Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 28, 2020)
Almost 60 years before Christopher Nolan put his stamp on the subject, 1958’s Dunkirk examined the important World War II operation. As expected, the film takes us back to 1940 during the early days of the conflict.
As the German forces invade France, British units find themselves pushed back toward the English Channel. When Lieutenant Lumpkin (Kenneth Cope) dies in battle, Corporal “Tubby” Binns (John Mills) winds up in charge, and he does his best to deliver his men to safety.
In the meantime, England launches “Operation Dynamo”, an attempt to utilize civilian watercraft to save the trapped soldiers. These vessels try to make it to the French seaside city of Dunkirk to evacuate forces, a group that may include Corporal Binns and company.
Given the fame of the subject, surprisingly few movies about the Dunkirk evacuation have come into existence. Perhaps filmmakers feel a story about a retreat seems like too much of a downer, even if the operation in question became a massive success.
This means that although the 1958 and 2017 movies don’t exist as the sole entries on the subject, they stand as part of a small group. One assumes Nolan saw the 1958 flick before he made his, as it’d feel like cinematic malpractice otherwise, but the two films don’t seem much alike.
Actually, both share one trait: their split focus. The 2017 film seemed even more ambitious, as it focused on the evacuation from the air, sea and land, whereas 1958 sticks with sea and land.
2017 balanced those three domains pretty well, but 1958 struggles to blend the two competing narrative threads. In particular, 1958 tends to spend too much time in one domain to the exclusion of the other.
As such, we get so much of Corporal Binns and company that we forget about the seaborne civilians – until the two switch, and then the opposite concern emerges. While I feel glad the movie doesn’t flip between the two sides in a hyperactive manner, it still goes one way too long to the exclusion of the other.
I appreciate that 1958 offers a fairly unsentimental look at the subject. Sure, we get some echoes of the wartime spirit, a trend that seems inevitable given the era in which the film emerged.
After all, the 1958 flick hit screens 18 years after the actual events, and that left them active in the minds of most potential viewers. The temptation to make Dunkirk a heart-tugging piece of borderline propaganda must’ve been a factor.
Of course, the movie doesn’t just offer a dry recitation of events, so it attempts emotional issues. It manages these pretty well, though, and doesn’t turn the film into the cheesy melodrama it could’ve become.
A nice cast accentuates matters. In addition to future Oscar-winner John Mills, we find notables such as Bernard Lee and Richard Attenborough. They bring credibility to the project.
Although I don’t think the 1958 Dunkirk qualifies as a genre classic, it delivers a better than average war film. It gives us a good look at events and turns into a fairly winning tale.