How to do Dunkirk justice?
For the makers of the BBC production Dunkirk, the answer was to seamlessly mingle dramatic reconstructions with actual, real-life footage of the Dunkirk experience. The result is a truly gripping piece of television.
Dunkirk was an astonishing rescue mission. If it wasn't for Operation Dynamo, Britain would have been knocked out of the war almost before it had begun - Rob Warr, producer of the BBC drama Dunkirk
In May 1940, things looked very bleak in Europe. Hitler's forces were marching triumphantly into France, and the Allies were literally backed into a corner. That corner was Dunkirk in France, and it seemed inevitable that the Allied troops, made up of British and French soldiers, would be killed or taken prisoner en masse.
But then the Allies launched a massive rescue operation known as Operation Dynamo, in which a vast fleet of ships – including tiny civilian boats – were sent out in a desperate bid to pluck the soldiers out of the grasp of the Germans.
Almost 340,000 Allied soldiers were rescued despite the odds, giving rise to the phrase 'Dunkirk spirit' to describe the amazing comradeship and bravery the servicemen showed.
Getting it right
Director Alex Holmes and his team knew creating the definitive TV drama about Dunkirk wasn't something to be done lightly. It wasn't enough to simply read some books and chat to some historians, they had to really get to grips with every last background detail.
That meant reading the official government documents of the time, including previously unseen records at the National Archives. Private letters of politicians and decision makers were pored over, as were accounts by the troops who were there.
On top of this, over 100 veterans were interviewed and it was this aspect that meant the most to the crew. Co-writer Neil McKay said:
One reason it was so important to make the drama is that the survivors are in their eighties or older. In 10 or 15 years the people who went through it may be gone and the opportunity will have been lost forever.
Back to the beaches
The crucial moments of the programme were filmed where the historical events took place on the beaches of Dunkirk.
The diaries of soldiers such as Private Wilf Saunders, who was a mobile wireless operator in Dunkirk, were used in the programme. Wilf's diaries spoke honestly about the fear and turmoil he felt during the days before the evacuation. WIlf was played by Michael Legge, who was truly overwhelmed when he stepped onto the Dunkirk beach in his World War Two uniform. He said:
It was very spooky and extremely strange, just the thought that we were literally walking in the footsteps of the people we were portraying
While the docudrama celebrates the heroism of the soldiers and those who saved them, it's not an idealised take on the 'Dunkirk spirit'. Director Alex Holmes said the programme "contains truths that will be uncomfortable for some people," such as the fact that many of the civilians who set out in their boats to rescue soldiers were actually motivated by money rather than patriotism.
It also reveals the rather unsettling fact that many in the British government tried to persuade newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill to sign a truce with Hitler rather than attempt to rescue the stranded soldiers. The programme makers were determined to expose this truth about the huge split in the Cabinet, which threatened to topple Churchill's leadership even as he rallied the nation against Hitler. It makes for disconcerting, but very fascinating viewing.
Guns, stunts and very good beer
Not a single stuntman was used in the making of the docudrama and, on top of that, no computer effects were used in the battle scenes. All the explosions are very real and during filming the actors had to be given precise instructions on where to run so as to avoid serious damage to themselves. They were even given little ear plugs to wear but many of the actors actually took them out because they felt the sound of the explosions added to the experience of each scene.
On top of this, the actors were given basic gun training in order to wield their pistols correctly on the beaches. Still, the team did know the best way to unwind after the arduous filming – they took full advantage of the fact that they were on location in France and Belgium, and spent their time off lapping up as much good beer as they could. As actor Michael Legge said, "We had to relax some of the time". And who can blame them?