Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #35 – Operation Mincemeat

Posted: August 2, 2022 in Uncategorized

© 2022 G.N. Jacobs

I guess this is where the smarty-pants types among you might ask, “so was it worth it to read and watch four different versions of the same gruesome WW2 story where the British grab a dead body, dress it up with a uniform and a fake life in order to accidentally on purpose lose certain highly classified documents to the Nazis in order to pull the head fake to end all head fakes concerning Allied intentions leading up to the invasion of Sicily?” Ending on the recent John Madden version based on Ben McIntyre’s book (see review) the answer is, “Yeah, the project peaked on a good movie.” Ending on The Man Who Never Was (see review) based on the memoir of the man who was there, Ewen Montague, given the same title (see review), the answer lands more on, “I guess so, it’s such a fascinating event that any version will at least hold my interest.”

There is so much to like about how McIntyre’s book landed on screen where even the artifice seems to generally support the truthful whole. This narrative web does a brilliant job of adding the human touches that actually make the story more like the spy thriller it was sold as across all four incarnations. What do I mean? Spy thrillers allow for the actions of both sides to come to the fore creating the possibility of abject defeat in a game noted for knees and elbows alley fighting. 

The real events of Operation Mincemeat took place in offices and clubs in three phases, A) developing the fake man, B) waiting out the tense fortnight between sending Major Martin to war and recovery of his body and C) sitting around the telex praying for the Germans to believe the letters. Certainly, a nail-bitingly tense six months for the people actually in the room who know how many lives might be on the line should the Allies land at an honestly contested beach. Filmgoers tend to value things that appear to happen and sitting in offices around the Telex machine doesn’t count…

…unless the filmmakers cannily fill those spaces with natural expansions of the narrative implied by how McIntyre wrote his book with how these interactions might have played out should time travelers go back with a fistful of 1080p cameras disguised as ladybugs (to prevent said cameras being squashed, we like ladybugs). Thus, the thin traces of a relationship between Montague (Colin Firth) and Jean Leslie (Kelly MacDonald), the young Admiralty staffer that gave a photo to Major Martin, pretty much hinted at by McIntyre in the book becomes a fully realized almost affair filled with walks home in the gloom of a blacked-out wartime London. Scenes where playing pretend about the otherwise fictional Bill Martin and his one-true love, Pam, becomes an excuse for Montague, presently estranged from the wife and kids secured in the United States, to imagine what might happen if he leans in for a kiss with either the best or worst timing possible…depending on point of view.

Similarly, another thread that might not have really happened are the interactions between Montague and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) and Jean that add so much to the potboiler parts of the plot that fill in the boring parts of the movie (the thing about offices and Telexes). While the possibility of Montague and Jean exist in the book, the added layer of a triangle between Montague, Cholmondeley and Jean is just brilliant fiction. The plot thickens when Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs) recruits Cholmondeley to watch Montague over the suspected Communist leanings, confirmed after the war, of a brother, Ivor Montague (Mark Gatiss) actions that come to a head riding in the truck taking the body to Scotland to meet up with the submarine, HMS Seraph, intended to drop off the body in the water near Spain.

To make the story work even more like the finely tuned Swiss watch that lands on screen, some otherwise minor characters are given scenes that hit hard and move on. British Naval Attaché in Madrid, Captain David Ainsworth (Nicholas Rowe) has to goose a Spanish secret police commander, Colonel Cerruti (Oscar Zafra), into acting to make sure the fake letters fall into the hands of the more Fascist (anybody but the Navy) parts of the Spanish Government. Technique employed…a hand job (pardon my French). Did it really happen? McIntyre’s book doesn’t mention it (there was another British intelligence officer omitted from the movie found and photographed in a dress), but given that no country on the planet was all that tolerant of LBGTQ, except for those deemed useful to the larger cause who could keep things from going public, until very recently, if it did happen no way does the man put this moment in a report that could one day declassify.

That last bit of complete artifice that seems to enhance the movie is the handling of Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), who history records was in the room and was among the first to propose the idea of a dead body loaded up with fake papers a couple years before Operation Mincemeat. He wrote a memo with various ruses upon the start of the war that no one else in British intelligence thought could work until Montague and Cholmondeley tackled the problem halfway through the war by asking what the experts thought would work. 

