This film is part of both My French Film Festival and MUBI’s current streaming roster in the UK. It screened at Cannes in 2018 and I’m surprised that it hasn’t appeared on release in the UK. Perhaps distributors worry about how it would be certificated by the BBFC? It mixes sexual ‘display’, including full frontal male nudity, with the full horror of guerrilla warfare. Worse for some audiences, this is also an art film with long static takes in which little happens. It’s also fascinating with standout performances. In one sense an ‘interior’ story about one man’s struggle to come to terms with grief, the film is also about nine months of chaos in the long history of anti-colonialist struggles in what the French termed ‘Indochina’ before 1954 and what for those of us growing up in the 1960s became the Vietnam War. I had to research the precise period between March and December 1945 to understand exactly what was happening in the region and what might be absent from the narrative.
In June 1940 the swift German advance into France encouraged the Japanese to invade Tonkin – what is now Northern Vietnam – in order to cut off the last supply line for the Chinese from the port of Haiphong into Northern China and thus aid the Japanese campaign in China. The Japanese forces subsequently moved through the whole of Indochina (i.e. modern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) in preparation for attacks upon the British, Dutch and American interests in the Pacific. They left the French colonial troops and administrators in charge as Vichy France was, in effect, now a Japanese ally. On March 9th 1945 with France liberated and De Gaulle running a provisional government in Paris, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on French forces in Indochina, an action known as ‘Operation Bright Moon‘. The Japanese were correct in thinking that the Free French, British and Americans were already planning to use Indochina as a base to launch attacks on Japan.
The film narrative begins with a massacre of French forces at a camp in Tonkin. One man, a French soldier Robert Tassen (Gaspard Ulliel), finds himself wounded but still alive beneath a pile of bodies in an open mass grave. Somehow, he escapes into the jungle and is kept alive by local people. Eventually he finds his way to French forces who have not been over-run. We learn that his experience has instilled in him a strong desire for vengeance and that he is now determined to find one of the leaders of the Viet Minh forces who was present at the massacre in which Tassen lost his brother and sister-in-law. This takes a little ‘unpacking’.
The Viet Minh was a political movement led by Ho Chi Minh which from 1941 was opposed to both the French and Japanese and began forms of guerrilla warfare supported by the Americans and by the Chinese (both Nationalists and Communists). During the specific period of the nine moths covered by the film’s narrative this produced some very strange alliances with soldiers switching sides as the political situation became more complicated. The first atomic bomb was dropped on August 6 on Hiroshima and Japan surrendered a few days later. Thousands of Japanese soldiers were still in China and Indochina. By September a British Indian Army force had arrived in Saigon and proceeded to re-arm Japanese soldiers to maintain order. Meanwhile other Japanese were being recruited to train Viet Minh fighters against the French and British. I mention all this to simply illustrate how confusing everything must have been. The other aspect of this that is worth knowing is that the French, like the British, recruited local men to join the colonial army. These were les Tirailleurs tonkinois and Tassen finds himself in a mixed fighting force. Later, he recognises that local fighters will join either side if they are starving.
Robert will eventually ‘go rogue’. It’s impossible not to think of Apocalypse Now when we see Robert leading his own small band of mostly local fighters into the mountains seeking out his own personal enemy. The senior officers in his regiment have now virtually given up on him as he won’t take orders from regulars he doesn’t trust, but he is now a skilled fighter himself and knows how to organise. On the other hand he may be seriously mentally ill.
If Apocalypse Now is one reference for audiences, others might be to films like the two versions of The Quiet American. Writer-director Guillaume Nicloux and co-writer Jérôme Beaujour create two other characters who both have an influence on Tassen. One is a mysterious writer, who might have some kind of intelligence role, played by Gérard Depardieu. This character is accepted by the French military and seems to know local culture. The other is that (over?) familiar figure, the beautiful local prostitute Maï (Lang Khê Tran) who speaks French well and who forms a deep but difficult relationship with Robert. While these two individuals are able in different ways to ‘get through’ to Robert, he has little contact with the other French soldiers – only perhaps with Cavagna (Guillaume Gouix) with whom he has a typical love-hate relationship (i.e. they insult each other but clearly have some form of respect). The narrative has no resolution as such but there is a coda of sorts set in early 1946.
