Director: Leslie Norman
Script: David Divine & W. P. Lipscomb
Cast: John Mills, Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee, Robert Urquhart, Ray Jackson, Ronald Hines, Michael Bates, Eddie Byrne, Lionel Jefferies
Running time: 136 minutes
Year: 1958
Certificate: PG

With Christopher Nolan’s recent epic version of the Dunkirk story just out of cinemas, now’s a good time to check out the original movie version of the Dunkirk drama, directed by Leslie Norman (X, The Unknown, The Night My Number Came Up). Based on the novel The Big Pick-Up by Elleston Trevor and Dunkirk by Lt-Col Ewan Butler and Major J.S. Bradford MBE, 1958’s version of Dunkirk is a well-made and very authentic rendition of the rescue of much of the British army from the beaches at Dunkirk during the Summer of 1940.

With a fantastic cast, including the likes of John Mills, Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee and Robert Urquhart, the epic scope of this World War II drama is spectacularly brought to life without the aid of digital effects and green screen, a fact that makes Norman’s accomplishment here even more amazing.

Dunkirk follows the dramatic events leading up to Operation Dynamo, where upon the British Army attempted to rescue fellow soldiers and allied troops from Nazi-occupied France. Bernard Lee plays a disillusioned journalist looking for an angle for his paper, while John Mills plays a lower-ranking officer who ends up having to lead a motley band of soldiers from his regiment through war-torn France as they try and reach safety, only to find there is none! Lee and Attenborough end up using their own civilian boats to head over the English Channel to try and rescue the allied troops, who are being blown apart in large numbers as they await rescue on the beaches of Dunkirk.

Considering the film is a PG rating, I still found the level of violence and overall grimness high, so viewers beware if you think this might be the ‘family’ version of the events at Dunkirk to watch. Horrific events are still horrific, even if they are filmed in black and white, and feel less contemporary than Nolan’s more recent version.

Although the film is lengthy it never drags and the true story unfolding before one’s eyes captivates like few others. With some of the politics going on at the time this still feels of the now, and when Lee’s character says: ‘I hope somebody knows what they’re bloody doing’ it could easily relate to today’s dysfunctional world of politics and non-leadership.

The script writing is first rate, with even the tone of the gripping banter ringing true; dialogue that’s brought to vivid life by a superb assembly of actors, all at the top of their game. I, for one, was also chuffed to see Bernard Cribbins playing a thirsty sailor!

There are, however, a few minor issues – there’s some dodgy back-projection used early on, and there’s some clunky exposition between soldiers to try and fill in the viewer as to what’s happening.

The cinematography by Paul Beeson (Raiders of the Lost Ark) is excellent, a fact highlighted by this excellent new restoration of the film by the BFI. Additionally, the visual effects are all handsomely executed, particularly the explosions resulting in the whole-scale destruction of the rescue ships and Dunkirk’s piers. Plus, a mention must be made of all the stuntmen involved who did such a great job in what must have been tricky circumstances.

I’d certainly recommend that fans of war and historical films check out this earlier incarnation of the Dunkirk story, which portrays both the horrors and confusion of conflict superbly.

Dunkirk is being distributed by Studiocanal on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital download. A number of extras are included on the disc including:

An interview with actor Sean Barrett (22 mins) – Sean played the young boy on one of the civilian rescue boats and he reminisces about his time on the film. He remembers it being shot on the Shearness dockyard and at Camber Sands.

Dunkirk Operations Dynamo Newsreel (4 mins) – interesting, but badly damaged documentary footage from the time; although very much a propaganda piece for the allies.

Young Veteran (22 mins) – Another very allied-centric documentary that sets the background to Dunkirk and talks about how the whole of the UK was then being turned into a training ground for the Home Guard

John Mills home movie footage (10 mins) – Actor John Mills shot a lot of home movie footage while on the set of Dunkirk, of which this is some. This was taken from the BFI National Archive.

Behind the scenes gallery – 22 behind the scenes shots, including one of John Mills holding a fox!


4.5Overall Score
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About The Author

After a lengthy stint as a print journalist, Justin now works as a TV and film producer for Bazooka Bunny. He's always been interested in genre films and TV and has continued to work in that area in his new day-job. His written work has appeared in the darker recesses of the internet and in various niche publications, including ITNOW, The Darkside, Is it Uncut?, Impact and Deranged. When he’s not running around on set, or sat hunched over a sticky, crumb-laden keyboard, he’s paying good money to have people in pyjamas try and kick him repeatedly in the face.

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