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Dunkirk through the ages

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With the Dunkirk evacuation becoming one of the defining moments of World War II, it comes as no surprise that it has been so widely documented in the media over the years.

Between 26th May and 4th June 1940, Allied troops comprising soldiers from Britain, France, Belgium and Canada were cut off by encroaching Nazi forces on the beaches of Dunkirk during the Battle of France, and facing imminent disaster. The ensuing Operation Dynamo saw civilian vessels setting off from British shores, working with the military to help bring troops home.

By the end of the eighth day, an extraordinary 338,226 soldiers had been rescued. The rescue helped turn the tide of the war and inspired Prime Minister Winston Churchill's famous "we shall never surrender" speech, delivered to the House of Commons on 4th June.

Given his rich catalogue of highly-acclaimed movies like Memento, The Dark Knight and Inception, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has become one of the most anticipated adaptations to date. And with the release now just weeks away, we’ve decided to take a look at some of the most well-known representations of the world-defining event.

Mrs Miniver (1942)

Released just two years after the actual event, Mrs Miniver is primarily a drama portraying a family’s struggles during the first few months of the war. With the Miniver family at the very heart of the story, this release highlights the impact that the war had on normal families, and those not directly involved in the fight.

One of the key moments of the film occurs when Mrs Miniver’s husband is summoned from his bed in the early hours of the morning in order to help with the Dunkirk evacuation. In keeping the housewife at the very core of the film, it drives home the significance of this historic event to all those who experienced it, from those directly involved to those witnessing from their own homes.


Dunkirk (1958)

The first film to have the evacuation as its core focus, this 1958 release is a dramatisation of the evacuation, focusing primarily on two different experiences - a news reporter and a soldier.

Based on two novels, The Big Pick-Up and Dunkirk, Leslie Norman’s release went on to become the second most successful production at British box offices in its year of release. With a cast including John Mills and Richard Attenborough, Dunkirk has since been praised for its effective portrayal of the sheer masses of people involved in the evacuation.


Dunkirk (2004)

A BBC docudrama as opposed to a feature-length film, this three-episode series used a mix of archive footage, eyewitness accounts and dramatised sequences to represent the events of the 1940 evacuation.

Narrated by James Bond himself, Timothy Dalton, and with a cast list including Doctor Strange’s Benedict Cumberbatch, the series was highly praised for ‘how fair a picture of that extraordinary episode it conveys, how accurate the history is’.

When questioned on the reasons behind the series, co-writer Neil McKay shared his desires for it to be viewed as "a fitting tribute to those who went through the experience of Dunkirk".


Atonement (2007)

Though primarily a romance, and based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan, Atonement does in fact contain one of the most memorable Dunkirk representations in recent years.

Given that the film’s narrative spans across six decades from the 1930s, it comes as no surprise that World War II plays a part. Though only receiving a brief description within the novel, director Joe Wright’s Dunkirk adopted a five-minute tracking shot in which James McAvoy’s Robbie comes across the beach, and proceeds to follow Robbie and his two comrades in the midst of the action.

The scene included around 1000 extras and removed a significant portion of the movie’s budget, but the spectacular end result is plain to see.


Their Finest

Just months before the release of Dunkirk, Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest adopted a different approach in its representation of the evacuation.

As Gemma Arterton’s Catrin is tasked with delivering an uplifting propaganda script to lift people’s spirits in the midst of the war, she stumbles across the story of two twin sisters believed to have stolen their family boat in order to help with the evacuation.

Catrin’s film becomes highly fictionalised as time progresses; however the influence of Dunkirk remains at the heart of the film, and serves as the inspiration needed to create a story worth sharing.


And on 21st July...


Dunkirk (2017)

We already know that Dunkirk will be unlike any Nolan film that came before. The key detail revealed so far is that the plot splits between three narratives - the experiences of those on land, those at sea, and those in the air.

Rather than a traditional war film, Dunkirk is expected to play more as a suspense film, with the experience of those directly involved serving as the primary focus of the plot.


Hannah Dixon is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.