Okay, first things first. Hands up who’s seen Christopher Nolan’s epic WWII box office hit Dunkirk? If you have thought about it but are still on the fence, I recommend you see it in the theatre. Dunkirk is the sort of film that is sure to lose much of its visceral and emotional impact if you don’t experience it on the big screen. And you know you want to be imagining yourself snuggled up in the cockpit next to Tom Hardy, right?
The evacuation operation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France in May and June of 1940 has been referenced on film many times before this treatment, however, and with good reason. It was a daunting and inspiring undertaking in which civilians joined with military personnel in courage and solidarity to rescue over 330,000 British and French soldiers. It was a great morale boost for the British by turning a military disaster into a heroic narrative.
In fact, even before the war was over, the Miracle of Dunkirk had made its way onto the big screen. In a memorable scene from 1942’s Mrs. Miniver, Clem Miniver (Walter Pidgeon) and his neighbors from the local river patrol are summoned from their beds by the Ministry of Shipping to take part in the evacuation with their small boats venturing forty miles across the dangerous open sea.
Other theatrical depictions include director Joe Wright’s haunting and powerful scene in 2007’s Oscar-nominated film Atonement. If you’ve seen it, you will no doubt remember the extraordinary five-minute tracking shot that follows Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) as he and his comrades come upon the chaotic scene on the Dunkirk coast.
Even rom-com king Richard Curtis paid homage to the miraculous rescue operation in Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked), a 2009 comedy about a band of rogue DJs who, in defiance of the British government, play rock music in the middle of the North Sea. At the end of the film, as the ship they inhabit is sinking, devoted listeners form a virtual armada made up of boats of all shapes and sizes to fish their heroes out of the water.
Most recently, the film Their Finest employed the Dunkirk evacuation to tell a story about the significance of Britain’s wartime propaganda efforts. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) and Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) are tasked by the Ministry of Information with writing an inspiring and highly fictionalized script that focuses on a pair of brave sisters who face danger to help the stranded troops and generally save the day. The intention of the film was to hearten beleaguered Brits and encourage the Americans to join the war effort.
And if you’re looking for more than a nod to Dunkirk, there have been a couple of projects that examined the fuller military operation long before Nolan did.
The 1958 film Dunkirk also dramatized the extraordinary seaborne exodus that saved the British Expeditionary Force from annihilation by the Germans. The story is told mainly from the viewpoints of a newspaper reporter, Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee), and a British soldier in France, Corporal "Tubby" Binns (John Mills). Richard Atttenborough also starred as a small manufacturing business owner who reluctantly participates in the evacuation.
Then in 2004, the BBC produced a documentary not surprisingly also entitled Dunkirk. Narrated by Timothy Dalton, this three-part factual TV series used archive film footage, eyewitness accounts and dramatized sequences to chronicle the events of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation. Did I mention Benedict Cumberbatch was featured in this BAFTA award-winning program?
The Miracle of Dunkirk remains an astounding historical human endeavor borne of a horrible military defeat. It produced a famously inspirational speech by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and it continues to move audiences almost eight decades later.