Keith has already written about his response to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and I don’t really want to repeat or contest any of the points he raised. Keith is very concerned about formats for viewing and since Dunkirk exists in several different formats, I should note that I saw it at the Dukes Cinema in Lancaster in what I believe is the most commonly seen format, a standard DCP. I reviewed the 1958 version a few weeks back and immediately after the Lancaster screening I watched the BBC documentary The Other Side of Dunkirk from 2004 (see below for a YouTube link) and tried to explore the evidence about what actually happened in late May/early June 1940.
I’m not as much of a fan of Christopher Nolan as it seems most film critics and many ‘frequent cinemagoers’ clearly are. I’ve previously seen three of his films and none of them won me over completely, though I recognised the talent and the vision of the filmmaker. I don’t think his version of the Dunkirk story has changed my view very much, though it is clearly a technically well-produced and well-researched film and some of the action sequences show real visual flair. Nolan was interviewed by Nick James in Sight & Sound last month (August 2017 issue) and his answer to the question “Why ‘Dunkirk’?” seems to be because it is a British story that hasn’t been told on the big screen “in the vernacular of modern cinema”. James seems then to have inserted in parentheses “since the Leslie Norman version in 1958”. Later he does it again. Does Nolan not know about the 1958 Ealing Studios version? Perhaps it isn’t ‘modern’ enough to count? More pertinent perhaps is that Nolan doesn’t mention Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel Atonement released in 2007. Though that film isn’t about the ‘Operation Dynamo’ (the British codename for the evacuation) as such, there is a lengthy sequence set during the wait for evacuation from the town which Wright re-created on the beach at Redcar, including a sequence shot in the Regent cinema which juts out onto the beach. The sequence included one of the most audacious tracking shots I’ve ever seen, across the whole beach and lasting more than 5 minutes. It helped Seamus McGarvey win an Oscar Nomination for Best cinematography and Atonement went on to make over $100 million worldwide. Nolan must remember it? In a recent post I discussed Their Finest (UK 2016) in which the ‘film within a film’ was about two women who took their father’s boat to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation. This fictitious film production to a certain extent refers back to an Ealing film of 1942 called The Foreman Went to France, which again, thought not directly about Dunkirk was about rescuing equipment during the retreat by the BEF (the British Expeditionary Force) in 1940.
Christopher Nolan seems very much a part of Hollywood and has never really been identified with British cinema – but it would be good if he knew more about it. Instead, his reference point seems to be Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a film which certainly changed expectations about how the Second World War could appear on screen. Many veterans have attested to the ‘emotional realism’ of the scenes on the beaches of Normandy. This, they said, is how it felt to be there. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t seem to have achieved quite as much, but since I’ve not watched it all the way through I’ll resist making any other comments. The important point is that Nolan has done his own research on the evacuation at Dunkirk and has written his own script. He has also enlisted a military historian as an adviser. His intention appears to be to offer audiences an ‘immersive experience’ using IMAX and 65mm film (and keeping CGI to a minimum). Audiences are invited to experience the action from different viewpoints: the soldiers on the beach, the pilot in his Spitfire, the naval commander on the bridge and the ‘citizen sailors’ in the small boats. Nolan has also said that he isn’t aiming for Spielberg’s terrible violence but instead for the suspense of survival. Will the men get away? What does it feel like on the exposed beach looking out for your rescuer? Nolan isn’t making a war movie as such and he isn’t interested in the generals back in their operations rooms. Ironically, it seems like his approach is in certain ways not unlike that in the Ealing film 60 years earlier (which was based on two novels). In other ways it is very different.
The Dunkirk myth
The central question for me concerns the myth of Dunkirk – the initial ‘spinning’ of defeat into a propaganda victory and the persistence of aspects of that initial spin that have remained in British culture for seventy years and have been utilised by the Brexiteers. ‘Myth’ plays an important role in film and media studies as a concept referring to those stories that become embedded in the culture of specific communities. The concept originally referred to the stories of gods and heroes in classical civilisation but modern myths have a similar function in keeping certain values and ideals in circulation but now more often through mass media circulation (and now social media circulation) instead of an oral tradition. Because myths develop through repetition, the original stories/histories may still be retained in terms of core meanings, but much of the contextual meaning is lost. The myth of Dunkirk becomes reduced to a ‘united British people, prepared to fight on alone, having escaped from Europe despite betrayal by allies’ in the cause of Brexit rather than the triumph of co-operation between allies’.
Nolan’s claims for a suspense film rather than a war movie has some justification, though at times I felt that the best generic description might be the ‘disaster movie’, especially during the sequences in which men jumped from sinking ships. There are indeed no generals and politicians, but I was surprised by the film’s resolution which achieved some emotional moments which lead into the myth. The opening half of the film has relatively little dialogue but the closing stages seem quite wordy, especially around the evacuated soldiers’ sense of wonder that instead of being seen as ‘failures’ their survival makes them ‘heroes’. I’m not suggesting that this suggestion about how the survivors felt isn’t ‘accurate’ or ‘true’ and the 1958 film includes some of the same sentiments, but in the Nolan film’s case it sits alongside the lack of any political or historical context. It is these omissions which help to shore up the myth. The film is a co-production, shot on the main beach at Dunkirk and also including studio and location work in the UK, US and the Netherlands, but apart from a single ship’s captain, the Dutch don’t appear and the French, though present in some scenes, are acknowledged only by Kenneth Branagh’s Naval officer as needing to be evacuated. In reality, out of the 330,000 men evacuated, more than a third were French and other nationalities (Belgians in particular). It was a French force of 40,000 that protected the outer perimeter of Dunkirk and had to be left behind leading to surrender to German forces.
One of Nolan’s problems is that, having decided on the ‘authenticity’ of using the modern Dunkerque and its main beaches as his principal location, and eschewed too much CGI, it became very difficult to convey the complete devastation of the town during the ten days of evacuation. As a result (and this also applies to the UK locations) the film seems to exist in a kind of limbo land between ‘realism’ and the fantasy more familiar in Nolan’s other blockbusters. The lack of World War Two aircraft available to filmmakers is another problem, so the aerial warfare is presented as almost a personal battle (which it no doubt was for individual pilots) involving two or three aircraft rather than representing the frequent bombing raids on the beaches by groups of aircraft. The RAF lost around 150 aircraft during Operation Dynamo and a similar number of German aircraft were downed.
