“Dunkirk was a great defeat, and a great miracle.” For those who thought Christopher Nolan’s shattering summer spectacle could have benefitted from greater historical context need look no further than Leslie Norman’s epic wartime classic from 1958, which is now being re-released on DVD & Blu-Ray with a gorgeous 2k restoration.
A dramatisation of the dramatic events that led to Operation Dynamo, in which the British Army succeeded in rescuing over 300-thousand men from the shores of France, Norman tells his story from the duel perspectives of John Mills’ jaded Corporal, “Tubby” Binns, guiding what’s left of his troop through the French countryside in a bid to escape the Nazi onslaught, and Bernard Lee’s wearied journalist, a man fighting his own battle against those complacent voices back in Britain who blithely dubbed the conflict with Germany a “Phoney War”.
Similarly to Nolan’s film, the focused viewpoint here eschews any reference to the part played by other Allied forces in the build-up to the evacuation – although mercifully, this film doesn’t stroke the British ego quite so much. What does come through, though, is the sense of sacrifice made by those who fought for us, encapsulated most pointedly in the drained but determined strength of Mills’ commander, and viscerally amplified by the director’s use of stock footage to intensify the atmosphere.
The majesty of Malcolm Arnold’s orchestral score may initially suggest that this Dunkirk be a more factitious deconstruction of those events, but Nelson directs with a sombre tone that authentically captures the brutality faced by those on the frontline. An early sequence, in which we watch as a group of local civilians attempting to flee the occupation fall victim to German strafing, stands out in particular – Paul Beeson’s lens settling on the image of an innocent French country girl as she takes her final breath; a sad, stark reminder of war’s senseless cruelty.
Dunkirk (1958) is out on DVD, Blu-Ray, and available on Digital Download from September 25th