Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A WW II Film: The Man Who Never Was

     I watched the film version of Ewen Montagu's book last night.  Both tell the story of a fascinating -- and slightly gruesome -- intelligence effort during WW II that used a corpse clad as a British officer, planted to wash ashore in Spain to convincingly plant false information about where the Allied forces were headed after taking North Africa.

     This is trickier than it might seem, since the ruse is an old one and any gap in the dead man's background will give it away; you can't just leave a dead Lieutenant with a folder of fake invasion plans marked "Most Secret" in enemy or friendly-neutral territory without raising suspicion.  How Montagu and a very small group did so, how they made it convincing, and the wider effect -- German intelligence never again trusted similarly-found information, including at least two potentially disastrous gaffes -- makes for a fascinating book and an engrossing movie.

     66-year-old Clifton Webb plays the 42-year-old Montagu (who makes a cameo appearance as someone else) with ease, suggesting relative youth with nothing more than hair dye and movement; his mid-Atlantic accent, barely punched up, is as close to that of an upper-class Briton as any American can manage without sounding affected.  In three different films, I've seen him play three very different characters and he drops right into them -- this is a guy who was very good at his trade, so good you saw the character, not the actor.

     Not the deepest of films if you were after subtext and subtle anguish but well-researched, with good sets and a talented cast.  There is a slightly silly spy-movie digression in the later part covering confirmation of successful deception, for reasons of security: in 1955, the ULTRA decrypts actually used to confirm the operation's success were still classified. Montagu's book does not hint at them, instead showing documents captured after the war and implying the Allies proceeded on little more than hope.  In fact, they were all but reading Hitler's mail and were certain Axis forces had been diverted.  With the truth behind a wall of secrecy and Montagu's version impossible to present with any drama, the film takes a different course, borrowing the tone and wording of the recovered documents.

     This film, despite a distinct lack of battle scenes and overt derring-do* (there is a sort of a car chase, for the fidgety), nonetheless tells an excellent story of modern war, and would be well-paired with Patton. As for the book, it ought to be sat right next to Gen. Patton's War As I Knew It, as a reminder that every great success requires foundation-stones.
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* As the daring might, in fact, do.

6 comments:

NAVIGATOR said...

OUTSTANDING FILM ABOUT AN OUTSTANDING TRUE STORY

THE SPOOKS AT WHITEHALL AND THEIR COUNTERPART ACROSS THE POND WERE FOR THE MOST PART VERY DEDICATED TALENTED AMATEURS WHO WERE TASKED WITH SAVING CIVILIZATION FROM VERY REAL EVIL AND IN SPITE OF SEVERE CASUALTIES ACCOMPLISHED THEIR MISSION

WE OWE THEM

Raz Raxxaffian said...

Clifton Webb was extremely talented and very flexible. While I was never his most avid fan, his treatment of the psychopathic Waldo Lydecker in 'Laura' was unnerving.

I would like to have seen him in other WWII period pieces, or perhaps something by Alfred Hitchcock.

Rax

Anonymous said...

The British spymasters were very proficient at pulling the wool over the German's eyes.

My grandfather had a two volume set titled Secrets and Stories of the Second World War that I read as a teenager. It was printed after de-classification of the records of Operation Mincemeat so it's more complete than the movie. If you see it in a book store, buy it.

Al_in_Ottawa

Iron City said...

If you are interested in this try "Bodyguard of Lies" by Anthony Cave Brown that may be mostly accurate and includes a lot of the British, American and other European code breaking and deception from WW I on.

For a more fun (if you want to call it that) read try "Winston Churchill's Toyshop" by a ex British army officer named McCrae who was XO of a department that invented toys like limpet mines and demolition materials for the Resistance among other things.

Windy Wilson said...

There is a later book on this subject with later revelations about the Spanish officials and the Germans in the Huelva area called (unsurprisingly) "Operation Mincemeat", by Ben Macintyre. The planners likely got a "fresher" corpse from a ship disaster in Scotland shortly before the submarine set sail, necessitating the strange and hasty truck trip all over England mentioned in the first book, and the famous London Forensic Examiner was most definitely wrong when he said no Spanish Doctor would be able to tell the body did not die of drowning and weeks before. This last fact makes it likely that the Spanish Doctor who examined Major Martin knew something was not right but gave his approval anyway, and also the various Germans up the ladder wanted to believe this because they all disbelieved a capture of documents in the Western Desert earlier that turned out to be genuine.
All in all a ripping good spy story.
Have you seen " The Cockleshell Heroes" with Jose Ferrer? Another good one with understated action and suspense, and humor early in the story.

Stretch said...

This is the book Windy to which Windy refers:
http://www.amazon.com/Operation-Mincemeat-Bizarre-Assured-Victory/dp/0307453286