Ealing’s penultimate film (and one of its longest, at 130 minutes) is a return to the wartime spirit that energised much of the studio’s 1940s output. Unlike the more propagandist notes struck in a range of films, from The Big Blockade (1942) and San Demetrio, London (1943) to The Ghost of St Michaels (1941) and The Foreman Went to France (1942), this is a retrospective look at the early period of the Second World War rather than one mired in contemporary uncertainty. While it is not entirely successful – the film does drag in places, much of the dialogue (particularly that given to Bernard Lee) is declamatory and expositional, while some of the performances feel perfunctory – it is hardly the valorisation of the British army that Balcon set out to make. Indeed, its dramatisation of the horrors of Dunkirk is arguably more effective than the more recent attempt in Atonement (2007), in part because of the length of time the film spends in that location, and its use of widescreen composition to sell the vast numbers stranded there.
It still feels strange to see an Ealing film that opens with the roars of the MGM lion – it is also an ‘Ealing Film’ rather than ‘Ealing Studios’ because of the move away from its traditional home in Ealing (a studio taken over by the BBC). It feels like a partial colonisation of Michael Balcon’s claim that Ealing films existed to project Britishness, if that Britishness was actually being bankrolled by an American studio. As Sue Harper and Vincent Porter have noted, MGM hoped to make money from the deal, not revitalise the flagging fortunes of Balcon, Ealing or British film culture more widely. (Harper & Porter 2003, 69) While they also describe this film as ‘emotionally frozen,’ I can’t help thinking that’s an unfair assessment of what can be an impressive piece of filmmaking.
There are moments where the film feels creatively powerful and distinct: montage sequences at the beginning (clips from contemporary newsreels being ‘watched’ by members of the British Expeditionary Forces, including Corporal ‘Tubby’ Bins (John Mills); a compilation of images and scenes that narrate the German advance over a Flanagan and Allen music hall song), an impressive use of widescreen throughout, and a strong soundtrack. The use of widescreen by director of photography Paul Beeson creates often inspired framing and composition – the lines of soldier wading out into the sea off Dunkirk beach stretches the full length of the vertical rectangle of the screen; there are sweeping vistas of the French and Belgian landscapes with refugees fleeing the German advance (and, later, being mown by Luftwaffe strafing); and an aerial attack on a British position features a series of explosions moving left to right across the screen (in many ways reminiscent of similar scenes in Apocalypse Now). Certain aspects of the set design also utilise the wider screen: for example, the cavernous sets that represent the Ministry of Information. Yet this can also work to the film’s disadvantage, when a shot in the local pub frequented by journalist Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) and businessman John Holden (Richard Attenborough) casts them adrift in an unfeasibly large lounge bar.
So, the film features some stylistically powerful images and knows how to construct suitably tense sequences: the chaos on the Dunkirk beach as the Germans attack (featuring some nice mobile camera work through the dunes), an attack by a German patrol on Bins’ small group of stragglers in a farmyard, and several aerial bombardments. While some of that visual work sits alongside elements of the emotional restraint that Harper & Porter refer to, there are also scenes of men breaking down, arguing, sending others to their death, confronting their fears. Given the subject matter, and the fact the film spends around half its running time stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, it is perhaps not surprising that its vision of the British armed forces is more nuanced than the requisite stiff upper lip. With the benefit of hindsight, the film uses the figure of Foreman to criticise figures in the Admiralty, Ministry and government, for not being better prepared for a war with Germany. Yet this work is also clumsily presented – Lee is almost fatally lumbered with long exposition and enlightened opinion to deliver, so much so that it is almost a relief when he dies on the Dunkirk beach.
But it is not all retrospective ‘if only’: Holden is presented as an ordinary man who doesn’t believe he has a role to play in the war, and takes openly of the ‘phoney war.’ While the film narrative redresses his earlier opinion (and seeming cowardice) by having him sail his small boat to Dunkirk to rescue stranded soldiers (including Mills’ Bins and his men), it is made clear that Holden’s opinion is by no means an isolated one. Yet the main difficulty with Holden as a character is that the reasoning behind his actions is never entirely clear, driven by self-interest, guilt and peer pressure in varying degrees: the fact he is supposed to be an older, comfortable man is also undercut slightly by the obviously youthful Attenborough in a fake moustache and glasses. Of course, by the close, Horden is a hero of Dunkirk, working alongside Bins in a new spirit of togetherness: as the final voiceover notes, “no longer were there fighting men and civilians... A nation had been made whole.”
Of course, women are not really mentioned in that statement, particularly as the civilians pictured are the male boat owners, not the wives waiting at home. Balcon famously demanded that female roles were reduced in this film, to allow the focus to be on the fighting men: a decision that means only two women are featured (not counting the bathing beauties in one of the newsreel clips, and the mute French and Belgian women among the refugees). These women – Diana (Maxine Audley) and Grace (Patricia Plunkett) – are, respectively, the wives of Foreman and Holden. Their roles are diametrically opposed however, in that Diana is calm and supportive, while Grace is shrill and demanding, a new mother who demands that Holden never leaves her and the baby. This moment, when Holden is asked to make his promise, appears to be the catalyst that changes Holden from a neutral observer out for his own gain down the path towards cooperation and togetherness. And because he is ‘made whole’ by Dunkirk and interaction with the fighting men, the film apparently feels no need to show us his family again.
As for ‘Tubby’ Bins, the film stresses a couple of times that it the knowledge of his wife back home that drives his desire to return to Britain, but we learn very little else about Bins’ motivations – perhaps representative of Balcon’s desire to show the British in a strong and dignified way. However, that argument falls down again through the behaviour of Bins’ patrol (he reluctantly takes over when the ranking officer is killed), who at one point refuse to obey him (‘they’ve gone yellow’), and almost mutiny when he is forced to leave a wounded man behind to be captured. Mills’ performance also fuels the more emotional side of Bins’ – a face perpetually caught between youthful vigour and world weary ennui, expressive even when his dialogue and character isn’t. His quest is a small odyssey, dragging the remains of his unit through the countryside, aiming for home and reaching Dunkirk.
For all that Balcon wanted to show the British army in a good light, the film doesn’t pull its punches: the higher officer class are shown to be largely ineffective, the Ministry of Information is a faceless organisation that won’t reveal pertinent information, the Navy pull ships away from the evacuation (although a stroppy Vice Admiral Ramsay – Nicholas Hannen – manages to get them back for one final attempt). Yes, the ordinary soldier is valorised, but they are not simply faceless and undifferentiated: in the chaos of the Dunkirk beaches, men turn to God and drink, some panic and want to give up, others debate what should happen next. Most often, while the film wants to praise togetherness, it is actually individual action that saves the day – officers sacrificing themselves, Bins’ determination, and Foreman’s guilting of Holden into action.
As for the Germans, they are rarely seen, but more often heard. One of the strengths of the film is its soundtrack: the German guns, planes and bombs are the most dominant noises throughout the film. The harsh bark of machine gun fire, the low drone of unseen Luftwaffe above, the thunder of explosions – these are the face of the enemy throughout Dunkirk. German soldiers are seen, but it is the sense of the might of an unseen force powering through France and Belgium that the film most effectively dramatises.
Overall, then, this late Ealing effort has issues, but contains some fascinating stylistic and narrative ideas that make it worth viewing.
Next time, from the tragedy of war to the comedy of Benny Hill in Who Done It? (1956)...