Storylines In Review
This site looks at popular storylines, covered in our various feature pages linked to the blog posts below.
2017 Blog Posts
the 'Midwinter Crisis' Storyline, #5
-The Quiet Christmas Crisis
The week-long Xmas
break offers a quiet space, a winter-weather lock-in, as we might call it, a time for contemplation,
thinking and reading. It’s an aspect to Xmas week which doesn’t get much covered
in fiction and drama as it’s so inherently peaceful and, well, undramatic. We don’t
even have a standard word for this, which is no doubt why the German word Gemuetlichkeit
(the root means ‘cosy’, covering ‘a feeling of cosiness, contentedness, comfort
and relaxation’ or ‘a happy, warm and peaceful time’), has wound up in the
OED. The poets can provide a quote or two here, and the one I like is from James Thomson’s
1728 The Seasons: “An elegant sufficiency, content, retirement, rural quiet, friendship,
books.” (I would add a fire in the hearth, and perhaps Radio 3 on in the background
Top right: In Bridget Jones's Diary  adapted by Andrew Davies, director Richard Curtis, and author Helen Fielding from her novel, the diarist-heroine is again alone over Xmas, a lone 'singleton' surrounded by smugly paired-up friends.
The social pressure not to be alone
at Xmas also inspired a famous episode of the BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley,
shown on Xmas Day 1996, “The Christmas Lunch Incident,” written by Richard Curtis
and Paul Mayhew-Archer. Here, the vicar’s village-parish councillors are determined she
shall not spend Xmas Day alone, and she feels obliged to accept four xmas-lunch invitations to
avoid offence, eating one gut-busting meal after another.
'The most successful Christmas film
of all time', Home Alone , written by producer John Hughes, has its young
protagonist wishing that his family would disappear over Xmas, and getting his wish. Of course,
he isn't left alone - or there would be no story.
Above: Susan Slept Here (1954), and right, The Thin Man (1934)
the 'Midwinter Crisis' Storyline, #6
-The Xmas Holidays Filmfest, 1946-2016
|TV has always broadcast films over Xmas, but the nature of the schedule has changed over the years so that what was once a special event (as in the term 'event film') became overwhelmed by proliferation of scale. Since at least the 1970s in America, there’s been a whole strand of made-for-tv-xmas movies, usually produced for the Hallmark Channel, which end happily, with family members hugging in front of the Xmas tree. (Unsurprising as Hallmark made their money from greeting cards sales.) This is the leave-you-feeling-good romantic approach to the xmas-crisis story, where problems are only temporary, resolved by the end of Xmas break. Hallmark are not the only channel running Xmas dramas from around Hallowe’en on. ‘Xmas creepback’ means that the Xmas ‘holiday viewing’ season now begins in late October, as the screenshot below of a 6-hour slot on 2 adjacent channels [taken October 24th] shows.|
Above: TV Guide UK screenshot excerpt showing a pair of channels with wall-to-wall Xmas-themed dramas ... in late October. (Only one is not Xmas-set: Canopy, a WWII-set wilderness-survival film promoting humanitarian values, and thus suitable for this slot.)
Below: Another screenshot of two 6-hour blocs of wall-to-wall Xmas movies.
| Seventy years ago when tv was just
becoming established, Xmas films were in short supply. The cinema industry seeing television as
a rival, refused at first to license tv rights to their film libraries. By restricting it to b&w
and live studio programming with filmed inserts, it limited tv's appeal.
I've seen a claim the BBC only showed one feature film (or at least one prestige 'A' picture) a year, broadcast after the Queen's Speech, as a special event. (This finds an echo in The Vicar of Dibley 1996 Xmas special illustrated above, where she was actually looking forward to a quiet Xmas Day at home, watching the Queen’s Xmas Message and then Jurassic Park.) However, the tv schedules have been archived online so we can check, and see the situation was never quite that clearcut.
