Even today, nearly eighty years on, the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation still resonates. Possibly it has something to do with the British character – the way that a crushing military defeat could be turned around into a moral victory – or maybe it’s the logistical scale of the rescue (some 340,000 British, French and Belgian troops snatched from the shoreline by a raggle-taggle collection of ships and boats).
The British Expeditionary Force had found itself in trouble as soon as they landed in France. The French army were in disarray, and although the BEF could boast substantial numbers, they were quickly outgunned and outmanoeuvred by the Germans. Viscount General Gort, commander of the BEF, therefore faced a stark choice – stand and fight (and face certain capture or death) or attempt to force a retreat back to the port of Dunkirk (where hopefully as many men as possible could be rescued and live to fight another day).
The story of their rescue (and the story of the men back in England who coordinated it) is retold in this three-part 2004 drama-documentary scripted by Alex Holmes, Neil McKay and Lisa Osborne and directed by Holmes. The drama-documentary is a curious beast – often it satisfies as neither a drama or a documentary – but Dunkirk fares better than most.
The authoritative tones of Timothy Dalton as the narrator certainly helps, as does the impressive list of players. Simon Russell Beale as Winston Churchill, Benedict Cumberbatch as Lt Jimmy Langley, Phil Cornwell as Harry Noakes and Kevin McNally as Major General Harold Alexander are amongst the familiar faces on show whilst an intriguing piece of casting sees Richard Attlee play his grandfather, Clement Attlee.
Casting was key to Dunkirk‘s success, with several actors offering eerily accurate recreations of familiar historical characters. Christopher Good as Neville Chamberlain for one, although he’s overshadowed (just as Chamberlain was in real life) by Simon Russell Beale’s towering Churchill. So many good actors have had a crack at playing Winston Churchill over the years (Brian Cox being the most recent) but Russell Beale really nails the man.
Russell Beale is never better than when, chairing a War Cabinet meeting, Churchill opines that “nations which go down fighting rise again. Those which surrender tamely are finished”. Later he tells his colleagues that “if this long island story of ours is to end, let it end only when each one of us is choking in his own blood upon the ground”. Russell Beale brings Churchill back to life with this classic and characteristic piece of oratory.
Alex Holmes would comment that Dunkirk wasn’t “revisionist but accurate. The notion that everyone leapt into boats at the drop of a hat to save their fellow man isn’t the whole story. There is great heroism but it is complex heroism”. This comment highlights one of the problems inherent in mounting any drama or documentary which attempts to examine the Dunkirk evacuation. Given the number of people who took part, it would clearly be wrong to treat them as simply a gestalt – they’re a group of individuals with diverse opinions and objectives.
Episode one – Retreat (original tx 18th February 2004) sees Churchill under pressure from his colleagues to sue for peace with Hitler. He refuses and orders the evacuation to begin. Private Alf Tombs (Clive Brunt) and his unit hold the Germans at bay for 48 hours, enabling many of their colleagues to escape, although this leads to their own capture. Tombs lived to tell the tale, although as he explains here, many of his comrades weren’t so fortunate. Meanwhile, Captain Bill Tennant (Adrian Rawlins), tasked with organising the operation on the ground, begins the evacuation. But when the Luftwaffe begin to attack in earnest, the situation looks grim.
Episode two – Evacuation (original tx 19th February 2004) finds the BEF on the coast of Dunkirk, awaiting rescue. But with so many men and too few ships, the Admiralty begins to requisition any craft they can find – including cockle fishing boats from Leigh-on-Sea. The heroic tale of one of the Leigh cockle boats – Renown – is featured heavily in this episode (further information on the Renown can be found here).
The final episode – Deliverance (original tx 20th February 2004) sees the embattered British still attempting to hold off the Germans. Although many troops have already been lifted off the beach, a considerable number still remain. This puts their lives in the hands of soldiers such as Lt Jimmy Langley (Benedict Cumberbatch) who attempts to delay the Germans for as long as possible. Although Langley is successful in buying more time for his colleagues he’s not so fortunate himself. Langley’s autobiography (reviewed here) looks to be a fascinating read, especially his post-Dunkirk activities.
The bare statistics of Operation Dynamo, which ran between the 27th of May and the 3rd of June 1940, are eye-opening. 338,226 troops were evacuated from Dunkirk (98,780 men were lifted from the beaches whilst 239,446 were taken from the harbour and pier). Out of the 936 ships which took part, 236 were lost and 61 were put out of action (the number of small boats who sailed on their own initiative will never be known).
Dunkirk manages to put these bald facts into perspective by concentrating on the human and heroic endeavours of that hellish week. It’s an absorbing and compelling tale brought to life across the three 60 minute episodes thanks to a mixture of fine performances and carefully selected archive footage. Arrow’s release contains all three episodes on a single DVD and – apart from subtitles – offers no additional special features. This is a slight shame, but the programme is the main thing. Dunkirk is an exceptionally well-crafted drama-documentary and comes warmly recommended.
Dunkirk is released by Arrow on the 10th of July 2017. RRP £15.99.