In addition to Fleming’s real role as intermediary between Montague’s office and the rest of the Twenty Committee overseeing all wartime deceptions, the filmmakers decided that the fictional version of the man later to create James Bond should act as narrator of a sort. On the day of the invasion of Sicily, Flynn playing Fleming narrates as he types a quite poetic summary of the plot using various sayings about espionage written elsewhere for example, “wilderness of mirrors” and “the truth is protected by a bodyguard of lies.” In the movie, Fleming is depicted in the office actually sitting at a typewriter. Yes, Montague calls out the oddity of Fleming over in the corner while everyone else is at their desks pensively praying, drinking too much high-caffeine tea and coffee and just hoping the Telex spits out good news. My instincts would be to go deeper with the moment…

“Really, Ian, you can type at a time like this? And make sure the office censor sees those pages before you leave.”

“I’ve drunk too much coffee today, Ewan, and I have to do something with my hands. If it’s all the same to you the shredder’s over in the corner.”

…except no one paid me to have any input whatsoever.

The moment does lead into giving Cholmondeley an observation that even I mentioned in the review for McIntyre’s book…how many real-life amateur novelists had a piece of the greater story. Upon hearing someone else in the office congratulate Captain Ainsworth on the recently finished novel, Cholmondeley asks with great exasperation “how many novelists are there in this operation?” – followed by grousing to Jean – “I’m surrounded by them, novelists I mean, not Germans.” Carefully counting up the novelists in the book it came out to four, including Ian Fleming who freely admitted to the most writer thing of all, stealing *AHEM* borrowing ideas from someone else. And then you get to thinking that the fate of a major Allied operation depended in part on four novelists taking a highly novelistic plot and going about their business with such a straight face that with a little help from a sympathetic Nazi the whole zaniness worked.

In addition to a set of brilliance in weaving together truth and things we wish were true, the strength of this movie rests on the casting. Colin Firth plays this general part of the genteel British man trying to make sense of how he fits in the larger scheme in his sleep. Matthew Macfadyen eats up scenery playing both the fictional and truthful aspects of Charles Cholmondeley and clearly looked at a few photographs of the real man. The man embodied the awkwardness that would leave him as the unsuccessful third wheel of the fictional triangle with Jean at the apex. 

However, I did take exception to the clearly fictional depiction of Cholmondeley going along on the HMS Seraph as part of an overly sentimental need to show respect for Major Martin a.k.a. Glyndwyr Michael. Both the real man and the actor were too tall for the average submarine of the era. He says as much upon returning to London, but here’s the real rub of the moment…after dropping the body into Spanish coastal waters the real Seraph was ordered to destroy evidence of the plot (the cannister carrying the body) and then go into the Mediterranean on a normal patrol against Axis shipping. 

In order to divest the submarine of a very tall man who has little in the way of submarine skills, the Seraph would have to pull into the nearest Allied port of Gibraltar. Pulling into port when you don’t have to risks being seen by an Axis spy creating danger when a report of “Allied submarine, possibly HMS Seraph reported in port on…” lands on a desk in Berlin. But the audience does get to feel the sentimentality of someone from the deception office going along to recite the Burial at Sea Ceremony (truthfully conducted by the Captain of the Seraph, Bill Jewell (Rufus Wright)).

My main pet peeve about this otherwise amazing movie rests on the cinematography. The only well-lit scenes happen indoors. Certain scenes, especially the ones on the deck of the submarine are just too dark, an artistic decision in the eternal cinematic battle between how the dark of night can create fear and indecision and the audience getting confused as to what is happening. Most movies experiment to find a middle ground. This one didn’t care that I reached in vain for the Brightness button on three separate devices to see the Netflix feed. Though the general darkness works better for walking around London at night with flashlights pointed at the ground, because it’s war and cities blackout in war.

To close, this movie deserves the hype you’ve likely been hearing about it. I’m an easy sell when it comes to well-made war movies. Still, perhaps if you haven’t already, see it for yourself and enjoy!        

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