When the BBC resumed broadcasting at war's end, there were almost no films to be had, due to the cinema exhibitors' boycott. The number of Xmas films was zero in 1946; one in 1947 [The Young In Heart (1938) starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr]; two in 1948 [both B-westerns]; three in 1949, and so on. It is hard to find a prestige 'A' picture in these early schedules, since the flm packages obtained via the US secondary market of 16mm prints were mainly prewar B pictures. Christmas Day 1951’s film was Wallaby Jim Of The Islands (1937) and next year’s was Swiss Miss (1938) starring Laurel and Hardy, both B-length with musical numbers and nonsensical plots. The number increased with the advent of commercial competition from 1955 on. (ITV was a patchwork of regional franchises debuting at different times, Granada TV being first.)
When ITV arrived on the scene, they ran prewar US studio pictures throughout the year. These were mainly ‘B’ films but as they had purchased a large library from WB et al as a job lot, this included a few A pictures as well. However as ITV grew into a national network, it began to show Xmas ‘event’ A pictures. The Maltese Falcon  starring Humphrey Bogart was shown late on Christmas Day 1958, and The Macomber Affair  (from the Hemingway story) with Gregory Peck on Christmas Day 1959 in one region [ATV], while another [Granada] ran The Charge Of The Light Brigade starring Errol Flynn, with a 5-minute break for the News at 10.45pm. ATV also ran the 1935 comedy The Ghost Goes West starring Robert Donat on Sunday 27th December 1959 at 3.25pm under their ‘Film Festival’ banner. (Apparently, showing features allowed the studio staff to have Xmas off, apart from a telecine operator.)
The earliest major films I can find on the BBC are Stagecoach (1939), shown Xmas Eve 1956, and It’s A Wonderful Life, shown Xmas Eve 1957. The afternoon of Xmas Day 1957 saw Mrs Mike (1947) starring Dick Powell as a Mountie (from a fact-based Canadian pioneer-story bestseller of the day) and the evening of Boxing Day, the 1947 boxing classic Body And Soul starring John Garfield. There were also several films in RKO's Astaire-Rogers series, with Top Hat (1935) becoming the BBC' first official "Christmas special" film in 1958, and next year, Swing Time (1936). Xmas Day 1959’s evening film was High Noon. It must have seemed the BBC would have paid extra for this, but it turns out it was just part of a 16mm-prints resale package, of UA films. The RKO package was 100 films.
By the mid-1960s, US networks were also providing made-for-xmas-tv movies to add to the studio backlists now routinely sold off for tv showing when their theatrical run was over. This was the start of the mass proliferation of Xmas-film showings, ending with the current total of around 4,500 films in the 2016 Xmastime bumper edition of the TV guide. (This doesn't include the made-for-Xmas-tv films that now start running in late October.)
While the 'prestige' pictures mentioned above do not have a xmas setting or theme, they generally espoused a romantic idealism of outlook due to the studios' own production code. Nowadays the volume of films shown means the list is simply a huge grab-bag, including films arguably unsuitable for a xmas slot, such as violent thrillers shown on Xmas Eve. And with so many of these being repeats year-on-year there is a sort of 'Groundhog-Day effect' whereby you feel you're reliving the same moments over and over as you rewatch the same films.
the 'Midwinter Crisis' Storyline, #7
-The Xmas Blues, Or The Bah-Humbug Effect
| The enforced cheer and noisy filmic
distractions of the festive season can make you depressed, a reaction I call the Bah-Humbug Effect.
All around, there's the usual travel chaos with traffic jams, public transport strikes left and
right, not to mention colds, flu and norovirus. Emergency wards overflow with victims of traffic
accidents, family quarrels and domestic incidents, pub punchups, nervous breakdowns and unsuccessful
suicides. Some of this depression may be attributed to the winter-blues condition known as Seasonal
Affective Disorder, the aptly titled SAD. It's easy to see how attractive it becomes to spend Xmas
week escaping a depressing present though the distraction of an endless array of films and tv programmes.
