World War II

The Dunkirk evacuation on film before Christopher Nolan landed there

The historic British operation finally gets the big-budget Hollywood treatment.

Hollywood has explored the American experience of World War II numerous times. Key events involving the US armed forces have been immortalised on celluloid with much fervour. However, 77 years ago, it was an extraordinary British operation described as a “miracle” that decided the course of events during the war.

If Operation Dynamo had failed, Germany would have beaten the British and the US would have probably never joined the war. This iconic event has never been given the big-budget Hollywood treatment until Christopher Nolan decided to enshrine its memory. Nolan’s Dunkirk, starring Tom Hardy, Mary Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles and Kenneth Branagh, will be released on July 21.

In May 1940, the German troops advanced into Belgium after conquering Poland and the Netherlands. The British and French troops, cornered from from all sides, huddled at the beaches of Dunkirk in France. Behind them was the German forces with their Panzer tanks; overhead were their air force. What saved 3,38,000 men from slaughter was the remarkable collaboration of soldiers and civilians in a concerted effort to bring their boys back home.

Play
An animated history of Dunkirk.

The two major cinematic depictions of the Dunkirk evacuation have been British productions: a 1958 film and a 2004 BBC docudrama, both named after the operation.

Common between, and, perhaps, ailing both the productions is the time devoted to the behind-the-scene politics and manoeuvring that led to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill initiating Operation Dynamo. In the 1958 film, directed by Leslie Norman, the narrative is two-fold. On the one hand, journalist Foreman (Bernard Lee) and his friend, businessman Holden (Richard Attenborough), join forces along with other locals to take their boats and vessels from England to Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers.

Back in France, a company of soldiers led by Corporal Binns (John Mills) fight and escape German forces to finally reach Dunkirk and wait for divine intervention. Clocking in at 134 minutes, Norman’s Dunkirk tries to cover a lot of ground – the local mood in England, British government officials squabbling with each other, the war in France, and, of course, the evacuation.

Dunkirk (1958).
Dunkirk (1958).

The earnest performances by the actors makes the sum work despite the parts. The best scene comes near the end, where the troops take some time out on the beach to pray en masse. The sudden shelling by the Luftwaffe traps some of the soldiers into wondering whether they should run in the middle of Holy Communion.

The 2004 BBC docudrama examines the evacuation in exhausting detail. Divided into three episodes and running over three hours, the series shows the events of the 10 days (May 26 to June 4, 1940) during which Operation Dynamo was executed. The star of the show is Simon Russell Beale, who is fantastic as Churchill. Beale not only looks the part but also turns in an authoritative and often sympathetic performance as a man under tremendous pressure to save his country from absolute defeat. Without Beale, the docudrama is a humdrum affair that can barely keep a history nut’s attention from wavering.

Dunkirk (2004).
Dunkirk (2004).

A lesser-known French take on the event, Week-end à Zuydcoote (Weekend at Dunkirk), depicts the ordeal through the eyes of young French sergeant Maillat (Jean-Paul Belmondo, fresh from Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless) as the French troops appear torn between evacuating with the British and holding ground for a final face-off with the Germans. The film never moves away from the war and is focused on the troops at the beach, particularly, Maillat’s conversations with several soldiers that often take a philosophical turn.

Most recently, the battle on the Dunkirk beach was captured in a five-minute continuous tracking shot in Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007). Here, the hero Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), a British soldier, escapes the German forces and reaches the beach at Dunkirk. The non-stop shot takes a panoramic view of the war-ravaged beach as Turner walks around, absorbing everything. Wright adds a touch of fancy to the scene (a distant Ferris wheel with a man hanging from it, children playing, soldiers enjoying a merry-go-round) that makes it stand apart from the earlier, gritty representations of Dunkirk. It’s a sequence too beautiful for war, and, simultaneously, one that features top-notch choreography and technical finesse.

Play
Dunkirk (2017).
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.