The 1958 film faced similar problems but its greater length (134 minutes against Nolan’s 106 minutes, but watch out for severely cut versions) allowed director Leslie Norman to stage scenes in the UK and in Northern France before the retreat to Dunkirk. These sketched in British attitudes to the ‘phoney war’ up to May 1940 and at the end of the film he managed to undercut the myth-making to some extent by emphasising the military defeat as well as the spirit of resistance. Nolan includes several scenes within the chaotic events on the beach which suggest how British soldiers felt (e.g. the soldiers who try to board a hospital ship and are thrown off), but the focus on the individual stories and the ‘immersion’ of the audience in the action scenes through music and cinematography works against a distanced take on the context.
My main fear is that American audiences and younger audiences in the UK will not learn the history of what happened from Nolan’s film and that the myth of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ will be understood in its narrowest sense of ‘Britain alone’ in defiance of Hitler – which will sustain the Brexiteers. The real context, in which Britain became a base for troops (and crucially for airmen and women) from other European nations and from the British overseas empire, will not be understood. The ‘little ships’ and the civilian sailors were at the centre of the myth-building because their stories appealed directly to the British public. But though they certainly played a vital role, especially in the shallow waters of the beach evacuations, the majority of men were evacuated by British and French naval ships or requisitioned ships sailed by crews commanded by Royal Navy officers. The myth was important for British propaganda in maintaining morale in a crucial period of the war, but its persistence is not helpful in the modern context.
For the record, in the format I watched, I enjoyed some of the cinematography (though I don’t understand the seemingly blue-green emphasis in the colour palette) but the music irritated instead of drawing me in. Nolan’s well-known penchant for playing with narrative time I found confusing and ultimately self-defeating. None of the soldiers on the beach are introduced and though the young actors were very good in their roles, I couldn’t easily tell one from another (and I have seen some of them before). In yesterday’s Guardian, the Northern Editor Helen Pidd says the film was a ‘snooze’ in the tiny cinema where she saw it. Perhaps Nolan’s film is really an IMAX entertainment? I wonder how it will work on TV? Since it looks like breaking a few box office records, it will have to be taken seriously, but I think the 1958 film is better at representing the story of the evacuation.
YouTube and other internet sources offer several interpretations of Nolan’s Dunkirk, several setting out the problems with the film and addressing them from sometimes widely different political positions. I was also interested to see the Indian claims that Indian Army involvement in the evacuation is not mentioned – I haven’t been able to find the evidence for this apart from one archive photo. The BBC documentary is useful in discussing the way the British myth has been seen by a range of French and German historians as well as the British. In my research I’ve also come across the story of a young Royal Canadian Navy officer, Sub-Lieutenant Robert W. Timbrell, who made several trips across to Dunkirk as the master of a requisitioned yacht. He was responsible for saving 900 men and his exploits sound even more fantastical than Nolan’s script. There is a lot more to say about the myth of Dunkirk and at least Christopher Nolan’s film has started a conversation.
Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening this M-G-M film in 35mm on Saturday August 5th. This is a delightful musical comedy starring Julie Andrews as Victoria (the key club performer in the film), James Garner as King Marchand (a Chicago Club Owner visiting Paris) and Robert Preston as Toddy, (a Paris night club performer). What makes the film especially effective is the way that it plays with cross-dressing, a classic source of comedy on film.
The film was scripted and directed by Blake Edwards with music by Henry Mancini. The production is presented with excellent style and captures a certain image of Parisian night life. The cast, both leading players and supporting actors, are excellent and convincing in the role-playing within role play. The musical numbers are performances in Parisian night clubs including the raunchy Chez Lui.
In fact the film is adapted from a successful 1933 German musical comedy, Viktor und Viktoria, produced by UFA. It was written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel, who later left for Hollywood. Another to-be émigré in a supporting role is Anton Walbrook. This original version is
a musical comedy greatly influenced by the American model, with its choreographed sequences and parades, clusters of pretty girls that open up like bunches of flowers, . . . (Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue 2004).
But it also retains some of the ironic treatment of gender representations that was rife in the earlier Weimar cinema, though more discreetly. The 1982 American version has little of the 1930s musical treatment, its offerings more like that of then contemporary musicals such as Cabaret (1972).
There was a English-language remake in 1935, long before this form became a staple of Hollywood output. The film was directed by Victor Saville for Michael Balcon and starred Jessie Matthews. Set in the British Music Hall the film is less risqué than either the German original or the later Hollywood adaptation. It was screened earlier in the year at the National Media Museum, but from video. A shame as the BFI do have a 35mm print. The publicity was also feint, hence I missed it. There was an interesting accompanying exhibition using photographs from the Daily Herald archive, but that was also little publicised.
Hopefully people will pick up on the screening of this latest version and turn up for what will be a very entertaining two hours plus. (134 minutes in colour and ‘Scope ratio).
For Those in Peril is perhaps the best example of the Ealing Studios wartime propaganda film. It’s a very short feature at 64 mins, just long enough to appear in a double bill as a B feature and, although featuring serving armed forces personnel, it does have two well-known professional actors in the lead roles so the film mixes documentary and feature film elements. The main purpose of the film is seemingly to introduce audiences to a little-known role for the RAF, working in collaboration with the Royal Navy. The outcome of the fictional narrative is, however, more problematic and not an obvious choice for a propaganda film.