But there must be a limit to how much escapism one can take in a week. The scale of it is mind-numbing.
Few of these films seem to address the fact of midwinter depression or crisis with any depth: the schedules are dominated by made-for-tv Xmas films where domestic problems that go back years are set up only to be resolved Xmas morning with hugs all round.
And these are about the only films that are actually about the midwinter break. The bought-in films mentioned above, from High Noon to Jurassic Park, are nothing to do with Xmas, and in these days of on-demand access, can be viewed anytime. The one film on the list in the above post which did at least contemplate the dark side, It's A Wonderful Life, starts like its inspiration, A Christmas Carol, on Xmas Eve but ends happily the next morning. The 'dark night of the soul' here is a catharsis, an overnight spiritual learning experience.
'A sad tale's best for winter' says the king in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, but in film and tv, this idea has had to fight an onslaught of relentless, determinedly escapist Xmas cheer. This may not be anything new, since his play and Xmas-pageant plays that came before it, like Sir Gawaine And The Green Knight, have happy endings. (Shakespeare at least has his Winter's Tale story setting segue into spring before turning it into a pastoral romance with happy ending.) This inherent dark underside to midwinter, its traditional association with themes of death, depression, or loss, is represented in literature and even popular songs [see opposite] but is often ignored or played down in film and tv.
It may be that winter sadness
etc is regarded as too interior for the film medium, but a prospect for opening-out the drama's
physical setting to include wintry landscapes is found in the 'midwinter walkabout' idea. There's
an association here going back to Good King Wenceslaus heading out into the snow Dec 26th to
see how his subjects were faring. Dec 26th was a church holiday, St Stephen’s Day, commemorating
the first Christian martyr, referred to in the Xmas carol “Good King Wenceslas looked out
/ On the Feast of Stephen”. This is based on the legend the sainted 10C Bohemian nobleman
was out and about incognito that day to give alms to paupers. Later, the landed gentry would
similarly go about the parish distributing boxes of clothing etc to the poor, hence Boxing Day.
the 'Midwinter Crisis' Storyline, #9:
- O Come All Ye Fearful: The Xmas Ghost Story Tradition
form of expression of the dark side of midwinter which has translated well to film and tv is
the 'Xmas ghost story'. This is a tradition that must date back to humans living in caves, and
has a pedigree in world literature as well as folklore. The work that kickstarted cinematic adaptation
was of course Dickens's 1843 A Christmas Carol. Many subsequent tales are not
set specifically around midwinter, but this one is locked firmly into a Christmas setting. Indeed,
it's claimed Dickens brought back Xmas traditions after they had nearly died out, due to first
Puritanism and secondly population displacement in the Industrial Revolution.
On the 'Midwinter Crisis' Storyline, #10:
-'Dead Time' ... The Dead Of Winter
have a careerist-workaholic friend who grumpily dismisses the Xmas break as ‘dead time’,
when you can’t get anything done for one reason or another, and there’s nothing on
tv except repeats etc. It occurred to me this is a useful label, for this week in the 'dead of
winter' - remembering the dead of one’s own acquaintance.
Remembering the dead in midwinter would become a part of Xmas lore in fiction and drama set in midwinter, starting with Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It is of interest to hear Dickens's own views on this. He had lost his daughter and his father, plus a sister and her son, and his 1851 essay ‘What Christmas Is As We Grow Older’ encourages us to see this time of year as one to remember both ‘the living and the dead’. Here’s the concluding para:
The phrase ‘the living and the dead’ occurs as the final line in James Joyce’s 1907 novella The Dead, filmed by John Huston in 1986 (his last film), which also deals with this theme. As a group of family and friends gather for their annual getogether on Epiphany Eve in early January, the protagonist discovers his wife is still stricken with regret over a young man who died a 'romantic' death wooing her, as compared to the rest of their ageing peer group, who are just slowly fading away -
You can see the last few minutes of the John Huston film version, from a script by his son Tony, which expands the above scene, with a documentary montage of snow falling on the Irish countryside accompanying the text [left] as a voice-over monologue, here.
the 'Midwinter Crisis' Storyline, #11:
-New Year's Eve, That's A Date
Here, the seasonal
crisis likely to beset the protagonist is the imminent prospect of New Year's Eve alone, and
special arrangements may hence be put in place to ensure this does not occur.
anecdote - When I was at university, the landlady at my B&B was a widow with young children,
who told me how she would wait for a call every NY's eve from an army officer she liked. He had
been posted elsewhere but would phone every year at midnight, to keep their relationship alive.
