Operation Mincemeat – An extraordinary story about the nobility of unsung heroes

Operation Mincemeat, a compelling new film by the acclaimed director John Madden celebrates storytelling. Many of the characters working in the Twenty Committee are busily writing novels in their spare time. “At a fundamental level, it’s quite consciously a film about storytelling,” says Madden. “The whole community that the film is dealing with is riddled with writers. Everybody’s writing, including one that we all know very well. Ian Fleming is right at the centre of it all.”

Operation Mincemeat tells a factual story that is far stranger than fiction. This real-life event proved a vital turning point in the Second World War. It is fair to say that it fundamentally altered the future of Europe. As the Allies prepared to invade mainland Europe in 1943, they were desperate to avoid the slaughter of their troops by the German forces that they knew would mass in southern Italy. So they hatched an astounding plan to dupe the Nazis into believing that they would land in Greece rather than Sicily. They came up with a deception which defies belief and which has now been turned into an absorbing movie

Operation Mincemeat is most definitely a celebration of storytelling,” producer Iain Canning remarks. “Michelle Ashford’s beautiful adaptation of Ben Macintyre’s book being our foundation. The film, through its characters, performances and subject matter celebrates what can be achieved through telling the most compelling of stories.”

Producer Emile Sherman reiterates the decisive role Fleming plays in the tale. “Ian Fleming is pivotal to the whole story of Operation Mincemeat. He is our narrator, but he is also in real life the person who put together the original Trout Memo. Within the memo was the idea of deceiving Hitler through the use of a dead body carrying papers, which is picked up and run with by the characters in our story. It’s incredibly fun to see a pre-Bond Ian Fleming, living his life and being part of the war effort with all the weight of what he was going to become.”

Director John Madden during the filming of Operation Mincemeat. ©2022 FilmNation.  All Rights Reserved.

“The people who were actually coming up with these ideas were essentially writers,” says Madden. “Some of them were published novelists who were writing about criminals who were tricking the police or leaving no trace behind them. So the idea of the twist, the unexpected, all of these kind of things were natural material to them. Telling a story that you want somebody to believe in is the fundamental job that I have. And it’s exactly what they were doing.”

Operation Mincemeat – A pivotal moment in the global conflict

Ben Macintyre, the bestselling author on whose book of the same name the film is based, explains why this scarcely credible episode was such a pivotal moment in the global conflict. “Operation Mincemeat was probably the most successful military deception operation ever carried out. What the deceivers had to do was to try to persuade the Germans that black was white and white was black. And they did this in the most extraordinary way. It now sounds like it comes straight out of fiction, which is exactly where it came from.”

“The story is absolutely the star of this film!” says screenwriter Michelle Ashford, who emphasises how this episode was a game-changer in the progress of the war. “It’s absolutely true that Operation Mincemeat changed the course of the war. If the Allies had not been able to access Europe, they would have been sunk. At that time, Europe was very heavily defended by the Germans. If the British had not been successful with Operation Mincemeat, there would have been a ghastly bloodbath. Without that brilliant plot, there is no way they would have won the war.”

Macintyre fleshes out the details of the ostensibly hare-brained British scheme that in 1943 outfoxed the Nazis and changed the entire course of the Second World War. “The British decided that the plot would be to get a dead body and to give that body a completely false identity by disguising it as someone totally different. They would dress the body up in a military uniform and pretend that he was a special courier who had come down in a plane crash in the Mediterranean.”

The British plotters aimed to float the body off the coast of neutral Spain, in the certain knowledge that it would be picked up by Nazi spies there. Those agents would then report the false information planted on the body directly to Adolf Hitler in Berlin. Macintyre continues, “Crucially, the British would give the body an attaché case containing fake documents that would appear to indicate that the vast Allied Armada about to invade mainland Europe was aiming for Greece and not for Sicily. So it was an attempt to put the Nazis off the trail.”

