The most ambitious Ealing film during the MGM period was Dunkirk, directed by Leslie Norman, with a script which fused a factual account by Ewan Butler with a novel, The Big Pick-Up, by Elleston Trevor.
The screenplay was the work of W. P. Lipscomb, with David Divine, a journalist experienced in military affairs and history. It follows the pattern of examining a major event, in this case, the rescue of the British army from the French coast in May 1940, by focusing on a small group – a band of soldiers whose officer has been killed and who are now led by a reluctant corporal (John Mills).
Because Dunkirk is the story of a defeat, though a heroic one, the film has an air of anti-climax, understatement and gritted teeth.
There is no flinching from the fact that what is shown is a military disaster and a journalist who helps in the rescue spends much time criticising the brass hats and their conduct of the war which has led to this shambling mess.
There is a problem in weaving the individual stories into the larger tapestry of the battle itself; the familiar newsreel and press photograph images of lines of troops snaking through the water from beach to boat, the debris of discarded vehicles, weapons and supplies left behind on the sands, the smoke and tumult of battle are vividly reconstructed, but the insertion of John Mills and his half-dozen men has an awkwardness that diminishes the conviction of the larger set piece.
The subject of Dunkirk was perhaps an appropriate one for Ealing, which had made an early name in the area of war films when the Second World War had actually been raging.
Few such films had been made in the Fifties, The Cruel Sea (1953) being the other notable exception. Both films were in a sense concerned not with the glamorous, heroic side of war, but with the wearying, dispiriting absurdity of it, the pointless waste of human resources.
Dunkirk, the story of a retreat and a defeat, was Ealing’s last opportunity to portray a certain idiosyncratic greatness in the British character.
Corporal ‘Tubby’ Bins
Private Dave Bellman
General Viscount Gort, VC
Dr. Lt. Levy