She was already at her wits end trying to raise two problem children by herself, and told me,
in tears, that if he didn’t phone, she didn’t think she could go on. I cite this
anecdote to show how, in real-world terms, NY's eve can be an emotional touchstone occasion for
potential partners kept apart by circumstance.)
In Sunset Boulevard , written by director Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr., when the protagonist escapes being a kept man in an ageing silent-movie star’s Hollywood mansion for the evening to visit friends, leaving her alone on New Year’s Eve, she attempts suicide.
The problem of spending NY's alone as you get old due to partners and friends having died is satirised in Dinner For One  written by British author Lauri Wyli, which is broadcast in Germany [cf screenshot above] every New Year's Eve. (Various versions exist on YouTube.) It's actually a 1920s English-music-hall sketch also known as The 90th Birthday. The old lady having her 90th party lives in a world of illusion, abetted by her loyal old butler - to say more would spoil its charm.
In An Affair To Remember , scripted by Delmer Daves, Donald Ogden Stewart and director Leo McCarey from his previously-filmed 1938 story, the lovers meet on a summer cruise, and arrange to meet atop the Empire State Building at New Year's if they feel they want a permanent relationship. A complication ensues which gets the film classed as a 'weepie', though the story ends with a reunion the following Xmas Eve.
The emotional alienation that can lie behind raucous NY's Eve celebrations is captured in The Apartment (1960), written by I.A.L. Diamond with director Billy Wilder, where an office worker is invited out on a date and then propositioned by her philandering boss, in a New York bar where the lights are dimmed as patrons sing Auld Lang Syne (YouTube clip here).
In Sleepless In Seattle , the female protagonist proposes a rendezvous, inspired by seeing An Affair To Remember, atop the Empire State Building. In this case the geographically-separate duo's planned meetup is postponed to Valentine's Day in mid-Feb as the pair only make first contact at Xmas.
Indiscreet : This adaptation by Norman Krasna from his play Kind Sir has its climax at midnight on New Year's Eve. After a happy Xmas, the lovers' planned NY's Eve rendezvous at her London flat goes pear-shaped over a misunderstanding about marital intentions.
the 'Midwinter Crisis' Storyline, #12:
-Twelfth (& Final) Night
originally the eve of Epiphany, the day when the 3 wise men visited the baby Jesus, has changed
its meaning over the centuries. Initially a Catholic holiday, by Shakespeare's time it had become
an occasion for a Roman-style Saturnalia, with cross-gender dressing etc. His comic play [screen
versions listed here]
about identity-swap complications is not necessarily set on Twelfth Night; its title simply indicates
it is suitable for performance then. (The 2016 BBC tv comedy series, Upstart Crow, scripted
by Ben Elton, has Will presenting an early draft called Eighth Night.) The practice of putting
on 'Twelfth Night Entertainments' may have been a factor in establishing the popularity of the
The occasion was generally more important when Christmas was less so. Dickens has the Ghost of Christmas Present taking Scrooge to see a children's Twelfth Night party. It also retained aspects of Xmas going back to the time when the changeover from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar meant annual festivals in effect being moved forward by 11 days, so that before 1752 in England this was also ‘Old Xmas.’ (It retains this status on some Orthodox calendars.) It was traditionally the end of the Xmas break, at least for those who have not already returned to work and hence the last chance for a party or getogether.