The film’s title immediately refers to the possibility of lives lost a sea, but in this case of aircrew rather than sailors. The RAF in wartime was supplied with high speed launches (HSL) designed to find aircrew forced to ditch their planes over water. (The film’s opening sequence carefully explains why this was necessary.) The establishment of these units led to friendly rivalry with RN units who had bigger boats with more firepower but slower speeds. The film’s location seems to be Shoreham – although for obvious reasons this isn’t signified. David Farrar plays the F/Lt Murray, RAF officer in command of three launches and the fictional narrative involves the arrival of Pilot Officer Rawlings (Ralph Michael – an established actor and serving airman) who sees his posting as possibly ‘beneath’ him since he insists he should be flying. Murray is an experienced master of small boats since before the war and he tries to gently turn Rawlings’ truculence into something more positive – and gives the junior officer some harsher words when necessary. After a few exercises involving the launches joining naval craft, the film’s action sequences begin with an RAF Boston bomber being shot down over the channel. The three crew manage to launch their inflatable dinghy and their position is notified to air-sea rescue. Murray takes two launches and the larger (and slower) naval vessel follows. A Walrus seaplane is also launched. Three problems face the rescuers – thick fog, the presence of an armed German trawler and the minefield which the aircrew and their dinghy have entered.
The intriguing aspect of the narrative is its potential propaganda. The central narrative involves Rawlings and his development in a moment of crisis so that he can take command when needed with the support of his crew (who are capable and have been well led by Murray). The other propaganda message is that aircrew are not abandoned and all possible effort is expended to save them. But more problematic is the action in the film which sees an eventual ‘victory’ for British forces, but at significant cost in terms of lives lost alongside a valuable ship and aircraft. More lives are lost than saved. This is the dilemma for propaganda filmmakers in their attempt to use realism in their appeal to audiences. Men are brave and they die in the service of their country. Unfortunately, there is little direct evidence of what audiences made of a film like Those in Peril (or any details of its distribution and how many people saw it).
For me, the film works because of three factors – the documentary footage, David Farrar’s central performance and the script by Richard Hillary and Harry Watt, J.c. Orton and T. E. B. Clarke. The documentary photography is by Douglas Slocombe. This was his first credited role as cinematographer and he would go on to be one of the most celebrated figures behind the camera in British cinema history. The interiors were shot by Ernest Palmer, an experienced Ealing man. David Farrar would go on to become a leading man in three classic Powell and Pressburger films as well as two more for Ealing. For Those in Peril was perhaps his breakthrough as a leading man, but his popularity (he later claimed several hundred fan letters each week) was mainly a result of his two Sexton Blake films in 1945. Also making his first solo outing for Ealing was director Charles Crichton as director. Crichton would go on to become one of Ealing’s most important directors and was probably best known for The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titchfield Thunderbolt (1953).
Richard Hillary, who wrote the original story, was a young RAF officer who first fought in the Battle of Britain aged 21. He was credited with 5 definite ‘kills’ but was then shot down and rescued by the Margate lifeboat, having suffered severe burns. During his lengthy hospital treatment he wrote one of the best books about wartime flying, The Last Enemy, which I remember reading as a child. He returned to flying but only a few months later he was killed in a nightfighter crash. His story for Those in Peril was presumably based on his own experience.
The contributions of key personnel such as Farrar, Slocombe and Crichton make this a must-see film for anyone interested in Ealing Studios. I recommend it as worth 64 minutes of anyone’s time.
I couldn’t find a trailer for the film, but this is a Pathé News report with the same title, showing the Air Sea Rescue crews at work:
John Akomfrah is one of the UK’s premier filmmakers and has been since Handsworth Songs, the documentary he directed as part of Black Audio Film Collective, won the John Grierson Award in 1987. It says something about British Cinema that much of his subsequent work has been for TV and that in the last few years he has become internationally known as a visual artist whose work is exhibited in galleries rather than cinemas. I managed to catch Vertigo Sea at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester just before its four-month run ended.
Vertigo Sea was first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It’s a three screen video installation lasting just over 48 minutes. At the Whitworth it was screened in a large exhibition space, suitably dark (but far too warm on a summer’s day) but with only three benches some distance from the screens. The large screens were placed almost next to each other in a straight line (i.e. not like the curved screens of cinerama). The ‘project’ was part-funded by the Arts Council and other agencies and ‘managed’ on tour by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Lisson Gallery in London and New York. Here’s the Arnolfini ‘trailer’ that gives a glimpse of how the installation appears in the gallery:
Black Audio Film Collective and its successor from 1998, Smoking Dogs Films, has been consistent in a focus on migration and memory and on an excavation of Black history and culture and in particular colonial and post-colonial narratives and representations. Smoking Dogs Films’ website introduces Vertigo Sea like this:
A meditation on the aquatic sublime, Vertigo Sea brings together a collection of oblique tales and histories that speak to the multiple significances of the ocean and mankind’s often troubling relationship with it. Touching upon migration, the history of slavery and colonisation, war and conflict and current ecological concerns it is a narrative on man and nature, on beauty, violence and on the precariousness of life.
The installation runs continuously and I arrived about two-thirds through the presentation. I then watched it all the way through so I ‘experienced’ it for around an hour. I would have liked to have watched it again but I don’t find galleries easy places in which to watch films. This is the big disadvantage of installations – if you have to travel 40 miles to visit them and there is no DVD to watch later. The three screens are utilised creatively, so although it appears that the same or similar material is showing on each screen, the viewer can’t be sure that there isn’t anything unique on a screen not being watched. What to do? Should you quickly scan all three screens, trying to keep all three in your field of vision – or focus on just one screen and watch the whole presentation three times, focusing on a different screen each time? Montage becomes a different concept with three screens and sometimes it feels as if the screens are bleeding into each other – while at other times the visual juxtaposition of one screen to its neighbour is striking.
The mixture of source material for Vertigo Sea is in line with John Akomfrah’s previous work. He is the great user and manipulator of archive material and here there are newsreel images and some beautiful footage from wildlife filming as well as some original images which echo aspects of The Nine Muses (2010). In that earlier film, lone figures stood in the snowy landscapes of Alaska. In Vertigo Sea, a range of figures, some historical, stand in landscapes of mountains and the sea in Skye, the Faroes and Norway. There are other elements including three archive photographs of Black males – a boy, a younger man, an old man. The black and white images with creases and scratches might be from the 19th century and I found them difficult to place. I also found them striking as just that morning I’d read a news report suggesting that new archaeological finds proved that the migration of people from Africa to Australia had taken place much earlier than previously thought – perhaps 60,000 years ago.
