By Nicholas Varangis
This week, two Dunkirks will make their debut. The first is the much-anticipated Christopher Nolan film, a two-hour long Hollywood blockbuster set to take theaters by storm as a new take on the war epic genre. The second is the lesser-known 2004 BBC docudrama, which recreates the real events surrounding Operation Dynamo. The miniseries is set for its online streaming debut on July 20th, 2017 on BritBox, a streaming service for British television.
The Battle of Dunkirk
The evacuation of Dunkirk was a pivotal point in the early days of World War II. The German blitzkrieg of May 1940 had pushed the British and French to the English Channel. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force found themselves trapped at the beaches of Dunkirk in France. The disaster that arose from the swift defeat of the Allied forces threw Britain into a political crisis. It was uncertain if Britain would remain fighting or sue for peace with Nazi Germany. The days of Dunkirk were some of the bleakest in the war for the Allies.
In spite of all odds, Operation Dynamo, an amazing logistical and military feat, evacuated over 300,000 Allied soldiers and very likely kept Britain in the war.
Real Events Captured With Accurate Dramatization
Unlike the Nolan Film, the BBC miniseries focuses on reconstructing personal accounts from the veterans of Operation Dynamo. Each scene is essentially a recreation of real events, played by actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch of the hit BBC series Sherlock.
But this is not a mere reenactment of a show of arms, as some docudramas are apt to do. Soldiers banter back and forth in anticipation for the coming battle, capturing a deeply authentic atmosphere.
As a docudrama, the film is guided by a narrator, who helps hold together the diverse yet interconnected stories depicted in the series. Other staples of the documentary genre are utilized. Animated maps are used as transitioning devices between scenes. Historic footage from Dunkirk is interspersed with reenactments to set tone and to ground the events in reality.
One of the events depicted in Dunkirk is the Wormhoudt massacre, in which members of 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) murdered 80 British and French POWs in a barn in Wormhoudt. 15 soldiers survived, only to be recaptured and spend the rest of the war in a POW camp.
The docudrama follows Private Alf Tombs, a soldier from D Company 2nd Battalion of the British Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who was one of the few survivors. The docudrama tracks the company’s men from their clash with German forces at Wormhoudt to their surrender and ultimate fate at the hands of the ruthless Waffen-SS. Through the eyes of Private Tombs, the viewer gets an intimate look at the company’s supply problems, their social dynamics, and the small heroic actions that helped to save the few men who survived.
A Broad Look at the Events Surrounding Dunkirk
The miniseries also takes a macroscopic look at the events of Dunkirk. The series follows Bertrand Ramsay, architect of the Dunkirk evacuation, as he plans the evacuation. Meanwhile, members within Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet debated on whether to negotiate peace with the Germans through the Italians.
When looking back at the Second World War, it is often easy to take for granted these decisions, which, in retrospect, seem simple, but at the time were subject to intense scrutiny.
Churchill’s division with Lord Halifax on the prospect of negotiation features prominently in the docudrama as tensions mount in the War Cabinet.
In one meeting, Halifax, contesting Churchill’s desire to forgo negotiation exclaims:
“Yesterday you were talking about giving up Malta, today you want to fight on. But nothing has changed in our favor! Where is the logic in that?”
The heated debate presents a certain irony to the modern viewer; that Churchill’s position to fight on, which has been vindicated by history, was at the time a more difficult position to justify than Halifax’s position to capitulate.
In another scene Halifax walks in on Churchill giving a speech to the War Cabinet. Halifax comments wryly on Churchill’s speech of defiance against Nazi Germany:
“Give him an audience and he’ll fool them into believing anything. I wonder if they’ll feel the same when he’s taken them into the abyss.”
These acted scenes give viewers a front-seat view into the uncertainty of Britain’s direction in the war as the fate of the British Expeditionary Force hung in the balance.
Rare Archival Audio Clips
“The (german tank) gunner was in the conning tower, brandishing two terrific automatic pistols in a very business-like manner”
Alongside the release of the docudrama on the streaming service, Britbox will also be releasing rare audio clips, featuring interviews with veterans of Operation Dynamo, reports from premier journalists of the time like Edward Murrow, and Winston Churchill’s first ever broadcast as prime minister. The clips complement the miniseries extremely well, adding the real voices of veterans who served, and enhancing immersion.
A Fresh Look at the Thrilling Miniseries
With the release of the new Christopher Nolan film, the story of Dunkirk is back in the public spotlight. BritBox’s fresh look at the Dunkirk BBC miniseries is a great way to get immersed in the real events that inspired the Hollywood film.
The Dunkirk miniseries stands on its own as a compelling and immersive recreation of the lives of soldiers on the ground and the backroom conversations that decided the fate of the war, and the newly-released audio clips are an amazing enhancement to the experience. Check out BritBox for full access to the three-part miniseries, starting July 20th.