It's late spring in 1940, and English and French forces are perched on the Belgium border across from the waiting German armies. No one seems overly concerned at the build-up of German troops, and then the attack comes, waves of soldiers pushing the English and French back across France. The troops in mass retreat are just trying to stay one step ahead of the Germans on their heels. As the attack continues and the lines continue to collapse, a small sector near the port city of Dunkirk is all that remains for the Allied forces. Their backs against the sea, hundreds of thousands of troops wait for their ultimate destruction while back in England the home front attempts to organize a rescue. Hundreds of non-military boat and ship owners sail across the English Channel hoping to rescue as many troops as possible, but can they be rescued in time before the Germans overwhelm them?
Just on pure bravery and heroism, this is one of the most amazing stories to come out of WWII. Thousands of Allied soldiers were on the verge of being wiped out, and the home front organized this massive effort to save those troops. The beaches around Dunkirk were packed with troops and therefore wide open to air attacks by the German Luftwaffe. The ships coming to save them? Even more wide open and completely exposed to attack. Casualties were enormous among these heroic Englishmen and over 70 years later it is a story that is hard to comprehend in the simplicity of the bravery involved. Odds against them, these men and women risked it all to save others. If there's a better way to put it, I can't think of it.
This disastrous WWII campaign is told from two different perspectives. One is a British corporal, Cpl. Tubby Bins (John Mills), who finds himself in charge of a motley squad of British soldiers after the highest ranking officer around is killed. Two is the effort from private British citizens back in England organizing the rescue effort, seen through the eyes of a British newspaper reporter (Bernard Lee) and a factory owner (Richard Attenborough) who must balance out his fears with his desire to do what's right. It's a great balance because one or the other would have been effective, but combining the two gives a much bigger perspective of the scale involved. Thousands of soldiers were lost in the shuffle of the retreat, but seeing one man and a handful of soldiers puts it all in a very personal light.
I grew up watching John Mills as Father Robinson in Swiss Family Robinson so I've always been a fan. But the more I see him in dramatic roles, the more I like him as an actor, not just a great memory from growing up. His Corporal Bins is another great character for him. Slight in stature, Mills is no super-soldier gunning down legions of German troops. He's a regular guy thrust into an unlikely leadership position. Robert Urquhart plays Pvt. Mike along with Ray Jackson and Meredith Edwards as some of the soldiers under Bin's command. The 'lost patrol' aspect of the story was my favorite part as Bins' squad makes their way back across France dodging Luftwaffe strafes and roaming German patrols.
Still strong but not quite as strong is the build-up to the sea rescue. Lee and Attenborough balance each other out, Lee willingly to volunteer to commit his small boat to the effort, Attenborough not so sure about committing so much. Now this is a British-made movie about a British disaster so you can figure out that in the end everyone gets a chance to redeem themselves. That said, the performances from these two class-act actors are top notch. Subtle in their effectiveness without any big theatrics, both characters let their actions speak louder than any words could.
What was most impressive was the depiction of the Dunkirk beaches packed to the gills with waiting British troops. Thousands of extras were used to show just how crowded this long stretch of beach really was. The problem is that the last 30 or 40 minutes get a little tedious in showing how hopeless the situation is. At a certain point it's just beating us over the head. The end is an uplifting one though, especially knowing that the heroism displayed by soldier and civilian alike ends up helping turn the tide of war. Also worth pointing out, Malcolm Arnold's musical score seems like a rehash of his 'River Kwai' score. Minor complaint in an above average look at a military disaster that could have been a debacle.
Dunkirk <---trailer (1958): ***/****