The starting point to the films is migration. In interviews Akomfrah has said that the initial idea came from a survival story about a Nigerian migrant who was thrown from a people smugglers’ boat but survived by clinging on to netting. The horror of ditching human ‘cargo’ in this way is then taken up with reference to the infamous treatment of slaves during the Atlantic trade – the Zong incident which became the subject of a court action in the UK in which the legal status of slaves was disputed. This case was featured in Amma Asante’s film Belle (UK 2013). In turn, this is then linked to the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America – the men and women (‘political prisoners’) flown over the sea and then ejected from the aircraft. This was exposed in Patricio Guzmán’s film The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015). Akomfrah provided me with a new link to the use of similar techniques by the French against FLN prisoners in Algeria in the 1950s. Why ‘Vertigo’? Is it the sense of plunging into the sea from a great height? The central connection in the film is between the jettisoned human cargo and the practice of whaling with its cruelty towards marine mammals – a link which is underlined by footage of carcases on the sea bed being devoured by scavengers and the bodies of slaves washed up on shore. There is a strong sense of an ecological discourse in this film. One of the most shocking archive sequences for me was the hunting of polar bears in the Arctic in which a bear is shot and skinned – and the carcase is just left on the ice. Inuit hunters would use most of that carcase and a rather different form of (white) migration in the 20th century disrupted the balance of people and wildlife in the region.
The sharp contrast between the beautiful images of natural landscapes and seascapes and the horror of slavery and whaling is stark and easily understood on a visceral level. In addition to images of migrations (and the loss of life), Akomfrah also forces us to think about the pollution of the sea by nuclear testing. Less easily accessible is the use of the stationary figures in landscapes and the arrangements of incongruous objects – clocks, bicycles, prams. Again, as in The Nine Muses, these images are complemented by readings – in this case from Melville (Moby Dick), Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation) and Virginia Woolf. Reading some of the reviews of Vertigo Sea, I realise that I missed some of the symbols in these sequences and I certainly didn’t make all the connections. I think another two or three viewings would be needed. The three films do also have soundtracks of music, sound effects and the readings mentioned above, plus the commentaries on the archive newsreel footage. I think that sometimes there are competing soundtracks on the three films, but again I wasn’t always sure which sounds went with which images. I think I remember the sounds of whales.
For convenience I’ve referred to John Akomfrah as the ‘author’ of Vertigo Sea, but really this is a Smoking Dogs production and John would always stress his commitment to collective production. Original Black Audio founders and Smoking Dogs partners Lina Gopaul and David Lawson plus sound designer and original Black Audio member Trevor Mathison all worked on Vertigo Sea and I was intrigued to see Ashitey Akomfrah down as Production Manager. The credits reveal a number of ‘Archive Consultants’ and archive sources but it would have been good to list the sources in more detail. Was that a feature film that included the sequence of the African slaves thrown into the sea?
I found Vertigo Sea to be disturbing, shocking, beautiful and provocative – so much so that I abandoned a planned trip to the cinema afterwards, feeling that I couldn’t cope with another narrative. But I didn’t appreciate the gallery setting. The benches were uncomfortable. I would have liked a cinema seat (to support my back and help my concentration) and I would have liked to get closer to the screens so that they filled my vision, but to do so by sitting on the floor would have interrupted the view of the others in the ‘audience’. I have heard John Akomfrah argue that film, television and installation work are different forms with their own conventions and I know too that there are reasons why working on installations makes economic sense given the state of contemporary film funding for production, distribution and exhibition. But couldn’t we at least get the chance to see this work via DVD? Vertigo Sea is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to a gallery near you and there are several other Smoking Dogs installations dealing with similar issues. Interviews with John Akomfrah and with John and Lina together are posted on YouTube. They are excellent talkers and have a body of work and an evolving practice of over thirty years. Here’s John talking about the collective’s work, Vertigo Sea and “Why History Matters”.
Despite Christopher Nolan’s well publicised advocacy of ‘reel’ film and large format production the critical response is something of a lottery. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian did not bother, or forgot, to tell readers in what format he saw the film. Mark Kermode, as one would expect, was more careful, spelling out the formats and advising would-be viewers to pick their venue and screening carefully. The choice is likely also affected by aspect ratios; 70mm IMAX is predominately 1.43:1; digital IMAX is partially in 1.90:1; 70 mm and DCPs are in 2.20:1 though the DCPs will likely screen with not quite black bars at top and bottom; and 35mm prints are in 2.35:1; all in colour.
Given the film was shot on ‘reel’ film 65mmIMAX and 65mm cameras the choice would appear obvious. However, here in West Yorkshire, the choice is limited. A couple of venues are screening digital IMAX; others are using DCPs; so the best option is the Hyde Park Picture House where they are screening a 35mm print. Otherwise you can trek to Manchester and see the film in 70mm IMAX or wait and hope: the Barnsley Parkway will screen the film on DCP from the 28th and plan to screen a 70mm print when one of the five available in the UK is bookable.
It is not just a film to be seen in a ‘reel’ film format, it is a film to be seen and seen in the cinema. I was impressed, as were other members of the audience. I saw it at the Hyde Park in 35mm; I hope I will get to see a 70mm version.
The film not only looks superb, it has a fine soundtrack and an excellent score by Hans Zimmer: give him his due, he credited Elgar who provides one of the key accompaniments in the film. The music runs through much of the film, though mostly it is a subtle background music, occasionally swelling for dramatic moments.
Christopher Nolan not only directed the film but also wrote the screenplay. It offers his usual preoccupation with ‘time slip’. Essentially the film offers three intertwined stories/experiences of the mythic evacuation. A one-week odyssey by a private soldier caught on the beaches; a one-day sailing journey by as civilian boat which is part of the rescue flotilla; and a one-hour flight by a RAF spitfire pilot offering aid to the 350,000 troops stranded on the beaches.