In aesthetic terms, the film is always worth watching and I would love to see it on a big screen, though I might have to turn away from some scenes. It was shot on 35mm by David Ungaro and is projected in a CinemaScope ratio with the colour palette dominated by blues, greens and greys – which in turn contrast with the blood. It rains heavily at times and many scenes are enveloped in mist. Some of the long shots of the soldiers making their way along mountain and forest trails are very beautiful. (The film was shot in Vietnam.) I think the score by Shannon Wright worked well. It seemed both minimalist and filled with foreboding. The performances, especially by Gaspard Ulliel and Guillaume Gouix, are very good.
Overall there is no political trajectory to the war – as I’ve indicated by the lack of context (only the months of 1945 are signalled). Nor is there any specific critique of French colonialism, apart from what we read into the exchanges. This makes the film an intriguing addition to the various films I’ve watched from Hollywood, Australia and Hong Kong which deal with the later wars of the 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam. There are other French films set in Indochina as a colonial territory including a number of colonial melodramas and other war films that I haven’t seen. The only one I do remember is Hors la loi (France-Algeria 2010) by the French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb. In that film one of three Algerian brothers finds himself in the French colonial army fighting the Viet Nimh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the battle that signalled the final defeat of France in Indochina. The Algerian soldier hears cries for the ‘colonised’ troops to join the Vietnamese fighting for independence.
We could argue that the French soldiers in Tonkin were virtually forgotten by the authorities in Europe before the Japanese attack. They had had little contact with Vichy for five years and weren’t sure what would await them back in France. This suggestion is well-handled in the script and provides a humanist discourse that balances the comment about atrocities committed by the Viet Nimh. Tassen refers to the beheaded soldiers he finds in the jungle and someone observes that the French have often beheaded people too.
This film is well worth watching but it’s a shame that the focus on Robert Tassen and his experience means that we learn very little about the colonised people of Indochina. Though the characters are present, their ‘voices’ are not really heard. One of the few things a Viet Nimh prisoner says is that he’d like to be French. But perhaps the lack of understanding shown by the French characters is the real message of the film?
Here’s the French trailer (no English subs) which gives some idea of the visual qualities of the film:
This is a film that I’ve known about for years but never before managed to see. Now, thanks to Talking Pictures TV and their season of films compiled by the Imperial War Museum, I have – and it is certainly worth seeing. This is propaganda with real bite and I’m sure many audiences might have been quite shocked in 1942. Who knows how many lives it might have saved?
Originally intended as a military training film emphasising the danger of service personnel speaking carelessly about any aspects of their work, the commission was eventually developed by Ealing Studios (which increased the budget substantially) and an array of well known faces. Ealing’s work paid off and the film was a great success, both as propaganda and as a rather alarming form of entertainment. (But Ealing only covered its costs – the War Office took the profits.) It was a clear step forward from earlier propaganda efforts and morale-building war combat films, both in its production qualities and its approach to finding ways to achieve its objectives.
