Lavender Hill Mob ; Whisky Galore ), Ealing distributed its highly popular films through Rank until 1955 when the studio was purchased by the BBC. After the sale, Ealing made fewer films and declined in prestige as it was consumed by television production, except for a handful of films that were distributed through MGM's British arm. By the end of the 1950s, the "Angry Young Men" of the new British cinema were garnering critical acclaim and box office success with a more naturalistic acting style than the previous generation's Royal Academy graduates; this movement reflected a preoccupation with urban, working class issues, and employed a gritty visual style. Ealing's focus on eccentric British types, use of theatrically trained actors, and preference for the whimsy of village life seemed out of touch in comparison.
In 1959, Balcon formed his own company, Bryanston Films, and in 1964, he took control of British Lion. His years after Ealing became a frustrating period in which he struggled to actually produce movies while handling the red tape of owning a studio and heading a distribution company.
Dunkirk, which Balcon claimed was the largest film he had ever produced in scope and scale, became one of the last projects he produced for Ealing. It was directed by Ealing regular Leslie Norman, and it featured a few of the studio's faithful actors in small bits. Patricia Plunkett plays a small role as Holden's whining wife, and Joss Ambler and Frederick Piper appear in uncredited parts as two of the civilian volunteers with boats. While not a comedy, and somewhat stolid in retrospect, Dunkirk manages to echo the best of Ealing in its devotion to the British spirit and its affection for uniquely British characters.
Producer: Michael Balcon with Michael Forlong
Director: Leslie Norman
Screenplay: W. P. Lipscomb and David Divine from the novel Dunkirk by Ewan Butler and J.S. Bradford and the novel The Big Pickup by Trevor Dudley Smith
Cinematography: Paul Beeson
Editor: Gordon Stone
Art Director: Jim Morahan
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Cast: Corporal Bins (John Mills), Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee), John Holden (Richard Attenborough), Grace Holden (Patricia Plunkett), Diana Foreman (Maxine Audley), General Viscount Gort V.C. (Cyril Raymond), Mike (Robert Urquhart), Barlow (Ray Jackson), Miles (Ronald Hines), Frankie (Sean Barrett), Dave Bellman (Meredith Edwards), Harper (Roland Curram), Medical Officer (Lionel Jeffries), Military Spokesman (Anthony Nicholls), Themselves (Flanagan and Allen).
BW-136m. Closed Captioning.
by Susan Doll
The following written statement was part of the film's opening credits: "We wish to acknowledge with gratitude the assistance received from The Admiralty, The War Office, Les Forces Armées Françaises, The Merchant Navy, Small Boat Owners." One of the two books on which the film was based, Dunkirk by Major J. S. Bradford, was also released under the title Keep the Memory Green. The British release version of the film ran 135-minutes. Approximately twenty minutes was cut for the U.S. release. The print viewed was the full 135-minute version. The film included newsreel footage and brief scenes from cartoons filmed during World War II. The opening cast credits differ slightly in order from the closing credits. Popular wartime British music hall performers Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen, part of comedic group the "Crazy Gang," appear briefly as themselves, performing their wartime hit "We're Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line."
Dunkirk was one of six films that were part of a financing package between M-G-M and producer Michael Balcon. For more information on the Ealing Films/M-G-M contract see the entry above for the 1957 film, Decision Against Time. The film was shot on location in France and at M-G-M's British Studios.
The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the harbor at Dunkirk, France has frequently been referred to as "the miracle of Dunkirk," a quote taken from the May 23, 1940 diary notation by Lt. Gen. Alan Brooke when British forces were pinned with their backs to the sea by the German army: "Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now." After several months of inactivity after the declaration of the war and the collapse of Poland in September 1939 (a period known as "the phony war" as noted in Dunkirk), Denmark and Norway fell to the Germans in April 1940. As shown in the film, with support for his policies dwindling within his own party, Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned and was replaced on 10 May by Winston S. Churchill. Between 10-20 May 1940 the German army invaded Holland and sent seven Panzer divisions sweeping through Belgium and France's purportedly impenetrable Maginot Line, forcing the Allied Forces to retreat southwestward. Holland surrendered on 14 May. The ease and speed of the German assault through the dense Belgium and France border made up of the Ardennes mountains and forests (which had defeated the German army in World War I) forced a change in the initial Allied plan to regroup southward and caused great confusion in the field. As demonstrated by the experience of the film's "Corp. Binns" and his squad, many groups of soldiers were cut off from their units and left to their own devices.