In what is effectively montage, and eschewing more traditional parallel cutting, the film takes the viewer back and forth between these small-scale stories. At times it does so with great rapidity. Mark Kermode suggested that viewers will clearly find their way through this complex structure. I found it took time for me to identify the strategy and I suspect audiences will take time to crack this as well.
As the relationship between these individual stories falls into place the film produces a real sense of the complexity of the experiences in the ten days of the evacuation. It also enables a climactic moment, as a fine widescreen shot takes us to a the mythic moment in the story, bringing it from the personal to the epic. There are lacunae in the script, but I only noticed those after the film had finished. At 106 minutes in length there is not the space to dot every ‘i’ or tick every ‘t’.
There are also influences apparent from earlier films dramatising this key British disaster-cum-victory. The definitive version has been that produced at Ealing Studio in 1958 (also Dunkirk), in black and white standard widescreen. That film combines moments of action and drama with periods when the beach is quiet, and the listless soldiers watch and wait. This ‘Dunkirk’ has more action but does retain some sense of the passive as opposed to the active moments. Both films, as also does Atonement (2007), open with soldiers making their way onto the beach to be confronted by the waiting multitudes and the ships vainly trying to take them off the beaches. Visually this ‘Dunkirk’ also shares some aspects of that panorama with the 1997 version. But there is no giant Ferris Wheel to counterpoint the settings in peace and war.
The film has great pace, excellent performances and very fine cinematographic and production work. Whilst Nolan deserves serious praise for this fine film it is also equally due to the craft people who worked with him. Notably this includes the Cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema; the Production Design by Nathan Crowley aided by a team of Art Designers; and the Film Editing by Lee Smith.
The cast are excellent. Most are fresh faces like Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson and Barry Keoghan as George. But there are also several familiar faces in key roles: Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, Tom Hardy as Farrier and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Fulton. These are aided by a fine variety of small characterisations that fill out the picture.
The print that I watched was excellent. At times the image was in soft focus and had a relatively shallow depth of field: I do prefer enough definition to watch deep staging. Presumably these effects were due in part to shooting much of the film in natural light and also because the production opted for actual settings and extremely little CGI. The soundtrack was fine though some of the dialogue was muffled. I expect that this will be less noticeable in IMAX screenings which apparently have higher decibels as well. Note, there are also four different soundtrack formats to choose from: IMAX 6-track, 12 track Digital Sound, Datasat and Dolby digital.
I should mention the trailer in the UK. Modern trailers are frequently edited with pace, so the one for this film (in that fashion) does not really give a sense of how the stories actually work together. It also contains one really corny line of dialogue, played over a series of shots. But this is a misconception: in the actual film, as the troops come home this line is presented with real effect, by a character, in a series of close-ups and mid-shots. And that is where the film leaves us, with one more variation on the recurring line of ‘Lets go home’.
I have now seen the 70mmIMAX version at the Printworks in Manchester. This is definitely the way to see the film. I am not a great fan of IMAX but the quality of the image and the immersive screen and soundtrack give the film an epic quality.
I have also read Roy’s comments on the film. I gather he saw it on a 2K DCP. I found the sound quality better on IMAX than on 35mm and I assume that would also be the case with a DCP. The accompaniment is continuous but much of it does not use musical instruments but organised sound. It is part of the immersive experience. The visual quality, both of IMAX and 70mm [the latter nearly all on the small boat, ‘Moonstone’] is awesome. The colour palette looks fine. There is a lot of blue/grey sky and green/grey sea: perhaps that accounts for Roy’s comment. The colour palette on 2K DCPs does not match 35mm, let alone 70mm. I do remember the tracking shot in Atonement but whilst there are not that many long takes in this film much of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is equally impressive. There are some stunning high-angle shots of the action and the aerial sequences are the best that I have seen since Battle of Britain (1969).
The 1958 film does give a more informed over-view of the event, but [like all the versions that I have seen] it is partial. What it does fail to offer is the epic quality that is apparent in this version. All the film versions rely on familiar/star performers as lead characters. Perhaps a version on the Soviet model or in the manner of Abel Gance’s silent epics would offer a greater mythic presentation.
On the myth I was puzzled by Roy’s comments on ‘Brexit’. Have comments on this been made? The film is not isolationist which is often the case with Hollywood war films. Right at the end Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) stays on to evacuate the French. These are the soldiers we saw at the opening who are defending the perimeter as the troops make their escapes.
The narrative does take time to fall into place but the overlapping time zones come together in an exhilarating manner at the climax. Here the various rescues form a tapestry that dramatises Nolan’s prime focus, survival.
I should add that watching the credits a second time I realised that the variation on Elgar in the film used by Hans Zimmer is by Benjamin Wallfisch after Elgar. The credits also demonstrate the contemporary army of craft people who made this great film possible. This is not strictly ‘auteur’ but large scale film production orchestrated by Christopher Nolan.
And the good news is that Barnsley Parkway are screening the film in 70mm from August 28th until the 31st. So I shall get to see all three ‘reel film’ versions.
With Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk due to open in the UK this week [now released, see Keith’s review here], I thought it might be interesting to re-visit this Ealing Studios film from 1958 – the only other film completely focused on the Dunkirk evacuation. Joe Wright’s Atonement (UK/France/US 2007) includes a long segment dealing with events during the retreat and evacuation, but these form only part of a complex narrative about the relationships between three characters. Nolan didn’t mention these films in his Sight & Sound interview with Nick James in the August issue, arguing that his film will ‘fill a gap’ in British storytelling on screen. (James does mention the 1958 film.)