The plot involves an attack on a German U-boat base in a small French port which intelligence from a French military agent has discovered is only lightly guarded. An infantry brigade with appropriate training is identified and sent to a training area to practice the skills necessary for a night-time landing and the subsequent demolition of port facilities. A security officer is assigned to the brigade, but German intelligence soon begins to pick up clues that an attack is in preparation. A set of parallel narratives develops in which German spies attempt to discover the target and British intelligence attempts to stop them. In the final section of what is a comparatively long film for the time (102 minutes), the raid goes ahead but the Germans discover enough information through ‘careless talk’ and the ingenuity of German agents to identify ‘Norville’ as the target and to reinforce the local garrison. The final action sequence is very impressive. A well-planned and executed raid succeeds in its prime objective but loses many, many men killed, injured and presumably captured. The film’s title (it seems to exist with and without the ‘The’) is referred to in a voiceover that tells us “Next of kin will be informed”. The final scene sees the comedy pairing of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in their familiar roles as bumbling middle-class English ‘chaps’ on a train talking ‘carelessly’ and being overheard by the film’s chief villain played by an unlikely Ealing favourite. As Charles Barr in his Ealing book suggests, instead of defusing the horror of the loss of life in the raid, this properly brings home how dangerous frivolous talk can be.
Next of Kin was written by familiar Ealing figures Angus MacPhail and John Dighton alongside contributions from director Thorold Dickinson and Basil Bartlett as military advisor. The key figure here is Dickinson, at the time heading the Army Kinematograph Service Film Unit, who really deserves an entire post to himself. If you want to know more about him I recommend Geoff Brown’s entry on Screenonline. Dickinson is another of the left-wing Oxbridge intellectuals who became interested in film in the late 1920s. Unlike Humphrey Jennings and others he didn’t focus on documentary but engaged in commercial cinema. I was struck by one scene in particular in the early part of the film when the soldiers in question all visit a local theatre to watch an extraordinary ‘classical striptease’ in which a dancer (Phyllis Stanley) gracefully descends a gothic staircase discarding layers of a diaphanous dress. Dickinson, DoP Ernest Palmer and art designer Tom Morahan use shadow and an enormous (and suggestive) silhouette of a static female figure to create a highly expressionist presentation. This looks as if it might have come from a later Michael Powell film with the set much too big to be accommodated on the stage of the theatre. The dancer is just one of the German agents, all depicted as shrewd and skilled, who wheedle information out of the soldiers. At the head of this post is an image of Nova Pilbeam, the fearless young woman from Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (UK 1937) who is playing a Dutch refugee, forced to spy because the Nazis hold her parents. The dancer is a cocaine addict who is easily manipulated but others are ‘good Nazis’. None are the stiff Prussian types or buffoons of the earlier propaganda films. Although some of these spies are caught, others are successful.
Dickinson went on to make one of the most distinctive British films of the post-war period, Men of Two Worlds (1946), a Technicolor drama shot in East Africa for Two Cities focusing on the dilemmas faced by an educated African caught between the village culture of his people and the world of the coloniser. Like Dickinson’s later film for Ealing, Secret People (1952) about refugees in London in the 1930s and a plot to kill a dictator, Men of Two Worlds fell awkwardly between the ideals of Dickinson and his co-writer Joyce Cary (on both films) and the commercial imperatives of the time. I remember finding both films to be worth seeing. Dickinson finally became the UK’s first Professor of Film at the Slade School in 1967.
But in 1942, Next of Kin worked and it paved the way for an even more hard-fitting propaganda film by another unusual figure at Ealing – Went the Day Well?, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and released in December 1942. During 1942 there was a raid on the French coast when 5,000 Canadian and 1,000 British troops landed at Dieppe. I don’t know of any claims that this was ‘leaked’ but the Germans were aware, possibly via French agents, that some kind of attack was planned. The raid was in many ways a complete disaster and many of the men, especially the Canadians, were killed, injured or captured. A great deal then seemed to be learned before D-Day in 1944 about how to prepare for a landing – and how to keep the target secret.
In most respects a conventional ‘war combat’ film featuring a unit attempting to fend off overwhelming enemy forces, A Hill in Korea does have some interesting features. It’s a Wessex Films production and as in the much earlier Once a Jolly Swagman, Ian Dalrymple’s production carries a couple of reminders of his documentary roots. The film begins and ends with a ‘voice of authority’ voiceover explaining that this unit went out on patrol at a certain time and that there were ‘ten national servicemen’ among the 16 men in the unit. The story is set during the retreat of UN forces in late 1950 as the Chinese advance.
