Seeing 'Dunkirk'? 2004 BBC Docudrama Provides More Historic Details and Context

With the acclaimed movie Dunkirk landing in theaters this week, it’s a good moment for another, earlier British perspective on that remarkable drama.

The similarly named Dunkirk, a 2004 BBC production, becomes available Thursday on the new streaming service BritBox (www.britbox.com).

A good nuts-and-bolts docudrama on one of the turning points of World War II, the three-part TV series covers the same territory and story as the big-screen movie: the near-miraculous evacuation of some 400,000 British and French troops from a beach in France hours before they would have been killed or captured by the German army in May 1940.

The BBC Dunkirk is a relatively early docudrama, combining archival footage, often colorized, with re-enactments of key events using actors. The actors are mostly unfamous, though they do include a young Benedict Cumberbatch.

Re-enactments of historic moments, however faithfully they recreate what we know about conversations and actions, are by their nature occasionally distracting as they are woven into a more conventional documentary.

Some of the reenactments here involve new Prime Minister Winston Churchill and various government and military officials. Others focus on a handful of soldiers as they scramble to buy enough time for the evacuation to be cobbled together.

Archival photo from 1940.
Archival photo from 1940.

Happily, the story itself is compelling enough that watching it unfold commands our full attention. Timothy Dalton’s smooth, even narration helps considerably, not letting the story devolve into melodrama even at its most critical junctures.

The details and factoids along the way are often fascinating.

In one of Churchill’s first cabinet meetings, we hear Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax argue that Britain should seek to make peace with Germany. Italy, he says, has offered to broker negotiations.

Churchill, who was known for not being averse to battle, correctly replies that Adolf Hitler, at this point, was not much interested in a fair, peaceful resolution.

Churchill also makes what in retrospect seem like hard and harsh calls. In order to expedite whatever evacuation can be mustered, he says, the wounded must be left behind. He also orders that the Southeast coast of Britain be gassed, because that would hinder the German invasion he fears may be coming next.

After minute-by-minute dramas like these, or the struggles of the outgunned British troops to hold off the German Panzer tanks for just a few more hours, we’re periodically reminded of the larger picture.

If the British and French troops were to be wiped out, Germany really could invade Britain with a high probability of success.

But if a viable army’s worth of those troops could be saved, even though they had not been able to hold off the Germans on the continent, then Britain could have time to regroup, rearm and halt what seemed like an unstoppable force.

That is, of course, exactly what happened, though things remained touch-and-go until the U.S. finally realized a year and a half later that this was also an American fight.

The point of the TV Dunkirk, like the movie, is that without this remarkable improvised evacuation, which mobilized pretty much every British vessel larger than a rowboat, World War II might have been over five years earlier with vastly different and uniformly disastrous results.

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