The story of the most successful military deception of the Second World War (and possibly of all time) was the subject of a 1956 film The Man Who Never Was directed by Ronald Neame, starring Clifton Webb as Ewen Montagu and Gloria Grahame as the fictitious Lucy Sherwood. Since then, previously classified material has become available, and even the name of the unfortunate man who took on the role of ‘Major William Martin, RM’ has been revealed. Time, then, for a new telling of the fascinating idea of using a corpse to plant fake documents on the Nazi intelligence service indicating the target for the Allied invasion of southern Europe was not to be Sicily, as every military expert could have predicted, but Greece.
The film begins with Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) being drafted on to the Twenty Committee, a counter-espionage group taking its name from the Roman number twenty, XX, indicating ‘double cross’. He is intrigued by an idea put forward by a young officer called Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn) – yes, *the* Ian Fleming – for using a corpse as the key element of a deception plan. Despite the objections of the conventionally-minded Admiral Graham (Jason Isaacs), Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) backs the plan and things are set in motion. Montagu is assisted in his work by Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘Chumley’), (Matthew Macfadyen).
The corpse of a vagrant named Glyndwr Michael, a man with no family who poisoned himself, is acquired and a fake biography is created for ‘Major Martin’, including a girlfriend called ‘Pam’ whose photo is actually that of Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), a secretary in Montagu’s team. Montagu has sent his wife and children to the United States (as a prominent Jew, he knows he will be a target for the Nazis if they invade Britain) and he and Jean embark on a semi-serious flirtation in which he takes on the character of ‘Bill Martin’, while she becomes ‘Pam’. This makes Cholmondeley jealous, as he too is attracted to Jean.
Things are further complicated by the fact that Montagu’s brother, Ivor (Mark Gatiss), is a known Communist sympathiser (he was also involved in film-making and co-wrote the screenplay for Ealing’s Scott of the Antarctic, among others). Might Ewen be indiscrete and the secrets of ‘Mincemeat’ reach the Kremlin? Cholmondeley is co-opted by Admiral Graham to spy on his boss.
After much work, the body of ‘Major Martin’ is cast adrift to wash up on the Spanish coast near Huelva, complete with a briefcase containing a letter from General Nye to Field Marshal Alexander which contains a glancing reference to settling the details of an imminent invasion of Greece. When Martin’s briefcase is returned, the letter has been tampered with and presumably read. All the British can do is hope and wait for the code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park to intercept a message showing the deception has worked. At last, messages ordering the redeployment of a Panzer division to Greece and other troop movements are decoded. 'Mincemeat' has been “swallowed rod, line and sinker” and the invasion of Sicily proceeds with far fewer casualties than feared.
How does history fare in this telling? The story of ‘Mincemeat’ is fascinating in itself, and even included elements of comedy (while the Nazis wanted the documents, and the British wanted the Nazis to get the documents, the Spanish Navy insisted on locking them away from prying eyes). It should make for a crisp, taut thriller with plenty of suspense. Why is it that modern film-makers never think this is enough?
The story of the actual operation is almost lost in the top-dressing of fictitious sub-plots and red herrings - the love-triangle between Montague, Cholmondeley and Jean; is Montague’s brother a Commie spy? – and characters. At one point, Glyndwr Michael’s sister turns up to claim his body. Are we supposed to think MI5 were incapable of contacting a Welsh Registry Office to check on their body’s family background to guard against this? (The screenwriter claims this was to emphasise that Michael was a ‘real person’, not just a disposable object.)
At the climax of the film Jean is menaced by the barman of a club frequented by the ‘Mincemeat’ team who sat nearby and chatted about the top-secret mission they were engaged in which would change the course of the war (like you do). Jean admits that while Martin is fictitious, the documents are genuine. It turns out the barman is a ‘good German’ spy, sent to check out the ‘Mincemeat’ story for a ‘good German’ spymaster who will authenticate the documents for Hitler, helping to bring about Hitler’s downfall.
Another irritation is the prominence given to Ian Fleming. Apart from his original idea for planting the corpse, Fleming played little part in the operation. The film, however, cannot help indulging itself with wink-wink references to ‘M’ and ‘Q’ and the gadgets in Q Branch, because as we all know, these will inspire fiction’s greatest secret agent.
The film looks very good, and even manages to use real locations around Whitehall in London, which adds an air of authenticity, and the atmosphere of the London blackout is put over very effectively.
The performances are good, although everyone is very stolidly British, and Jason Isaacs makes a very effective admiral who thinks the whole scheme is doomed to fail and does his best to fracture the loyalty of Montagu’s team. Simon Russell Beale makes a rather subdued Churchill – we know who it is, but apart from a slight lisp and Churchill’s pronunciation of ‘Naazzees’, the character has little of the original’s forcefulness or egotism.
If you see the film and want to know the story of Operation Mincemeat, read Ben Macintyre’s excellent book. If you come to this film knowing the story, you may wonder what exactly is going on.