British films about the war in Korea are hard to find and the action is largely represented on screen by Hollywood. The British contribution to the UN Command forces was part of a ‘Commonwealth Division’ with Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Indian personnel. In numerical terms, the Commonwealth forces comprised only a fraction of the total UN forces compared to the dominant American contribution. ‘National Service’ was introduced in the UK in 1949 and lasted until 1960 with young men required to serve for two years by the time of Korea. Later British films featured the independence struggles in the British colonies of Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus as well as the débacle of Suez, in each of which national servicemen saw action. In A Hill in Korea, there are various taunts and squabbles between the national servicemen and the ‘regulars’.
Although there are two prolonged action sequences, two hills to be defended in fact, much of the interest in this relatively short film is now in the casting, which serves as a commentary on how the British film industry was developing. The biggest contemporary name has the smallest part with Michael Caine seemingly having one line in one of his earliest credited appearances. The unit is commanded by George Baker as a young Lieutenant who may actually be a national serviceman – it was possible to be commissioned on entry. Certainly he has never seen combat before, unlike the ‘regulars’ Harry Andrews as the Sergeant and Stanley Baker as the hard-bitten corporal. The rest of the cast are also mainly familiar names, known through theatre and TV as well as film in the 1950s. Victor Maddern and Percy Herbert would become well-known character actors while future Hollywood stars Robert Shaw and Stephen Boyd have a few lines each. Ronald Lewis, an actor who is not well-known now, has a fairly prominent role as a more middle-class serviceman who plays the one member of the unit who breaks down psychologically – and is not supported by his fellow squaddies.
One aspect of the film that grated with me was the use of the term ‘Chinks’ to refer to the Chinese troops. Every character uses this term and the most loquacious refers to ‘yellow men’. The enemy troops are never seen in close-up but only as tiny figures running towards the British positions. I’m assuming this racist terminology was meant to be ‘realistic’ in terms of how soldiers referred to the enemy in 1950 when the film was set. There is a South Korean soldier attached to the unit and he is played by an English actor, Charles Laurence with heavy make-up. I think it must have been a budget issue that meant that this film didn’t attempt to represent Chines and Korean culture in any ‘authentic’ way. Hollywood, with bigger budgets and more access to Korean actors and extras does at least give a veneer of authenticity, even if the locations used are in California. According to one review I read, this British film was shot in Portugal with American jet fighters purchased for the Portuguese Air Force. These were possibly Lockheed T-33 training aircraft, a variant of the Shooting Star fighter-bombers used by the Americans in Korea.
A Hill in Korea was directed by Julian Aymes. He was a TV director who only made two cinema features but worked extensively on ‘TV films’ and series from the early 1950s to the late 1980s. The great director-cinematographer Freddie Francis made his debut as DoP on the film shooting in B&W. IMDb lists the aspect ratio as Academy and certainly that was the ratio used on the print shown on Talking Pictures TV. It’s late to still be using Academy and some of the shots did seem possibly cropped to me. Does anyone have more information? Malcolm Arnold is credited with the music score. The film was released outside the UK (including in the US) as Hell in Korea.
A lot of viewers must come to the film hoping to see the Michael Caine performance, but as I’ve indicated, he has a very small role. Caine himself was one of those national servicemen aged 19 sent out to Korea and it’s worth listening to an extract from his recent radio broadcast of his autobiography about his time as a soldier in Korea. It’s on YouTube as ‘The Korean War and Michael Caine’. It sounds like the real experience wasn’t too different from the film. Searching for images, I discovered that Robert Shaw seems to have been the actor that most attracted the stills photographer on set. A Hill in Korea isn’t an action spectacular but as a gritty drama about a bunch of squaddies fighting against overwhelming odds it’s definitely worth a watch.
