Dunkirk (1958 film)

Dunkirk is a 1958 British war film directed by Leslie Norman that depicts the Dunkirk evacuation of World War II, and starring John Mills, Richard Attenborough, and Bernard Lee.[4][5] The film is based on the novels The Big Pick-Up by Elleston Trevor and Dunkirk co-authored by Lt. Col. Ewan Butler and Maj. J. S. Bradford.[6]

Directed byLeslie Norman
Produced byMichael Balcon
Written byJ. S. Bradford (book)
Ewan Butler (book)
David Divine (screenplay)
StarringJohn Mills
Richard Attenborough
Bernard Lee
Music byMalcolm Arnold
CinematographyPaul Beeson
Edited byGordon Stone
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
20 March 1958 (1958-03-20)
Running time
134 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$1,025,000[1] or £400,000[2][3]
Box office$2,060,000[1]


A civilian in England, newspaper reporter Charles Foreman fails to rouse his complacent readers on the home front from the luring notion of a "Phoney War" before it is too late. His acquaintance John Holden owns a small factory manufacturing buckles and is quite pleased with his profits from the Phoney War. In May 1940, the Battle of France begins when the Germans invade and rapidly advance, threatening to trap much of the Allied forces in a pocket in northern France and overwhelm them.

A British soldier in France, Corporal "Tubby" Binns, his platoon leader Lieutenant Lumpkin and a depleted section return to camp after blowing up a bridge, only to discover that their company has pulled out during the night, leaving them alone in France. One man and a lorry have been left to wait for them, but the driver and Lumpkin are killed in a German air attack, leaving Tubby in charge of a five-man squad with no idea what the situation is or where to go. It is up to Tubby to keep his increasingly demoralised men on the move. They dodge the advancing Germans and reach a Royal Artillery battery camp. There they receive some food, but lose Private Frazer while repelling a German column. They are then ordered to head north with two other stragglers to try to link up with the rest of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The party spends the night in a farmhouse, but at dawn a German patrol breaks in and Private Dave Bellman is shot badly in the chest, forcing Tubby to leave him behind, as it is Bellman's only chance of receiving medical attention. Eventually, they encounter a Royal Air Force lorry and get a lift to Dunkirk. They join the rest of the BEF and tens of thousands of French soldiers who are hoping to be evacuated to England.

The situation becomes so desperate that General John Vereker, Viscount Gort, the commander of the BEF, pulls out two divisions against orders to reinforce the wavering Belgians. The Admiralty commandeers all available civilian boats to help evacuate the troops from the beaches. Foreman insists on taking his motorboat Vanity himself, despite warnings of the danger. Other boat owners follow his example. Holden takes his boat Heron, with some reluctance at first, but his lack of commitment is soon forgotten.

The soldiers on the beaches are subjected to regular aerial bombing and strafing. Tubby and his men get aboard a ship, only to have it blown up and sunk before it can depart. When they get back to the beach, Pte Barlow is hit in the face and taken to the aid station. After ferrying soldiers to the larger vessels, Foreman's boat is destroyed by a bomber. He survives and is picked up by Holden in the Heron. When Heron's engine breaks down, Private Mike Russell, one of Tubby's men, effects repairs while Foreman and teenage crewman Frankie go ashore to survey the scene. Foreman and Tubby discuss who is responsible for the debacle. During a Sunday morning church parade, Foreman is fatally wounded in an attack by Luftwaffe Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers. Holden, Tubby and the rest of his men arrive safely back in Britain.



Beach sequences were shot at Camber Sands in south-east England. The scene where the bridge was blown during the early part of the film was on the River Medway at Teston Bridge, Teston in Kent.[7] Dunkirk town centre was recreated using part of Rye Harbour in Sussex, England. A canal-type bridge was temporarily constructed over the upper harbour, leading on to the quayside. It was over this bridge that the refugees and troops poured into the "town centre". Several scenes take place at this location, particularly a tracking shot following two British Army officers as they discuss the situation. In the background, the viewer can make out Rye Church and some old warehouses, still extant, albeit in much restored condition. One of the warehouses was used as the interior for the "Barn Scene".

Director Leslie Norman later recalled,

Dunkirk was bloody difficult to make from a logistics point of view. Yet it was made for £400,000 and came in under budget... I was the council school boy who became a major in the war, and that had a lot to do with the way I felt about Dunkirk. I didn't think that Dunkirk was a defeat; I always thought it was a very gallant effort but not a victory.[2]

The musical score is by Malcolm Arnold, which may account for the fact that many of its segments sound very much like his Academy-Award-winning theme from The Bridge on the River Kwai, made the previous year (1957).


The world premiere was at the Empire, Leicester Square, in London on 20 March 1958. The film was the second most popular production at the British box office in 1958.[8] According to MGM records it earned only $310,000 in the US and Canada but $1,750,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $371,000.[1]

See also


  1. The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study
  2. Brian McFarlane, An Autobiography of British Cinema, Metheun 1997 p. 441
  3. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 June 2007. Retrieved 2016-04-10.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. Variety film review; 26 March 1958, page 6.
  5. Harrison's Reports film review; 23 August 1958, p. 134.
  6. John Mills. "Dunkirk (1958) - Leslie Norman | Synopsis, Characteristics, Moods, Themes and Related". AllMovie. Retrieved 17 November 2016.
  7. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Dunkirk Film Focus".
  8. Alec Guinness "world's biggest box-office attraction" The Manchester Guardian (1901–1959) [Manchester (UK)] 2 January 1959: 5.
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