So, it's pretty obvious why this film suddenly has currency. It's a fascinatingly different take on the historical events dealt with in Christopher Nolan's current war epic (and also in Leslie Norman's more low-key 50s production). While it's possible to imagine people liking all three films, it seems likely everyone will greatly prefer one or other of them.
Henri Verneuil enjoyed a long collaboration with Jean-Paul Belmondo, his star here, some of which exploited the star's fearless enthusiasm for daredevil stunts. Though the actor runs about among huge explosions here, so does everybody else, so that doesn't seem so special, though he does perform a spectacular crash down a flight of stairs. But on the whole, the film's talk seems to be to strip away Belmondo's superhero charisma and make him just one of the guys, hundreds of thousands of them, stranded on a beach and prey to bombs, bullets and bureaucracy.
What is fascinating is to get a French take on this story: while Churchill himself said (and is quoted in the Nolan) that retreats don't win wars, the British have always regarded Dunkirk as a kind of triumph, a turning point in the war in which a run of unmitigated disasters was finally broken by an evacuation that surpassed all expectations. A British officer actually suggests this to Belmondo at one point in this film, and gets a skeptical response that with a few more triumphs like this, we'll all be in Norway. So the movie isn't triumphal, and it denies to its characters the kind of historical overview that seems to be the very basis of Nolan's film, what it is building to. Nobody in Verneuil's movie is seen arriving at that understanding, as they're all mired in the present tense, which is a scenario where they're stuck on a beach being picked off from the air.
Nolan's film, which is unavoidably being perceived as something to do with Brexit, does show an ambivalence towards Anglo-French relations. So does Verneuil's, from the opposite perspective. We see Belmondo trying to get passage to England, being rejected, sent to get a form filled in, having to wait while the British officer concerned has tea, getting the form, and having it declared useless. There's already something surreal about men queuing into the sea, and to this is added a Kafkaesque touch of nightmare bureaucracy.
Where Nolan goes for minimal dialogue, backstory, psychology, and an immersive, epic approach that eschews humor and irony and most forms of characterization, Verneuil's film is more skeptical about everything. Beginning on a travel poster advertising the joys of Dunkirk as a tourist destination, it seems at times to depict the evacuation as a really shit holiday. Sun, sea, sand, queuing, and bickering—with the added inconvenience of death from the skies.
There's even a holiday romance or two, since this film, unlike Nolan's, admits the presence of women (though it forgets the many women in uniform). Catherine Spaak plays a troublesome local who refuses to leave her home despite the shelling (Nolan's film shows no civilians except the British in their rescue boats).
Like Nolan, Verneuil insists on doing everything for real, large-scale, but his panoramas of thousands of extras and large-scale destruction have an almost casual quality, often unfolding in the background of grumpy conversations between Belmondo and his buddies. In a way it makes you feel you're really there more believably than the constant in-your-face jeopardy of the new movie. Verneuil chooses not to leave out the waiting, indeed he concentrates on it, though fans of things exploding will not be disappointed by the truly apocalyptic pyrotechnics.
The screenplay is co-written by François Boyer, whose debut was René Clément's Forbidden Games, which makes sense. War is not an adventure.
The film also sports one of Maurice Jarre's best scores, showing the composer's talent for quirky counterpoint rather than epic bombast. Despite the sheer scale of the spectacle, the prevailing mood is ironic, mordantly downbeat. Nobody can bring themselves to believe in this evacuation as a triumph of cooperation. It's more the result of a colossal screw-up: as in the Nolan, the people stranded on the beach are demoralized, wracked with self-doubt, but instead of being tragic about it they're mainly petty, petulant and depressed. The only people Belmondo kills in his war are two French soldiers trying to rape a girl, and a friend whom he causes to die by kicking over a bucket of water. His friend goes to fetch more, and a bomb gets him.
And the ending is really something. It's striking how the same historical incident could inspire such different cinematic responses. If you're still trying to decide what to make of Nolan's undeniably ambitious, stark, humorless, epic and experimental movie, Verneuil's quirky, mordant, dazzling one may throw it into useful relief.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.