The military catastrophe that saw the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and a significant part of the French Army trapped by German forces in a pocket around the port of Dunkirk in late May/early June of 1940 was turned into a propaganda victory with the successful evacuation of 338,000 British, French and other Allied troops taken off the beaches and brought back to the UK. Military historians still debate the reasons why the German forces failed to destroy/capture the Allied troops before they could leave. All the equipment, including military vehicles taken to France by the BEF was lost. In addition, many of the French troops rescued at Dunkirk were later returned to France to fight for the remainder of their country and were subsequently taken prisoner after France fell. More than 30,000 French troops in the ‘rearguard’ at Dunkirk were captured. Dunkirk was a defeat – virtually all Allied operations up to El Alamein in 1942 were defeats. The propaganda victory which established the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ was based on the contribution of the ‘Little Ships’ – the civilian boats that augmented the Royal Navy vessels in the evacuation fleet. Here was the image of ‘total war’ and of the British people with their backs to the wall.
As I noted in an earlier posting on the recent British film Their Finest (2016), Dunkirk was not an appropriate film for propaganda purposes (i.e. visualising and representing the evacuation was not as effective as ‘spinning’ the story in more indirect ways) but some of the elements of the story did appear in fictionalised wartime narratives, including films made by Ealing Studios such as The Foreman Went to France (1942) and Johnny Frenchman (1945). In the 1950s Ealing did not join the other British producers in creating 1950s ‘heroic’ war films (e.g. The Dam Busters (1955) or Reach For the Sky (1956)). Instead, Ealing opted for more downbeat narratives such as The Cruel Sea (1953) in which one of the most memorable scenes sees Jack Hawkins, commander of a submarine-hunting corvette, risking the lives of torpedoed sailors in an attempt to destroy a U-boat. In The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), like The Cruel Sea from a Nicholas Monsatrat novel, three ex-Roal Navy men buy their wartime motor boat and find themselves sucked into a smuggling racket to service the black market in ‘Austerity Britain’ of the late 1940s. It’s perhaps not surprising then that Ealing’s Dunkirk film was similarly downbeat. Its director Leslie Norman had been the producer on The Cruel Sea.
In 1958 Ealing Studios was in its last incarnation having moved out of the Rank film empire and re-located to MGM’s British operation at Borehamwood. Leslie Norman had spent much of his career working on Ealing’s ‘overseas productions’ and had just returned from directing The Shiralee in Australia. For Dunkirk he had his DoP and editor from the Australian shoot, Paul Beeson and Gordon Stone. The script was based on several sources including an Elleston Trevor novel and two non-fiction books by military men. The screenplay was written by another veteran of Australian and African productions William Liscomb (with a younger writer, David Divine). Dunkirk is one of Ealing’s ‘small-scale epics’ with a long running-time (134 minutes). The plot sees the parallel stories of a group of small boat owners on the Thames and a small group of British soldiers separated from their regiment in Northern France. The two groups are destined to meet on the beaches of Dunkirk and the narrative cuts between them until those final scenes. We also briefly visit press conferences in Central London and Royal Navy bases in Dover and Sheerness plus General Gort’s HQ in France. Other than that, the top brass are kept out of it, only seen in newsreels watched by the troops. The film had a budget of £400,000 and Norman claimed to come in under budget. (For comparison, the first three or four Carry On films over the next few years were budgeted at less than £100,000 each. Ealing’s films were usually more expensive than the norm.) Dunkirk was expensive and a gamble for Ealing. MGM’s distribution muscle promised overseas sales and the film did go into profit, although the North American response was relatively weak. Surprisingly perhaps, the film only boasted two star names alongside a host of familiar character actors. John Mills as Corporal ‘Tubby’ Binns leads the group of Tommies and Richard Attenborough plays Holden, a rather reluctant boat-owner who needs a lot of persuading and shaming to make the trip. In many ways, the key figure in the film is Charles Foreman, a journalist who is also a boat-owner, played by Bernard Lee, a very familiar face but not considered a star. (He would later gain fame as M in the Bond films.)
Despite its commercial success, Dunkirk failed to inspire critics and scholars. Two of the chroniclers of Ealing Studios, Charles Barr and George Perry, are dismissive of the film. Both find it dull. Barr is particularly damning though he seems more concerned with equating its story of a defeat with Ealing’s own demise as a studio. David Quinlan suggests that it is “routinely exciting, but disappointing”. It seems to me that Michael Balcon as Ealing’s hands-on leader had embarked on a nearly impossible task – to make a commercial picture about a defeat and a propaganda ‘miracle’. Dunkirk comes across as ‘realistic’ in its attempts to include as a many different facets of the actual events as possible. There are attempts to create analysis through the juxtaposition of newsreel footage and scripted dialogue, but mostly the intent seems to have been to represent the events as fully as possible. I suspect its success was mainly with audiences who already knew about the events but who wanted to see them ‘documented’ in this way. In that sense, Balcon was justified. I found the film interesting rather than exciting, but it did make me think about how I might have felt thrust into such a situation.
The Bernard Lee character is clearly meant to be the representative of the ‘ordinary’ (middle-class) British man. And it is a very male film – virtually the only women in the film are the boat-owner’s wives. Foreman (Lee) is a journalist, although he never files any copy and we don’t find out who he works for. He clearly has clout as he knows all the foreign correspondents in London and he attends Ministry of Information briefings. It’s through him that we hear the grumbling about the lack of real information about what is happening in France and despair about complacency during the ‘Phoney War’ (the title given to the first seven months of the war before the German invasion of Denmark/Norway and then Holland/Belgium and France). Tubby and his men watch propaganda newsreels in France and in the UK, the women in Holden’s factory listen to Lord Haw-Haw on the wireless. Tubby (presumably a veteran soldier – Mills was nearly 50 at the time) finds the men in his group are sometimes whingeing. Having established this sense of a nation that doesn’t really know what is happening – in the armed forces or on the Home Front – Dunkirk closes with a voiceover that is actually quite balanced. It remembers the dead and the captured soldiers, sailors and civilians left in France and clearly states that it was a defeat, but then asserts that the evacuated men “dazed and resentful” returned to a nation that had learned that it now stood alone but ‘undivided’. The UK was a nation made whole. The very last scene shows a parade ground on which Tubby and his closest mate from Dunkirk are part of a larger squad being drilled by a CSM who warns them that Dunkirk was a defeat and not a victory and they need to work hard (and quickly) to become an effective fighting force. Tubby gives his mate a knowing look.