Above: The Dead , set at Epiphany. The party's over after this.
| Its being historically
superseded is probably why few modern scripts use it as the basis of a personal crisis, despite
the inspiring example of Joyce's The Dead [filmed 1987], set in Catholic Ireland
c1900. Ordinary working folk of course have already had to return to work Jan 2nd, so it doesn't
have the same resonance of being part of what Americans call the "Xmas vacation."
However it still has its own identity, and can certainly be depressing - now it's the day on the calendar when you take down the Xmas tinsel, and perhaps contemplate the gloomy dog days ahead, of winter's end. (Not to mention, if you're self-employed, contemplating pulling out a year's paperwork to start doing your annual accounts, so you can file your tax return due Jan 31.)
It should also be the day you draw up your NY’s Resolutions, such as never ever watching another episode of TV crime procedural series like CSI. (I'd started watching a few years back, after the producers said they'd love to do a UK version, a 'CSI Bournemouth', and put together a webpage on why this might work.) Doing one's NY’s Resolutions is where Bridget Jones's Diary begins, after she returns to London after that disastrous New Year's Day party at her parents.
I think my NY’s Resolution here will be to spend less time overall watching tv and switching more to other more focussed means of doing the necessary research for this website, using on-demand methods such as DVDs and online viewing.
... Anyway, this is the end of our "Twelve Days of Christmas Crisis" series of 12 blog posts. The feature pages now online re the 'Midwinter-Crisis' storyline are listed on its home page, here.
-While some like the idea of 'blue sky thinking', at this grey time of year I prefer 'blue sky viewing.'
After a dozen blog posts on the
12 days of Xmas [etc] crisis, I’m now feeling rather greyed out. The tail end of winter
is always a grey, depressing time of year, waiting for the first sunny days to allow more outdoors
activities, and I often turn to some ‘blue sky viewing’ for consolation. In theory,
this could be any film set outdoors under blue skies, but the easiest type to find, the commonest,
is some Technicolor western shot under blue skies in the American southwest.
‘Cavalry westerns’ were a staple of this cycle of colour westerns. The progenitor was likely the 1949 Technicolor production She Wore A Yellow Ribbon [right], whose painterly look [it was an 'autumnal western' and not all blue skies] was modelled on the works of Remington and Russell. It was part of the so-called cavalry trilogy directed by John Ford and based on the stories of James Warner Bellah. (The other two were shot in b&w, with the cinematographer on the first, Fort Apache, shooting partly on infrared stock to make it look hot and dusty.) Films about the US Cavalry outposts in the Southwest continued to be a favourite right through the 50s and early 60s. Perhaps it was those royal blue (and impossibly clean) uniforms with their yellow trimmings that made them so picturesque.
The ‘cavalry western’
cycle died out in the mid-60s, probably because of America’s developing identity crisis
amidst the Vietnam War. A well-worn story cycle often ends with a descent into self-parody (as
with Airplane! and the ‘airliner in peril’ story), and the cavalry western
I watched this winter was the storyline’s major spoof, made at the end of the cycle, complete
with mock historical narration. Appropriately, winter is also a theme in the story setup, in
the sense it provides the characters' motivations.
We also get mock-epic intermittent
narration which treats the story as a little-known episode in authentic US frontier history (which
it isn't). This begins with a scene-setting prologue that spoofs earlier epic westerns like How
The West Was Won (it was advertised as 'How The West Was Fun'), written in a mock-pretentious
style that strains at Walt Whitman-esque gravitas:
Being set in the fall, the film
includes a few scenes shot under gathering autumn clouds, but generally it looks like the many
50s westerns shot in Arizona, Utah or New Mexico. At the box office, the film itself met something
of the same fate as the whiskey wagons - in this case the quicksand it ran into was that of mid-Sixties
changing public taste. As the film's narrator might put it, O tempora, O mores! (The
times they were a-changing, and all that.)