Girls of the Sun was screened at Cannes this year as part of the Official Competition. It was one of only three films directed by women in the main competition in this year of #MeToo. Unfortunately, while the other two women (Alice Rohrwacher and Nadine Labaki) were both genuine contenders for the big prize with Happy as Lazzaro and Capernaum, Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun was given something of a ‘thumbs down’ by the Cannes critics. I would like to have refuted their putdown, but I have to admit that the film has flaws (not helped by Screen 5 at the Vue suffering sound problems again).
The ‘girls’ of the title are actually women who have joined the Kurdish military in order to fight to liberate their home town which was taken by Daesh. With their husbands and fathers executed, the women and their children were kidnapped and then the young boys were taken to be trained as Daesh fighters. The women, who subsequently escaped, were then recruited for the fight. It’s a harrowing and important story which deserves to be more widely known – see this report on Kurdish women in the Peshmerga. The film was shot in Georgia and the central role is taken by Golshifteh Farahani, the Iranian actor who was so good in About Elly (Iran 2009) but who later left for France and who has subsequently appeared in international films. Farahani plays the role of Bahar, the commander of what the promo material calls a ‘batallion’ of female soldiers. In fact by the time the fighting proper begins this appears to be reduced to more like a small squad of less than ten.
Eva Husson, making only her second cinema feature as writer-director makes a number of important strategic decisions which perhaps seemed a good idea at the time but which I think perhaps didn’t quite work out as she planned. First she decided to present her story as a non-linear narrative with a series of flashbacks woven into the main narrative showing how the women were first kidnapped and how some escaped. At the end of the film we saw possibly the same explosion as at the beginning – which Keith suggested meant that everything was actually a flashback to two different time periods. He may well be correct. I confess at the beginning I was trying to cope with the loud and unfortunately distorting soundtrack comprising rather bombastic music scored by Husson’s regular collaborator, the American musician Morgan Kibby. The second choice was to include the character of a French war correspondent Mathilde played by Emmanuelle Bercot (who I last saw in Mon Roi, 2015). Bercot is a powerful figure (with six directorial credits) and in the film’s opening sequence her character seems to be the protagonist. But in time we realise that Mathilde’s role is mainly to observe/witness the story of the female fighters. Since there is a sub-genre of ‘journalist under fire’ pictures with examples from Hollywood, European and ‘international’ cinemas, I found this a little confusing – as if Eva Husson was not quite sure what to do with her character while the audience is expecting the journalist to become an active agent in the narrative. The journalist’s role seems to be partly as listener when Bahar tells the women’s story. She also enables us to see how dangerous war reporting is during this kind of close fighting.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is a ‘bad film’. Golshifteh Farahani and the other women are convincing fighters and the action scenes are exciting enough. There is a strong sense of this being the story of women literally observed by a woman and that’s fine. I just had the nagging feeling that it wasn’t working as well as it should. It’s perhaps significant that at one point (or was it soon after the film ended?) I was reminded of the Bollywood action epic earlier this year with Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif which imagined a similar scenario with women needing to be rescued from a terrorist stronghold in Iraq. Katrina Kaif’s ‘super spy’ is very impressive in taking out so many black-clad warriors with her choreographed martial arts techniques. This is a very silly film but actually quite entertaining. Girls of the Sun is very serious (rightly so) but a bit clunky by comparison. I remembered later that Agnès Poirier had written an angry piece in the Guardian during the Cannes Festival in which she calls the film exploitative and argues that is not a feminist film since the two lead characters are defined mostly by motherhood rather than by their political activity. She was defending film critics who had called out against the film from the #MeToo activists who blamed poor reviews on male film critics. She has a point but perhaps both sides of the argument need to cool down a bit. Eva Husson’s background suggests an intelligent and talented woman from a family steeped in anti-fascist action. She won’t have attempted to exploit Peshmerga women – but perhaps the script needed a bit more development?