Dunkirk‘s producers were able to use an array of military equipment that was still in working order. The film was made on Camber Sands and in the Port of Rye in East Sussex, on the Thames and at Borehamwood. Even so they needed model shots and stock footage to convey the scope of military action. Christopher Nolan has advanced technologies and a huge budget. He promises something much more immersive but still aims for the personal stories of soldiers, sailors and civilians – and adds an airman. Nolan only has 106 minutes and he has talked about preferring the suspense thriller mode to that of the war film. It sounds like he will be less interested in the mythologising impact of the evacuation. It will be fascinating to see what kinds of meanings his film produces – and what it leaves out – and how audiences respond.
Ealing’s Dunkirk is re-released to cinemas in September in a restored version which will also be available on DVD/Blu-ray from StudioCanal. Here’s the Australian trailer from 1958:
Barr, Charles (1977) Ealing Studios, London: Cameron & Tayleur, Newton Abbot: David & Charles
Perry, George (1981) Forever Ealing, London: Michael Joseph
Quinlan, David (1984) British Sound Films: The Studio Years, 1928-1959, London: Batsford
Ealing Studios as a brand has become so associated in the public mind with the comedies of the late 1940s and early 1950s that many of its most interesting productions are barely seen or discussed. Fortunately, the ‘Ealing Rarities’ collections of DVDs, first published in 2013, have made several titles available for the first time on disc. The series runs to 14 volumes, each of which comprises a 2-disc set with two features on each disc. The four titles are a mix of films from the whole of the period 1930-1959. This makes sense as a way of selling the older titles but punters can benefit too, picking up unknown gems from the 1930s. The volumes were on a limited sales offer this week and I bought three volumes for £4 to £5 each.
I was most excited by the prospect of watching Lease for Life from 1954. This drama in Eastman Colour offers the major star Robert Donat in his only Ealing role, supported by a fine cast. With a screenplay by Eric Ambler, direction by Ealing regular Charles Frend and cinematography by Douglas Slocombe it promised to be a fascinating watch – and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s worth emphasising that Donat was arguably the major male romantic star of the 1930s in the UK, a man loved by millions who spurned Hollywood and preferred to work in the UK (sometimes on American-financed films). Because of ill-health (chronic asthma) he made only 21 films and died in 1958 in his early 50s. In Lease of Life he plays a country vicar in the East Riding of Yorkshire. He was only 49 at the time but looks much older, possibly because of make-up and greying hair. He hadn’t made a film for three years and he would make only one more after it, so part of his appearance may be down to his own state of health. The plot involves his character being told that he only has a year to live, but if this makes the film sound grim, Donat’s performance soon alters such a view. He’s magnificent.
The plot is very simple (so I don’t think I’m spoiling the narrative pleasure by outlining it in some detail). Ambler gives the vicar (Rev. William Thorne) two problems to worry about (and then lands him with the news that he is going to die in about a year’s time). First he is asked by a dying parishioner to be his executor and to keep the will and a sizeable sum of money away from the man’s younger wife (Ealing regular Vida Hope) – the money is to go to the man’s son, still missing after the war. Reluctantly, the vicar agrees, knowing it is his duty to do so. He’s a kindly but not very inspiring vicar and he hasn’t saved any money. His second problem is that his talented daughter Susan (the fabulous Adrienne Corri who so graces Jean Renoir’s The River, 1950) wants to go to a music school in London, but he can’t afford to support her. A possible solution to his worries is that the local public school wants a new chaplain and the Dean of the cathedral in ‘Gilchester’ suggests Thorne. Thorne himself doesn’t realise why he has been invited to give the sermon at the school’s Founder’s Day service (but his wife Vera (Kay Walsh) realises that it is a kind of test of suitability). The chaplaincy would be a considerable step up in terms of income. The sermon comes halfway through the film and Thorne, in a moment of inspiration, tears up his prepared sermon and delivers an impassioned call to the boys to live their lives without the fear of breaking rules and to simply go out and fulfil themselves in finding God in life. Thorne is ‘re-born’, he has a new ‘lease of life’. The school’s headmaster is not enthusiastic about Thorne’s reference to a ‘Headmaster God’ as the wrong concept of religion for boys to have.
In the final third of the film the two problems prove difficult for Thorne to resolve in a satisfactory way and Ambler complicates things to create a climax. What is important too is that both June and Vera become active in their own right rather than just supporting Thorne. The other main character is June’s music teacher, the young organist at the cathedral, handsome (and quite cruel) as played by Denholm Elliott.
The main attraction of the film is Robert Donat’s performance. In the pulpit delivering his sermon to the school he is transformed and energised but it is his voice and trademark delivery that stands out. I think mellifluous is the adjective often used to describe Donat’s voice. Here it sounds both soft and melodious, but also strong – and a big change from the character’s usually mild demeanour. So, in narrative terms it works to give the vicar in ailing health the energy to continue and to overcome the obstacles that lie before him. One interesting aspect of the film is the media interest generated by the sermon which gets everybody talking. In the early 1950s Ealing made films satirising the rise of television and, like this one, using the media as agencies in moral debates.
The other interesting aspect of the film is the use of location shooting to create ‘authenticity’ of setting and a feature of many Ealing films during and after the war. I was reminded of The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947), also directed by Charles Frend and set on the Romney Marshes. That was a black and white film and here the same cinematographer creates a rural landscape using Eastman Colour. The shoot was located in what was then the East Riding of Yorkshire with Beverley’s Minster standing in for the cathedral (Wikipedia suggests that the Minster is larger than many English cathedrals) and the village of Lund a few miles away acting as the vicar’s parish. The film is a transport enthusiast’s treat with footage of the town centre including the specially adapted buses needed to pass beneath the 15th century ‘Bar gate’. Railway scenes were filmed at Eton and Windsor and there is a scene featuring Susan’s arrival in London in a train hauled by Britannia Pacific 70020, only built in 1951 as a BR standard locomotive. Overall the Eastman Colour on the Network DVD is OK, but I did wonder about the make-up and how it appears in HD on a TV set.