These cavalry westerns are examples
of the 'outpost command crisis' storyline, and we now have the homepage up for this storyline:
It's a storyline with a considerable
back-history that developed well before the postwar cavalry westerns came along (going back to
European 'outposts of Empire' Foreign Legion etc works), and Part One of our historical-review
feature page is also now onsite, here:
lost ... and waiting for you. Go!'
-The Expeditionary Storyline
|Of course, when spring does finally
arrive, so does the urge to get out of doors. For most of us, this is usually just one's neighbourhood
or a little beyond (as with the urge that overtakes Mole at the start of The Wind In The Willows).
But with a few, the urge to explore is so extreme it takes over their lives, and sometimes ends
them prematurely. They hear the call as expressed by Kipling in his poem “The Explorer”:
…. one everlasting Whisper, day and night repeated—so: 'Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—'Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go.'” —
This lost realm might be in the depths of the jungle, as in the recent The Lost City Of Z, on Colonel's Fawcett's doomed quest to find a lost civilisation in the Amazon. Or it might be at the very ends of the earth, in the polar reaches, a destination dramatised in a series of films since the silent era. Recently [Dec 2016], the British Film Institute put on an exhibition about the history of polar exploration, and published online a tiein listing of the 10 most interesting films to watch. However, apart from a few non-expeditionary films about the Inuit, these are mostly vintage documentaries and dramas concerning the early-20th C race to the poles.
Amazingly, after several Shackleton biopics, there is yet another in the works, financed by StudioCanal with Peter Straughan writing the script. And actor-filmmaker Christopher Brand is said to be developing a screenplay about the Admiral Byrd 1946-7 expedition, called Highjump after the USN operational name. This was the massive invasion of Antarctic waters by a US fleet, which led to speculation they were investigating rumours that fleeing Nazis had set up a base down there, as well as about some dramatic discovery made on a transpolar flight by Byrd being kept secret. (A warm-water oasis was discovered and filmed in 1947.)
Another tale of an expedition to the Antarctic making sensational discoveries (of an alien race), HP Lovecraft's 1931 cult horror novella At The Mountains of Madness, followed in the wake of Richard E. Byrd's first expedition in 1928-30. This and his second, post-WW2 large-scale expedition gave rise to rumours still alive on the web, of tropical valleys and encounters with hostile Lovecraftian alien hybrids being officially covered up. The novella is written as a first-person expeditionary account, left as a warning to any later expedition to stay away from the Antarctic mountains where an ancient alien race has built an underground city, and in the process unleashed an unspeakable terror in the form of helper creatures who regard humans as specimens. Though long considered unfilmable, it was to be filmed by director Guillermo del Toro, but reportedly fell into the crevasse of development hell when he insisted on making it an "R"-rated horror. Given the success of 3 successively gory film versions [1951-2011] of The Thing, this seems a mere excuse, and it may be we will still see a film of Lovecraft's masterpiece (text now in the public domain, here).
Polar settings aside, upcoming or announced are an HBO Lewis And Clark miniseries, produced by Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton et al from historian Stephen Ambrose's book Undaunted Courage; this was first planned a decade ago, then abandoned last year in mid-production when the director quit; it has been reworked with a Michelle Ashford script for a 2018 release. Out this year is Jungle, scripted by Justin Monjo from Yossi Ghinsberg's 1993 memoir, a fact-based drama of a trio of backpackers trying to find a gold mine in the Bolivian jungle is abandoned by its guide, with no idea how to get back to civilisation. Slated for release sometime later this year is the post-apocalyptic drama Annihilation, scripted by director Alex Garland from Jeff VanderMeer's novel, wherein "A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don't apply." (?) And beside the recent Kong: Skull Island, there's an unrelated contemporary-set live-action TV series called King Kong Skull Island, being written by Jonathan Penner and Stacy Title from a concept by Joe DeVito, who worked with the Merian C. Cooper family on it back in the 1990s, though it's not clear how much of it will be an expeditionary story. Trailers for Jurassic Park IV: The Return suggest that the protagonists from JP1, JP2, and JP3 will get back together at the funeral of the Park's creator and some will return to the islands for one last expedition. Spielberg is also producing Prisoners Of The Sun, completing his Tintin trilogy made using 3-D motion-capture. This will be the 3rd filming of this Tintin adventure, written by Belgian artist Herge in the 1940s, about an expedition to find a surviving Inca enclave in the Andes.
are of course a common setup in the expeditionary storyline, and although Fawcett never found
his sought-after lost city of "Z", such centres did exist. Modern aerial and ground
surveys have shown that many Amazonian townships may have existed, just as the early conquistadores
reported, before climate change forced their abandonment.