Based on an important novel by Väinö Linna published in 1954, this ‘national popular’ film is the most expensive production (at a modest €7 million) in Finnish film history. It is the third film based on the novel to explore the ‘Continuation War’ of 1941-44. Four of the film’s actors were present in Glasgow and told us that the shoot of 81 days was mainly based in the forests of military training areas and that the use of CGI was limited. The UK SFX explosive specialists on the shoot reportedly used more dynamite than on any other production.
The ‘Continuation War’ was the second conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union in swift succession. Finland ceded the Karelian isthmus to the USSR after the Winter War of 1939-40. A year later, the German attack on the USSR persuaded the Finns to ally with them and attempt to retrieve the territory they had lost. At first all went well and the Finns entered Soviet territory beyond Karelia. But as the Nazi advance stalled, the Russian defence against the Finns turned towards the offensive and eventually the Finns were forced to cede Karelia again in late 1944. At the end of The Unknown Soldier, on-screen titles inform us that of all the continental European combatants in the Second World War, Finland was the only one not to be occupied – the USSR did not ask for unconditional surrender, but it did require the Finns to round-up and expel the remaining German forces.
So, did we need a third film on the same topic and what does it tell us about Finish national identity and/or ideas about war combat? I went back to look at the previous Finnish war film discussed on this blog, The Winter War (Finland 1989) and discovered that the same observations might be applicable to both films despite the fact that the wars were not the same and that they are based on different novels. The previous film was also heavily cut for international distribution with the Finnish version running to nearly three hours (the 1989 film was also the ‘most expensive Finnish film production at the time).
The print of The Unknown Soldier in Glasgow was missing nearly an hour from the Finnish version. I’m not sure I would have wanted another hour of action that was sometimes gruelling to watch but I’m guessing that much of what was cut was deemed to be too detailed to have universal appeal. I did feel that the two-hour version came to a fairly abrupt halt when the armistice was signed. I’m sure there must be more to learn about the Home Front and the aftermath of war. How difficult was it, I wonder to expel the Germans?
The film focuses on a specific ‘heavy machine gun’ unit and follows the unit through the whole campaign. The most important characters are a couple of very different young lieutenants and a group of enlisted men. Soon they are joined by a pair of Winter War veterans and in particular Rokka (Eero Aho), a grizzled corporal who is by far the most experienced soldier in the unit. He is from Karelia and has already lost his farm once. He makes clear that he is fighting for his land and his family, not for ‘Finland’ and that he intends “to kill, but not be killed”. He is also oblivious to military discipline. The film is certainly about the soldiers rather than the politicians. The most interesting sequences for me were the short Home Front episodes and the Finnish occupation of the isthmus (Eastern Karelia) where the population is mixed Finnish and Russian. It reminded me of Russian films about the ‘Great Patriotic War’ in which the same region experienced occupation by Soviet, then Nazi and then Soviet again. (See Trial on the Road (1971/85).
I’m not sure that this would be described as an ‘anti-war’ film, but given that it is in the ‘National Popular’ mode, the version we saw was not particularly jingoistic. The ‘Russians’ we meet are either sympathetic families in Karelia or captured soldiers. Otherwise they are faceless in the scenes of battle. There is no glory in the battles – though Rokka gets the reward of going home on leave after his effective demolition of the enemy. The Unknown Soldier has been acquired for UK distribution by Arrow Films. I presume the cut version will appear on a UK DVD. In Finland a five-part TV series is planned.
I find films of this kind interesting if only to act as a counterbalance to the common US/UK views of the Second World War. The Unknown Soldier, directed by Aku Louhimies is well worth watching. I should add, however, that there has been plenty of criticism of the film in Finland (see this review). The director is seen to have ‘glamourised’ the soldiers and the excitement of the action (the combat scenes in the forests are beautifully photographed) and to have changed the representation of well-known characters from the novel. So, in the end it does seem to have created a Saving Private Ryan sort of situation – one in which a film is seen in cinemas by a large home audience (20% of all Finns according to the actors) but also criticised for misrepresenting the combat.
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 Monsarrat 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