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Reeling Back the Past

Captain Crispin Swayne describes his work on major feature films as a historical and military adviser, and what he hopes to achieve.

On this occasion the art department has done an excellent job of matching our beach with photographs and accounts of the real evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. The seafront has been completely re-constructed with authentic damaged buildings, signs and a ferris wheel – just as an old Royal Engineer neighbour of mine, who was there, remembers. Anti-aircraft gun emplacements line the promenade, a copy of the crimson-sailed Thames sailing barge Glenway lies stranded on the beach, and period vehicles and military equipment are strewn everywhere around a makeshift field hospital. 

We finish walking. ‘Any questions?’ ‘Yes. Where are the Stukas?’ ‘Too expensive.’ ‘Why no officers among the extras?’ ‘To accentuate the lack of order.’  If big historical inaccuracies in films are vampires, I reckon I’ve got just six silver bullets to fire per production; I let the Stukas and officers go. I dig in my pocket and bring out a list of background action for Joe to approve. This includes ‘digging-in’, praying, weapon cleaning, the burning of equipment, card playing in shell holes and the restraint of deranged soldiers. ‘Great,’ says Joe. ‘One hour till the first run-through.’ Ten assistant directors walk up the beach towards me followed by over 1,000 local film extras. Nodding at them, the first assistant director smiles and hands me a megaphone. ‘Good luck, mate.’

From now on it’s my job to make sure all the action surrounding the drama is historically accurate and militarily authentic. To get our ‘soldiers’ in character I megaphone them a brief and moody history of the BEF’s fighting withdrawal up to Dunkirk. The assistant directors move about the beach distributing the extras and the actions I’ve previously agreed with Joe. We then rehearse the extras through their cues and actions as many times as possible before the hour passes.

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