A new film about the May 1940 evacuation combines three storylines - the ‘castaways-survival’ storyline, the ‘fateful flight’ storyline, and the ‘decisive’ battle storyline.
| Historical films about epic battles
don't come along that often, because of their inherent huge costs, but we now have one that features
three distinct storylines. Dunkirk (2017), written by its English-American director,
Christopher Nolan, is told from three participant perspectives, representing land, sea and air.
Of course, it’s not unusual for these dramatic-reconstruction-of-events films to show events
converging from various viewpoints, and the previous two namesake dramatisations [1958, 2004] of
this May 1940 historical crisis were told this way.
But this new 3rd version famously intercuts events happening in three different timescales, indicated by an onscreen title: an hour, a day, and a week.  A pair of soldiers spend days stranded on the beach awaiting rescue;  a small-boat owner spends the day sailing across the channel to pick up soldiers, and  a Spitfire flight patrols overhead to provide air cover, with only an hour’s worth of fuel and flying time. And whereas the 1958 Dunkirk originally ran well over 2 hours (US prints were cut by 20 mins) and the BBC 2004 Dunkirk runs 3 hours, this one is only 106 minutes. (The final script is said to be only 76pp, which, at the standard conversion rate of 1 page = 1 minute, would normally suggest only 76 minutes of screen action, the other 30 minutes being in effect a slowing-down of time for dramatic impact.) I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently there is no attempt, as in previous versions, to provide the usual “HQ” type scenes which explain the overall situation from a military and political viewpoint, nor any of the usual scenes showing the protagonists before the main event, eg at home on leave, and dialogue is minimalist overall. However, there is a starring role, played by Kenneth Branagh, for the RN Commander assigned as Pier Master at Dunkirk, who is able to communicate the situation more effectively both ways.
Of the three storylines, the ‘castaways-survival’ storyline seems to be the dominant one, and this often involves scenes from the rescuers’ perspective being intercut, until the two sides finally meet up. (The 2017 trailers have the intertitles "When 400,000 Men Couldn't Get Home... Home Came For Them.") This setup is inherent in the May 1940 situation; the role of the naval forces including the 'little ships' flotilla is well recognised (some say overemphasised), whereas the RAF’s perceived failure to protect the beach-head from enemy bombers was a sore point, leading to RAF personnel being assaulted by returning soldiers or refused passage on evacuation boats. Here, at least part of the role RAF fighters did actually play is finally shown. It’s probably the film’s ‘fateful flight’ storyline that prompted the use of what the writer-director calls ‘different temporalities,’ as the action is self-limited to a single one-hour flight, ending in a crash-landing and the capture of the pilot. The issue could have been resolved by having the pilot fly the same air-cover mission on different days, as happened in reality, but I gather that would undercut the filmmaker’s determination to be ‘experimental’ [his word]. Others have pointed re the one-day little-ship-to-the-rescue storyline, that sailing between Weymouth and Dunkirk and back in a day is also unrealistic.
