Last year saw the release of the film Operation Mincemeat, staring Colin Firth in the role of Ewen Montagu (of who, more later). For those who’ve read – and enjoyed – the book Operation Mincemeat: The true spy story that changed the course of World War II, there may be some disappointment.
As is often the way with films, they make it all about the people involved – the (at the very least emotional) affair between married Montagu and a female colleague, the transvestite spymaster, Ian Fleming (later author of James Bond) in his role as assistant to the director of naval intelligence and, well…. you get the picture I’m sure.
Whereas the true strength of the story is the intelligence work and the success of the deception. The deception? Right, yes, better get to that – the whole shenanigan was to persuade Hitler and the German High Command that the Allies would be invading Greece and not Sicily, so they would move their defensive forces and thereby give the invasion (of Sicily) a greater chance for success.
For those who don’t know the story, a suitable dead body is acquired, a detailed false identity is created, it’s dressed in uniform and has papers planted on it suggesting that the site of the invasion – which everyone knows is going to happen – will be Greece. The dead body is then put into the sea to be found by Spanish fishermen, to be passed onto their neutral but fascist’s regime’s forces, who will alert their good friends the Nazis. The deception works, and the rest – as they say – is history.
Although Ben Mackintyre’s book was a bestseller, the story first came to light in 1950. Duff Cooper, a former cabinet minister who was read into the details of Operation Mincemeat, published a fictional work called Operation Heartbreak, which included the plot device of a dead body. The British secret services decide they must publish their version of the story, and Ewen Montagu (the man Colin Firth plays in the film) is given the go ahead to write the story. In 1953, his book The Man Who Never Was is published. And in 1956, Ronald Neame makes a film of the same named, based on Montagu’s book.
Both Mackintyre’s book and the film of the same name, are simply repeating the story told some 60 years earlier.
In full disclosure, I have to admit not having read Montagu’s book, nor having seen Neame’s film – so cannot draw any conclusions. By drawing attention to the fact that they’re modern do-overs, I’m not suggesting that one or other is better or worse. What’s certain is it’s a jolly good tale, and I’m rather inclined to look out not only the book in order to hear the story from the horse’s mouth (so to speak), but also the Neame film to see how they handled it.
PostScript: I see that a musical of the story will be shown in London’s West End in 2023. It’s been described as a ‘macabre musical comedy’ and an ‘accelerated farce’. I’m not sure quite how I feel about that prospect.
© Debra Carey, 2022