Dunkirk (1958): Leslie Borman’s Tale of WWII Galiant Defeat, Starring John Mills and Richard Attenborrogh

Leslie Norman directed Dunkirk, a British movie about the crucial and risky evacuation during WWII, starring John Mills, Richard Attenborough, and Bernard Lee.

I have finally seen this film today, June 6, on TCM, when they commemorated the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

The film is based on the novels The Big Pick-Up by Elleston Trevor and Dunkirk, authored by Lt. Col. Ewan Butler and Major J. S. Bradford.

Th tale begins when newspaper reporter Charles Foreman cannot rouse his complacent readers on the home front from the luring notion of “Phoney War” before it is too late.

John Holden (Richard Attenborough, who later became a director), who owns a factory manufacturing buckles, is satisfied with his profits from the “Phoney War.”

In May 1940, the battle begins when the Germans invade the country, threatening to trap the Allied forces in Northern France and overwhelm them.

British soldier Corporal “Tubby” Binns (John Mills), his platoon leader Lieutenant Lumpkin, and a depleted section return to camp after blowing up a bridge, only to discover that their company has pulled out during the night, leaving them behind alone.

One man and a lorry have been left to wait for them, but the driver and Lumpkin are killed in a German air attack, leaving Tubby in charge of a small and confused squad. One of Tubby’s major goals is to keep his demoralized men on the move.

After dodging the Germans and reaching a Royal Artillery battery camp, they get food, but lose Private Frazer while repelling a German column. They are then ordered to head north with two other stragglers in order to connect with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

The party spends the night in a farmhouse, but at dawn a German patrol breaks in and Private Dave Bellman is shot in the chest, forcing Tubby to leave him behind; it’s Bellman’s only chance of receiving medical attention.

Eventually, they encounter a Royal Air Force lorry and get a lift to Dunkirk, joining the rest of the BEF and thousands of French soldiers, all hoping to be evacuated.

Foreman insists on taking his motorboat Vanity, despite the danger, and other boat owners follow, including Holden and his boat Heron.

The soldiers on the beaches are subjected to aerial bombing and strafing. Tubby and his men get aboard a ship, but it’s blown up and sunk.

Back to the beach, Pte Barlow is shot and taken to the aid station. After ferrying soldiers to larger vessels, Foreman’s boat is destroyed by a bomber but he survives. When Heron’s engine breaks down, Private Mike Russell, one of Tubby’s men, makes the repairs.

There’s an impressive tracking shot of two British Army officers, Foreman and Tubby, discussing the issue of who’s responsible for the debacle. In the background, the viewer can make out Rye Church and old warehouses, still extant.  Then, after a Sunday morning church parade, Foreman is fatally wounded.

In the end, Holden, Tubby and the other men arrive safely back in Britain. An impersonal narrator then informs the viewers that while Dunkirk was a defeat, it was also a valiant one, uniting soldiers and civilians in unprecedented ways.

Dunkirk was difficult to produce logistically, considering its low budget of only £400,000.

World premiering at the Empire, in London’s Leicester Square, on March 20, 1958, Dunkirk was was the second most popular picture in the U.K., though it was not very commercial in the U.S., earning only $310,000.  The film performed much better internationally, grossing $1,750,000.

John Mills as Cpl. “Tubby” Binns
Richard Attenborough as John Holden, proprietor of a garage and workshop
Bernard Lee as Charles Foreman
Robert Urquhart as Pte. Mike Russell
Ray Jackson as Pte. Barlow
Meredith Edwards as Pte. Dave Bellman
Denys Graham as Pte. Fraser
Maxine Audley as Diana Foreman, Charles’s wife
Michael Shillo as Jouvet, French reporter
Patricia Plunkett as Grace Holden, John’s wife