Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is one of the most anticipated films of 2017. The story it tells happened 77 years ago but when Leslie Norman’s black and white version came out in 1958, Dunkirk was still alive in the memory of audiences. It was one of the most ambitious Ealing productions – and today there are only a handful of actors left to recall making it.
Ealing films of the 1950s are mainly thought of as intimate and warmly comic. But in 1958, Sir Michael Balcon, who ran the studio, set out to prove Britain could produce a war film to rival the Americans. The director he chose was Leslie Norman, father of the late Barry Norman.
Both films tell the most British of war stories: how Britain found an ambiguous form of victory in defeat at the hands of the advancing Germans in France.
Around a third of a million men, mainly British and French, were rescued from northern France by sea as a flotilla of little boats crossed the Channel from England’s south coast to support the bigger vessels.
By the time the film was shot, financial problems had forced Sir Michael to sell Ealing Studios and move to a temporary base at MGM Borehamwood. But it was not long before the company was wound up completely and Dunkirk was one of the final Ealing productions.
Kenneth Cope, now 86, later found fame playing Marty Hopkirk in the ITV series Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), but he says that before Dunkirk he had played only “thugs, killers and a lot of bad people”.
He added: “I owe a huge debt to Les Norman, who was a lovely man who maybe saw something in me which other directors never had. He let me play an army lieutenant.
“He directed me being blown up by a German Stuka – a spectacular death which helps set up the story of the other British lads like Johnny Mills setting off to get to Dunkirk and get home.
“Les could really handle big scenes. Although my character was killed off early on, I still got to see a lot of the beach shoot down at Camber Sands. Les was in his element – and remember that all those years ago, camera equipment and lights and tracks were all heavyweight things. And this was long before CGI.”
Sir Michael had convinced the War Office to loan out hundreds of servicemen as extras, which still gives the scenes around Dunkirk a convincing quality.
“Everywhere you looked there were rifles and uniforms and men shouting. I remember the actor Roland Curram turning up and saying ‘Oh my dear, the noise! The people!'”
“I shot my scenes early on, so I saw the rest of the cast arriving from London in nice clean uniforms from Morris Angel the costumiers and the first thing they had to do was swim out to the camera boat offshore.
“I’ve never seen a bunch of actors look so horrified. But Les really made those scenes work on screen. There’s a sense of peril.”
At 85, Harry Landis is still a working actor. He’s occasionally recognised even now as the barber Mr Kawalski from EastEnders. But in 1958 in Dunkirk he was drafted in to play one big scene as a young Jewish doctor.
‘When I got up to Borehamwood, Leslie Norman took me to one side and explained how my character had developed. They wanted a Cockney Jewish guy like me to play Lt Levy – but Leslie explained that until quite late on, the character was to have been a Lt Mason and not Jewish at all.
“However, he’d seen the dramatic possibilities in me being Jewish, because the Germans are about to arrive at this dressing station and the doctors draw lots to decide who’ll stay behind to look after the wounded, knowing this will mean certain capture.
“It’s a poignant moment because he’s Jewish and he can see what’s heading his way, but Levy just gets on with his duty.
‘Mention in Variety’
“I liked Leslie, but he was what people used to call a rough diamond. He had been a picture editor and wound up producing and directing. He could line up a shot but he did not really know much about actors.
“I did my big scene in two takes and he was happy, so I went home. But when I finally saw the completed movie I saw how well he’d made the scenes work with the boys waiting to be rescued from France. And I got a mention in Variety, which I was happy about.”
Probably the youngest actor on set was Sean Barrett, who played the teenager Frankie.
Much of the first part of the film concentrates on the home front, with Frankie’s boss, played by Richard Attenborough, accused of profiteering from the early days of the war.
When the call goes out for small boats to help rescue British troops, Attenborough sets off with Frankie and a journalist played by Bernard Lee, who went on to play M in the early Bond films.
Barrett recalls an impressive sequence where the troops are attending a church service on the beach when a German plane suddenly appears and everyone scatters in panic.
“It was an exciting thing to shoot,” he says. “There were black smudges on the sand where the explosions were to go off and we were told at all costs not to be heroes and run over them. And it all had to work perfectly for the camera. It’s different today, where so much can be fixed afterwards.
“My big emotional scene was when Bernard Lee gets hit and dies on the beach. I had to react to him saying something like ‘I’m going Frankie… please tell my wife’, but being the character he was, for my reaction shots Bernard kept playing the line as ‘Please tell my bookie,’ trying to break me up. I got through it somehow.
“My own uncle had been at Dunkirk, so in 1958 it was still a resonant moment for many people. It’s interesting that all these years later, a director is making another version of what happened.
“Obviously film-making has changed but, in its day, the Ealing version was a big project. I think even now it impresses people because the best scenes really do have the whiff of reality.”
On 20 and 21 September a restored version of Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk will be screened on Camber Sands in a special event to launch the BFI’s Britain on Film – Coast and Sea collection.
The 2017 version is out in the UK on 21 July.