Barry Norman’s final column: a look back at the “intimate” 1958 version of Dunkirk

Legendary film critic and presenter Barry Norman sadly passed away on June 30th. In his final piece for the Radio Times, Norman revisits his father's classic war film, Dunkirk

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My father, Leslie Norman, is probably best known for producing The Cruel Sea. The director, Charles Frend, delayed production on that until Dad, rather than anyone else at Ealing studios, was free to produce it with him.

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A nice compliment and a great film. But my father was prouder of Dunkirk, which he directed and which I believe also to be a particularly fine British war movie. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But see it for yourself and I think you’ll agree.

It was one of Ealing’s longest films (135 minutes) and a hugely complicated one to direct. Much of the action is set on Camber Sands, near Rye, which stood in for the Dunkirk beaches. There Dad had to deal with hundreds of extras — portraying British and French troops — being strafed and bombed by the Luftwaffe in May 1940, while they waited desperately to be evacuated to England.

Simultaneously there were two different, more intimate tales to be told: the first concerning a handful of British soldiers led by Corporal John Mills, who had been cut off somewhere in northern France and were making their way through enemy lines to the beaches.

Meanwhile, back in England, there was another story – that of the skippers and crews of the flotilla of small boats that sailed to Dunkirk to help the Royal Navy bring the troops home.

Here the main characters are a businessman, Richard Attenborough, who is doing well out of the war, and a hard-nosed journalist, Bernard Lee, who is highly critical of the way the military brass hats had allowed the impending disaster of Dunkirk to take place.

OK, nowadays we tend to think of “the miracle of Dunkirk” as some sort of bizarre victory, and the fact that so many soldiers were brought home was indeed a kind of miracle. But in truth it was a considerable defeat and Dad’s film doesn’t disguise that. Certainly there is heroism here, as there was in fact, but this is not gung-ho heroism; it’s the heroism of ordinary blokes struggling to cope with an extraordinary and perilous situation.

The personal stories — including Attenborough’s initial reluctance to help in the evacuation — are well told and well played, but the real power of the film lies in its depiction (extremely accurate according to survivors of the actual events) of the chaos and mayhem of the retreat towards Dunkirk and what happened on the beaches before and during the rescue.

My father produced or directed a number of very good films, but Dunkirk was his most satisfying.

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Dunkirk (2017) is in cinemas from 21st July