The DVD set includes a slide gallery (see the images above with a lobby card and publicity stills). It also includes a Press Book from the period and I would recommend this for any student of British cinema history. The Press Book includes the kinds of ads to appear in local newspaper display listings as well as competitions and other ways of attracting audiences. It also features interviews and articles on the stars. The piece on Kay Walsh is interesting, pointing out how this ‘glamorous star’ of 1930s and 1940s cinema was prepared to be made-up as the older and ‘dowdy’ vicar’s wife in order to play opposite Robert Donat. There is also coverage of the outfits worn by Adrienne Corri, an important ‘tie-in’ feature for films of the period.
I’m pleased to have been able to view this film and I’m looking forward to exploring more of the Ealing back catalogue in the Network DVDs.
It’s an odd coincidence that this ‘re-adaptation’ of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel should arrive in UK cinemas so soon after Lady Macbeth. I went to see My Cousin Rachel with Nick and when we discussed the film in the pub afterwards we had almost the complete opposite reactions. I was slightly disappointed and certainly not as excited as I was by Lady Macbeth. Nick didn’t share my appreciation of Lady Macbeth but thought My Cousin Rachel worked. Perhaps he’ll add some comments here.
Daphne du Maurier (1907-89) was a very popular writer of novels and short stories. She was often termed a ‘romantic novelist’, but that is a misleading term when thinking about the film adaptations of her work including the three Hitchcock films, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds as well as Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I was intrigued to see that her Wikipedia entry suggests that she had more in common with a writer like Wilkie Collins with his ‘sensation novels’. Certainly, My Cousin Rachel made me think of Collins, partly because of its convoluted family relationships and the importance of letters and wills. The story was adapted first in 1952, the year after the book was published with the intriguing pairing of Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland in the two main parts. I haven’t seen that version but it appears to have been poorly received.
The story is set in the mid-19th century, perhaps the late 1830s (the year is not given in the film, that’s the time the book suggests). Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) has grown up as an orphan and a ward of his cousin Ambrose. When Philip arrives back at the estate in Cornwall/Devon he learns that Ambrose has died in Tuscany where he had been spending time for his health and where he married another, distant, cousin. Philip will inherit the estate on his coming 25th birthday but before that event he is expecting Rachel (Rachel Weisz), his cousin’s widow to arrive from Italy. The estate is currently held in trust by the family lawyer (played by Simon Russell Beale) and Ambrose’s friend and godfather, Nick Kendall (Iain Glen). Nick’s daughter Lucy (Holliday Grainger) was Philip’s childhood friend and she clearly has an interest in him. What will happen when Philip meets Rachel? Will he confirm his suspicions that she is a dangerous woman who perhaps caused Ambrose’s demise – or will the naïve young man quickly lose himself in infatuation?
This is a good set-up for an engaging narrative. The wild scenery (beaches, cliffs, crop fields close to the sea, woodlands etc.) suggests passion and romance and the large country house with dark stairways, servants hiding in the shadows etc. offers the possibility of the gothic and the narrative elements of film noir and melodrama. All of these were in Rebecca, albeit in the later period of the 1930s. But actually it is the mystery elements which tend to drive the narrative here and this is where the Wilkie Collins references come in. There is a mysterious will that Rachel possesses but which hasn’t been signed. Philip struggles with the legal documents that constrain his behaviour before his birthday. Letters written by Ambrose crop up at various points, discovered in clothes or books. (The relevant titles for Collins’ fans are No Name (1862) and Armadale (1866).)
The film offers us a vaguely Hitchcockian score by Rael Jones. The cinematography, production design and costumes are all very well presented and the performances are generally very good. I think my problem was that the presentation doesn’t go far enough in suggesting the possible dark side. Director Roger Michell wrote the script himself. He is an experienced director but seemingly a first-time scriptwriter. Perhaps he focused too much on writing a ‘faithful’ adaptation and not enough on exploring the genre possibilities? I can’t quite put my finger on what is missing. Sam Claflin gives another solid performance, but I’m still not completely convinced that he is leading man material. I’m a big Rachel Weisz fan, but here her usual strong performance seems to lack something. Overall, I was most impressed with Holliday Grainger who stole most of the scenes she was in. I also enjoyed Tim Barlow’s performance as the ancient retainer Seecombe whose demeanour seems to poke fun at Philip. I think perhaps Michell and Claflin are not quite sure how to present Philip. Is he both the hunting shooting man on the moors and the shy naïve boy? We do see him topless with a toned gym-fit body (nullifying the authenticity of the costumes) in the house but when he leaps down to show his estate workers how to scythe hay there is no Poldark moment with the bare-chested leading man vigorously wielding the blade.
Rachel is often seen with her travelling case of herbs which she uses to produce the tisanes which might be poisoning Philip. Sometimes she appears vulnerable, but is she really seeking Philip’s protection? At other times she seems completely in control of her affairs and easily able to outmanoeuvre Philip. In a Guardian piece this weekend Julie Myerson recalls reading the novel as a teenager and seems to praise the film adaptation (“Michell’s wonderfully crunchy new film”). She claims that Rachel’s vulnerability is what “makes her so terrifying to men”. I’m not sure I understand this. In Sight and Sound (July 2017) Lisa Mullen thinks the film works but that it “never quite yields to the deliciously gothic potential of this closed world of secrets and suspicions”. I’d agree with that. She also thinks it’s unfair to make comparisons with Hitchcock. Why shouldn’t we? She ends: “Underlying it all is a strongly feminist message about power, money and male fear of what might happen if a woman should gain possession of both – agreeably subversive stuff to find in a crowd-pleasing period drama”. That seems fair enough. I’m left wondering why those two Wilkie Collins novels have never been adapted.
My Cousin Rachel seems to be working at the box office. Fox put it out on 467 screens for No 6 in the UK chart in its first weekend. By the following Tuesday, with older audience interest it moved into the Top 5. In the trailers below you can compare the leading performances. Richard Burton was just about the right age for Philip and this was his first leading role in a film.