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Film / Dunkirk (1958)

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"Dunkirk was a great defeat, and a great miracle."
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Dunkirk is a 1958 film from Britain directed by Leslie Norman.

It is about, yes, Operation Dynamo, the desperate evacuation of the British Army from the port of Dunkirk in late May and early June, 1940. There are two narrative threads. The first involves newspaper reporter Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) and small factory owner John Holden (Richard Attenborough). Foreman is quite cynical about the lackadaisical British war effort (in the period called the "Phoney War" the British hardly fired a shot in Europe for eight months after the declaration of war) and the lack of engagement among Britons on the home front. One of the people Foreman disapproves of is his neighbor Holden, who is making a killing manufacturing belt buckles for the British Army but otherwise is a typical British civilian, wondering what the point of the war is in the first place. As it turns out, both Foreman and Holden own yachts, and after only a couple of weeks of combat in France the BEF finds itself in desperate need of anything that can float...

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The second narrative thread centers on Corporal "Tubby" Binns (John Mills) and his little squad of soldiers in Belgium, fighting the Germans. The military situation has already deteriorated badly when Tubby and his troop are sent to dynamite a bridge to slow down the advance of the Germans in their sector. The troop makes it back to camp only to find out that the rest of their unit has already left, as the whole of the BEF is in retreat. Things get worse when, right after they get back, a Luftwaffe squadron on a strafing run destroys their truck and kills their only officer. Corporal Binns, now in command, has to lead seven men on a desperate journey on foot northwards.

The next-to-last film made by Ealing Studios, better known for making black comedies. Compare Christopher Nolan's 2017 epic, Dunkirk, and the 1964 French film Weekend at Dunkirk.

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  • As You Know: Dave wonders why the British are leaving their prepared positions in France to enter into Belgium; another soldier tells him that they're advancing to the "Dyle Line" (the River Dyle) to take position on the left wing of the French. (In Real Life this half-baked idea to advance into Belgium on short notice was a major cause of Allied defeat.)
  • Bittersweet Ending: Britain has suffered an embarrassing defeat and lost its ally, France. Foreman is dead. Binns's squad suffered at least one man killed, had to abandon a badly wounded comrade the Germans, and lost a third man on the beach when he's badly wounded, but the rest of them made it back home. Holden found increased self-respect. The people of Britain are overjoyed to get their boys back safe, and England will fight on.
  • Blood from the Mouth: A grievously wounded British soldier asks Binns how badly he's wounded, then says it can't be too badly, as he doesn't feel anything. He dribbles Blood from the Mouth as he says this, however, and promptly dies.
  • The Cameo: British vaudevillians Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen appear as themselves, in a vaudeville show, singing patriotic song "We're Going to Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line"—this interspersed with maps showing the rapidly deteriorating situation in Belgium and France.
  • Drawing Straws: The doctors and medics on the beach draw lots to see who will stay behind with the soldiers too badly wounded to evacuate. One of the doctors is named Levy.
  • It's Raining Men: A Stock Footage clip of German paratroopers is used to illustrate the Nazi advance into Belgium.
  • It Will Never Catch On: A civilian craft that looks like a ferry has been dragooned by the Royal Navy. When one of the sailors wonders if they're going to be rescuing the BEF, his captain says "Take an army off the beaches? Don't be a fool, James!"
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: With a dash of And the Adventure Continues, as Tubby and Mike, still in the army, do some more drill then march away on a parade ground.
  • Plunger Detonator: Tubby pushes a plunger detonator to blow a bridge. This is why his unit gets separated, the others having already bugged out by the time Lt. Lumpkin leads the platoon back.
  • Refuge in Audacity: At one point Binns and the squad finds their way blocked by a long convoy of Germans on a road. Unable to find a way around, Binns and the gang march through the Germans, timing their walk for a moment when Stukas are flying overhead and most of the German soldiers are looking up. It works, although the noise they make when they're killing a German sentry on the far side draws enemy attention, and they have to run for it for a while.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Cheery vaudevillians sing peppy patriotic song "We're Going to Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line", while maps appear onscreen showing the Germans advancing, punching a huge hole in the Allied lines, and wheeling to the Channel to trap the British in Belgium and northern France.
  • Spot of Tea: Well what else are the folks on the pier going to offer the ragged British soldiers disembarking in England?
  • Spreading Disaster Map Graphic: A series of maps show spreading black as the Germans flood into the Netherlands, enter Belgium, break through the middle of the Allied lines, and advance to the English Channel.
  • The Squad: A corporal, and a half-dozen soldiers, separated from the rest of the army, without an officer, trying to make it to safety on foot.
  • Stock Footage: A British World War II movie made in 1958, so quite a bit. The film opens with a March 1940 British newsreel recounting a meeting between Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud. Scattered throughout the film are bits of stock footage, like Stukas in flight as Binns and his men are bombed and strafed, as well as a stock footage clip of a road to Dunkirk littered with abandoned British trucks, mixed in with Binns and his men as they trundle north on a soon to be abandoned truck.
  • Stuka Scream: Heard repeatedly as Stukas bomb and strafe the BEF. At one point Binns and the squad leave an artillery unit that has been told to hold out. The squad has only marched a short way away when Stukas show up and wipe out the artillery unit.
  • That's an Order!: At one point the men are sleeping in a farmhouse when Binns, desperate to put some more space between them and the Germans, rouses them all. They refuse to get up and talk about surrendering to the Germans. After Mike, who has sort of become The Lancer, tells Binns that they're his responsibility, Binns starts barking at the men again and says "That's an order!" He succeeds in getting them marching.
  • Tokyo Rose: Holden is annoyed at his wife for listening to Lord Haw-Haw (German propagandist William Joyce) but Mrs. Holden wonders if maybe Haw-Haw is telling the truth. (At that moment Haw-Haw was telling the truth, about the debacle the British Army was suffering, at least.)
  • Took a Level in Badass: Holden, the soft civilian who was reluctant to turn over his boat—he had it shortened by six inches so it would be under the 30-foot requirement for registration—is shamed into going along with the Little Ships. He then braves German bombing, fishes Foreman out of the sea after Foreman's yacht is sunk, and rescues Binns's squad and a half-dozen other soldiers from the beach before they are picked up by a destroyer. When they disembark and the man on the pier says "Soldiers to the left!", Holden smiles and says "Soldiers."
  • Trust Password: Binns and the squad run into a British motorcyclist. The motorcyclist, who wants to make sure they aren't Germans, says "Who is top of the [English Football] League this year?"
  • You Are in Command Now: Binns is rather startled to find himself in charge after Lt. Lumpkin is killed in a strafing run. He grouses about never wanting a corporal's stripes in a first place, and nearly has a mutiny when his tired comrades want to give up and surrender, but he rises to the occasion.
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