A devastating element used by the German Luftwaffe was the Junker 87 dive bomber, known as the "Stuka," which featured a harrowing shrieking alarm that sounded during each dive, causing mayhem and terror among the civilian refugees, further hampering Allied troop movements. As depicted in the film, BEF forces retreating along the lines that they had so recently advanced to enthusiastic civilian support, were derided by French and Belgian refugees.
While the retreat was in full swing, in London Churchill explored the possibility of evacuating the BEF from the beaches at Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. Not mentioned in the film was the crucial fact that on 24 May, after fierce fighting in Boulogne and Calais, Adolf Hitler called a halt to the German advance only ten miles from Dunkirk, partly due to the fear that his tanks would get bogged down in the coastal wetlands. The two days were critical to the British, as on 20 May the London war office implemented "Operation Dynamo," a plan for a then-partial evacuation of the BEF.
Dunkirk dramatized, in part, one of the most significant moments from the historical evacuation, which was the participation of the fleet of civilian ships. In mid-May 1940, a call from the British Admiralty went out to all owners of self-propelled pleasure crafts between 30 and 100 feet in length to register their ships, initially out of concern for a magnetic mine threat in the Channel. Vice-Admiral (Dover) Bertram Ramsey was put in charge of "Dynamo," with 36 vessels, mostly cross-channel ferries and some ferries, hoopers, trawlers, dredges, barges and coasters. When it became evident that the partial evacuation would be changed to a full evacuation, the "little ships," manned by their owners or other volunteers, were pressed into service by Ramsey. Sheerness, on the Thames estuary, was used as the collecting point for the craft, with Ramsgate as the final assembly point before heading across the channel to Dunkirk. The little ships lifted troops from the beaches stretching from Dunkirk eastward to the Belgian resort of La Panne, which were inaccessible to larger ships and ferried them to the waiting larger boats, often under continual bombardment. In many cases the small craft, some barely seaworthy, made several trips on their own between Dunkirk and Dover, often perilously overloaded, as dramatized by "John Holden's" Heron.
On 25 May, when Belgian forces collapsed to the east, Lord Gort made the critical decision to abandon his orders to continue fighting to the south, and while holding the Belgian line, sent the remaining Allied forces to the coast. As dramatized in the film, on 26 May British troops were ordered to destroy all transport vehicles and make for Dunkirk, the only available harbor that was already under heavy enemy aerial attack. That evening, the first ships arrived at Dunkirk harbor to pick up British troops and by the end of the evacuation on 4 Jun, 338,000 soldiers had been withdrawn from Dunkirk. Churchill himself later wrote that he did not believe more than 45,000 troops in total could be safely recovered. In his address to Parliament, Churchill referred to the operation as "the miracle of deliverance." The 224,686 rescued British troops formed the nucleus of the force that would win back the Continent over the ensuing five years, noted in the film's upbeat final scene of Binns and "Mike" drilling cheerfully.
In the film, a few British "Tommies" make bitter reference to the absence of the Royal Air Force during the constant Luftwaffe attacks on the beaches. The RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires defended the British coasts and made several daily raids across the channel throughout the evacuation, but not with any substantial strength until 1 Jun, in order to protect their limited resources needed for a possible forthcoming invasion. An aspect of the evacuation not addressed in Dunkirk was the necessity of several French (as well as British) units to hold against the resumed German advance to allow the thousands of Allied troops to withdraw to the beaches. Although over 120,000 French troops were also evacuated from Dunkirk, most on British ships, Belgium's surrender on 27 May and the disarray of the French government and army convinced Churchill that the rescue of the BEF must assume priority in order to prepare for the defense of Great Britain. Although Dunkirk shows a few French "poilus" embarking from the mole, no mention is made in the film of the French contribution of several ships to the Dunkirk evacuation. France surrendered to the Germans on June 22, 1940, leaving Great Britain to continue the conflict alone until December 1941. Although Dunkirk is referenced in several films, Dunkirk is the only film to detail the historical aspects of the battle and evacuation.
Released in United States March 1958
Released in United States Spring March 1958
Released in United States March 1958
Released in United States Spring March 1958