Leaving the ‘decisive’ battle storyline without the usual historical-exposition framework beyond an introductory scene-setting text and focusing on a handful of participants has led to critical attacks that the film can’t be taken seriously as it doesn’t make even token attempts to include women and ethnic minorities who were there (though in small numbers), or any Americans [!]. The filmmaker has made it clear in his publicity that the ‘decisive’ battle aspect was why the film was worth making, and distinguishes between a ‘decisive’ engagement from a purely military perspective and a wider human and historical one:
"This is an essential moment in the history of the Second World War. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate. And the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate: the Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the U.S. would not have returned to war. It is a true point of rupture in war and in history of the world. A decisive moment. And the success of the evacuation allowed Churchill to impose the idea of a moral victory, which allowed him to galvanize his troops like civilians and to impose a spirit of resistance while the logic of this sequence should have been that of surrender. Militarily, it is a defeat; on the human plane, it is a colossal victory."
The film’s adline is ‘The event that shaped our world’ (which seems an overstatement, given other events of WW2). It reportedly ends with a voice-over visuals-montage as the two soldiers, now back in Blighty, read Churchill’s 'We shall fight on the beaches' speech in a newspaper on the train, though from the trailers, this is spoken not by Churchill or a voice impersonator but by Kenneth Branagh, who played the Pier Master.
The voice-over at the start or end to provide historical perspective is a standard scene in works dramatising the ‘decisive’ battle storyline, and the two previous namesake dramatisations each have one.
The 1958 Ealing film Dunkirk scripted by David Divine & W.P. Lipscomb, from the 1955 novel The Big Pickup by 'Elleston Trevor' [=Trevor Dudley Smith, 1920-95] and the nonfiction book Dunkirk by Lt. Col. Ewan Butler & Major J.S. Bradford, focuses on the castaway storyline as a left-behind infantry squad make their way to the beach (which we first see 84 minutes in), only to be stranded there with the rest of the British Expeditionary Force. This version ends with a voice-over scene, over a master shot of the now-deserted beach [see above right], saying the withdrawal was a great defeat and the rescue of a third of a million men a great miracle, whereby ‘a nation had been made whole’, i.e. ending earlier political ‘Phoney War’ divisions. This then segues, over the sound of boots tramping in unison, to a seriocomic parade-ground final scene of the two surviving soldier protagonists in a drill company being lectured by a sergeant major to stop acting ‘as if we had just won a war’ when the truth was we had ‘come darn near losing one’. The pair roll their eyes at each other as the company are marched off.
The 2004 BBC 3-part docudrama Dunkirk written by Neil McKay, Lisa Osborne and director Alex Holmes, which shows events from a variety of actual participant viewpoints over the entire 10-day period, ends with a double voice-over. First, series narrator Timothy Dalton explains how the rescued troops ‘were to be the core of the army for the next five years’; then we hear Churchill’s actual 'We shall fight on-' radio broadcast speech ending ‘We shall never surrender,’ over a montage of news footage of returning troops aboard trains, concluding with a colour newsreel shot from the train of what appears to be a glimpse of the promised 'sunlit uplands'. (The famous war-aim verbal image was from Churchill's next big speech, his "finest hour" one on June 18th: "What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over ... the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.")
Historically, the BEF evacuation did lead straight into the next phase after the Battle Of France, the Battle Of Britain, and a new namesake film, following the 1969 film Battle Of Britain, also currently titled Battle Of Britain, is now in the works, being directed by Ridley Scott from a Matthew Orton script. (The 1969 film scripted by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex from the 1961 nonfiction book The Narrow Margin by Derek Dempster and Derek Wood also had a Battle Of France opening sequence, ending at Dunkirk with a BBC radio announcement quoting Churchill's June 18 speech: "... the Battle of France is over. The Battle Of Britain is about to begin." - Cut to main titles.) In the meantime, Darkest Hour (2017), set in May 1940 as Churchill takes over a divided coalition party as PM, and directed by Joe Wright (who had a Dunkirk-beach setpiece scene in his 2007 Atonement) from an Anthony McCarten script, will be in UK cinemas in December. (Not to be confused with the 1944-set Churchill, also out this year, scripted by Alex von Tunzelmann about how the PM, played by Brian Cox, supposedly tried to have the D-Day landings cancelled out of fear of another Gallipoli disaster.)
Storylines In Review 2017