Operation Mincemeat: A ridiculous and true spy story

Operation Mincemeat is the true story of Britain’s master plan to foil and defeat Nazi Germany during WWII – by dropping a corpse with fake documents from a submarine in the hopes it would wash ashore and convince Hitler to move defenses from Sicily to Greece. The Netflix film follows the masterminds behind the ruse, Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley, and the team around them as they develop and execute the plan.

This film gives us the gift of two Mr. Darcys working together– Colin Firth (who’s done lots of great work in film and TV but perhaps will never escape his swoon-worthy performance in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) and Matthew Macfadyen (who took on the same part in the 2005 film opposite Keira Knightley). It’s not the first time Macfadyen has played a spy, though. He first gained recognition for his role in the BBC series Spooks (known as MI-5 in the US). Both roles are a far cry from his most recent gig as Tom Wambsgans in Succession. The film also stars Kelly Macdonald (Gosford Park), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey, Doctor Who) and Johnny Flynn (Stardust) as Ian Fleming. Yes, that Ian Fleming.

Netflix/See-Saw Films

The film is based off of the book British Operation Mincemeat written by Ben Macintyre after the records about the operation were declassified and released in 1996. For all the spy film fans out there, this is the real deal. There’s no martinis, no shoot outs on a satellite dish, no super villains with their own island. This is an honest look into how spies and deception helped turn the tide of the war for Britain. It is plotting, planning, crafting, waiting, and hoping that forces beyond your control line up perfectly or the blood of thousands are on your hands.

In 1943 Britain had troops in Northern Africa, and Mussolini’s Italy was only a hop, skip, and a beach landing away via Sicily. It was obvious Britain would attack through the island. Everyone knew it, especially the Germans, so it made landing in Sicily without serious casualties a tactical impossibility. There were just too many damn Nazis there waiting. So how do you convince Hitler that England is more interested in Greece? Subterfuge.

The British government disguised a corpse (who continued to decompose over the months while they planned this scheme) as an airman carrying fake, classified British documents, launched him out of a submarine, and hoped he would wash ashore in Spain to hand the documents to German spies, luring the Third Reich into believing Britain would attack through Greece instead of the obvious strategical advantage of Sicily and conveniently move all their troops a country over. Totally fool-proof plan, right? Not exactly.

The story has all the trappings of a Monty Python film. It could easily have leaned into the absurd because the reality is so absurd. This plan worked! It allowed England to gain a foothold into continental Europe to help change the tide of the war. One corpse of a homeless man floating in the Mediterranean convinced Nazi leaders. But Operation Mincemeat is not foiled into farce. Nor is it your typical WWII movie. There are no massive battle scenes. Instead, it is a light drama woven through with comedic touches.

Netflix/See-Saw Films

Screenwriter Michelle Ashford, who adapted Macintyre’s book, touched on this in her interview with The Mary Sue. “I also felt the tone of the story was different from many other World War II stories. When I read Ben’s book I thought it was hilarious, and it was because it’s sort of the anti-spy story, in a way. Because it is not a bunch of incredible cool, dashing people doing dashing things and drinking martinis. It’s the opposite. But it is actually the truth of what real spy work is like. And it’s boring and strange and kind of crazy and that’s what I loved about it.”

One of the best moments in the film is the team eagerly developing an elaborate backstory for their corpse-turned-war-hero. They give him a name—William Martin—a personal history, and even a sweetheart back home. It is almost comedic how detailed this fake man’s life was, and yet how devoted his creators were to his story. As Montagu says, “The crucial thing is that he must be real. As real as you or I.”

Ashford’s script also hints that those working under the employment of the government were more interested in fiction than their reality, caught up in the romance of what spy life could be. At one point, Cholmondeley asks for voices to be hushed, not due to spies but something much worse – authors! The most famous of all being Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. As we learned from Our Flag Means Death, truth is stranger than fiction. Yes, Ian Fleming was part of Operation Mincemeat. He was the assistant to Britain’s director of naval intelligence, Rear Adm. John Godfrey, played by Jason Isaacs.

Also true was that Montagu (Colin Firth) did use Jean Leslie’s (Kelly Macdonald) photo, which was planted on the corpse as his “girlfriend,” Pam. Oddly true to fact, the pair did call themselves Bill and Pam, respectively, named after the corpse and his true love. What appears to be fiction is the love triangle between Montagu, Leslie, and Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen). As director John Madden said, “In wartime, you’re dealing with a world where people are thrust together with extreme emotional stakes. We wanted to explore that idea of people coming together to create a larger fiction who are then changed and lost in the fiction they are creating.”

History buffs, especially those who think they know everything about WWII, will enjoy the film. Fans of James Bond will also enjoy the peek inside where Ian Fleming concocted his super-spy world, with hints at who “M” originally was and that the Q branch, littered with impractical but fun spy trinkets, was a reality. Lovers of Jane Austen will enjoy swooning at Colin Firth, who at 61 years old is as dashing as ever.

This isn’t a high-octane spy thriller or the next Saving Private Ryan. It’s a quiet piece whose entertainment value is found in the incredulous fact that this really did happen, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Quite the opposite.

A version of this article was originally published on WatercoolerHQ.

2 thoughts on “Operation Mincemeat: A ridiculous and true spy story

  1. The 1956 spy film, “The Man who Never Was”, starring Clifton Webb, Gloria Grahame & Stephen Boyd is the same story, based on the book by the Lt. Commander Montagu of the same name.


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