This has received very good reviews. I’m not 100% convinced. The last half an hour or so was good, but I didn’t feel that the film in general got across the scope of the Dunkirk evacuation; and surely that’s the thing about Dunkirk – the extent of it. The film told a small number of individual stories, and, OK, that’s what you expect in a film – and at least they didn’t turn it into a silly romance like they did with the Pearl Harbour film. But they needed to show just how many men were waiting to be evacuated, and how many little ships answered the call; and they didn’t. All right, I appreciate that they couldn’t very well have hired 350,000-400,000 extras, but surely they could have used some sort of technology to do big panoramic shots showing vast numbers of men on the beaches. Most of the time, it looked as if there were barely a few dozen there. And there only seemed to be one destroyer in action, a handful of fighter planes on both sides, and very few little ships. The Little Ships! How can you make a film about Dunkirk without showing just how many little ships were involved?
The individual stories were portrayed very well, though. In Dunkirk itself, we had the commander at “the mole”, faced with a seemingly impossible situation. There was only one site where it was possible for a large vessel to dock. The Wehrmacht were getting closer and closer, and the men on the beaches and any ship being loaded were sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe to aim at. In clear weather, you could see the British coast – so near, and yet so far. Not only so near for the men to be evacuated to, if only they could get across the English Channel safely, but also so near for the Germans to reach, with everyone fully expecting an invasion of Britain to be next. He was hoping to get around 35,000 men away. In the end, ten times that number were evacuated, and we saw him thanking some the civilians who’d made such a dangerous journey on their little ships, and then being one of the last to leave.
We also had a group of young soldiers, hoping desperately to get away – trying to dodge the bombs at Dunkirk, seeing men being killed all around them, and then being able to board a ship only for that to be bombed as well. It did get a bit too Boys’ Own-ish, as they then decided that they were going to try to find another vessel themselves, and got on board a Dutch boat whose owner had conveniently left it sitting on the beach whilst he waited for the tide to turn. Then there was a fight when they thought they’d found a German spy, but then it turned out that he was French, but then they got the needle about that as well. There was a definite whiff of Enid Blyton or Arthur Ransome about some of it, but, OK, it was a film, not a documentary.
Then there were the RAF pilots. This is probably the aspect of the Dunkirk evacuation which gets overlooked. You tend to think of it as the Army being evacuated by sea, with the RAF’s main role coming later, in the Battle of Britain – but the RAF played such a crucial role in the Dunkirk evacuation, engaging in terrifying dogfights as they tried desperately to stop the Luftwaffe from sinking the evacuation ships. At the end, as the soldiers arrived safely back in Britain, one of the RAF men was taken prisoner by the Germans.
And there was the little ship. I remember once, it must have been in the late ’80s or early ’90s, being on a day out somewhere and going on one of those boat trips you can do, an hour or so up and down a canal in a scenic spot, and seeing a plaque on this little pleasure boat, honouring it for having taken part in the Dunkirk evacuation. The story in the film was about that sort of ship – a little pleasure boat. The owner of the boat, whom we later found out had lost his eldest son early on in the war, set out for Dunkirk with two young lads, his younger son and one of his younger son’s friends. The son’s friend felt that he’d never achieved anything, and wanted to do something good. He ended up dying (after being knocked down by a shell-shocked soldier), but he was hailed a hero in the local press. If that sounds a bit cheesy, it isn’t – apparently there’s a true story about a young lad who felt like a failure, just wanted to do something good, died during the evacuations, and was hailed as a hero.
Again, it all got a bit Enid Blyton/Arthur Ransome-ish. In the middle of the Channel, they rescued first the shell-shocked soldier, who was sat on top of a shipwrecked boat, and then an RAF pilot who’d crashed. And made a lot of cups of tea. But the film did a very good job of showing the courage of people like that – civilians crossing the Channel in little ships which weren’t made for sea voyages even in ordinary times, never mind with the Luftwaffe circling overhead. They managed to get dozens of men – mostly our friends who’d tried to get the Dutch boat – on board, and bring them home safely.
That was well done. But, for the most part, the film didn’t really get across the sense of just how many little ships were involved. The Mersey ferry and the Kent paddle steamer, which went backwards and forwards several times. All the other little ships, like the one in the film. OK, it couldn’t really have shown them all, and I do appreciate that it’s hardly as if they crossed the Channel in convoy, but just a few shots of different people across the country, all answering the call and readying their ships for the voyage, could have got the message across so much better than the film actually did.
Then, with about half an hour to go, it felt like they’d finally got it. They actually showed a lot of men waiting, and the commander was looking out to sea with his telescope, and at first he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, and then the first of the flotilla of little ships hove into view, and a huge cheer went up from the men.
A lot of cups of tea were made. I don’t know if that was historically accurate, but I really hope it was! We then followed the little ship home, and saw the Dorset coast – the men were looking for the White Cliffs of Dover, but they actually landed in Dorset – and then we saw the men as they travelled by train through the countryside, through the green and pleasant land where little kids were playing near the track and, if you hadn’t known the danger that the country and the whole world were in, you wouldn’t have realised.
An elderly man was handing out supplies to the troops. One of them, not realising that the man was blind, thought that he wasn’t looking them in the eye because he was ashamed of them. They all thought that they were going to be regarded as failures who’d let everyone down. Then they saw crowds at the stations along the way, cheering them on, and realised that they’d come home to a heroes’ welcome, because, as one character said, they’d survived, and that was enough.
One of the young soldiers picked up a newspaper, and (this couldn’t actually have happened, because the speech wasn’t made until after the evacuation, but never mind, because it was an appropriate ending!) read aloud from it Churchill’s speech. The best-known part of that speech is so familiar that maybe you sometimes forget just how incredible it was: Churchill had to acknowledge that there’d been an absolute military disaster in France and the Low Countries, and that an invasion of Britain was probably going to be next, but inspire and encourage the nation at the same time, and he managed it. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
He also said that “wars are not won by evacuations”. The Allied forces had been driven right back to the Channel coast, less than a year after the war had started. The Nazis looked unstoppable. But they weren’t. And, without the Dunkirk evacuation … it doesn’t bear thinking about. We still use the term “Dunkirk spirit”. Wars don’t generally involve little civilian boats crossing the Channel, with the enemy airforce circling overhead, to rescue the troops.
I don’t think that this film really got across the scale of what happened, and I think it could and should have tried harder to do that. Think of the panoramic scene in Gone With The Wind, showing all the men lying wounded as the Battle of Atlanta rages. That film was made nearly 80 years ago. Surely, with today’s technology, it would have been possible to show how many men, ships and planes were involved? And surely they could have shown a few scenes of different people, in different parts of the country, all answering the call and heading off to Dunkirk on their little ships? The legendary, but very real, Little Ships. I don’t think this film really does them justice. Maybe I’m missing something, because it has had very good reviews; but, whilst I’m glad that a film has addressed this incredible story, I think it could have done better.