Michelle Ashford is the creator and executive producer of the Showtime drama Masters Of Sex.  She has written for the HBO miniseries John Adams and The Pacific.  She adapted Undaunted Courage, the Stephen Ambrose account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, also for HBO.  Michelle’s most recent feature scripts include Operation Mincemeat, Cat Person from The New Yorker short-story “Cat Person” which went viral in 2017, and City Of Girls, based on the Elizabeth Gilbert novel for Warner Bros. 

The fictional origins of the plot, which was codenamed Operation Mincemeat, are very strong. It was conceived by none other than Ian Fleming (played in the film by Johnny Flynn), who of course went on to create the immensely successful James Bond novels. Macintyre goes on to say, “The plot actually did come from fiction. It came originally from a novel by a man called Basil Thompson. No one reads Thompson anymore. But someone who did was Ian Fleming. He was the assistant to Admiral Godfrey, who was the head of Naval Intelligence during the war and later became the model for M in the James Bond stories. Fleming proposed the idea from Thompson’s novel to Godfrey. And so this idea was born almost entirely out of fiction. It came from novels.”

Ben Macintyre has written a weekly column in The Times since 1998 on history, espionage, art, politics and foreign affairs. Before taking up his current post as Writer at Large and Associate Editor on the newspaper, he was the editor of The Times Weekend Review, a weekly supplement covering the arts and literature.  He joined the newspaper in 1992 as New York Correspondent, and went on to become Paris Bureau Chief and then US Editor, based in Washington, before returning to the UK in 2002 as parliamentary sketch-writer.
 
He is the author of thirteen non-fiction history books, including the bestselling wartime trilogy Agent Zigzag, Operation Mincemeat and Double Cross

The fictional origins of the plot, which was codenamed Operation Mincemeat, are very strong. It was conceived by none other than Ian Fleming (played in the film by Johnny Flynn), who of course went on to create the immensely successful James Bond novels. Macintyre goes on to say, “The plot actually did come from fiction. It came originally from a novel by a man called Basil Thompson. No one reads Thompson anymore. But someone who did was Ian Fleming. He was the assistant to Admiral Godfrey, who was the head of Naval Intelligence during the war and later became the model for M in the James Bond stories. Fleming proposed the idea from Thompson’s novel to Godfrey. And so this idea was born almost entirely out of fiction. It came from novels.”

South African-born actor Johnny Flynn plays Ian Fleming in Operation Mincemeat. ©2022 FilmNation.  All Rights Reserved.

However, because it was so fantastical, Operation Mincemeat was extremely hard to pull off. Working out of a dingy basement in central London, the top-secret Twenty Committee of Naval Intelligence led by Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) was presented with almost insurmountable challenges. Macintyre reflects that “It proved extraordinarily difficult because, believe it or not, in wartime, it was actually very hard to get hold of a dead body. People were dying all the time. But you had to find a body that looked as if it had drowned at sea and had come from a plane crash.

“The meat of the story – the mincemeat of the story, if you like – was trying to find a body and then to go through the incredibly complicated system of inventing a completely different character, a new person who’d never existed. And so, they set about it as if they were constructing a novel. And that’s the key to the story: how do you create somebody who never existed?”

Director John Madden during the filming of Operation Mincemeat. An award-winning director for television, radio and stage, his films include Shakespeare In Love, which received three Golden Globe Awards, four BAFTA’s, and seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Mrs Brown, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Proof, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. ©2022 FilmNation.  All Rights Reserved.

But it is the very incredibility of Operation Mincemeat which makes it such a mesmerising story. Director John Madden outlines what drew him to this tale. “It is a completely wild story, so precarious and so unlikely and so whacked out in every possible sense. Speaking as a filmmaker, that is what’s irresistible about it.

“The stakes were so high that if Operation Mincemeat had gone wrong, it would have been a catastrophe that would be forever imprinted on everyone’s mind, in the same way that D Day or the Battle of Britain or these other famous wartime events are. It had to work, or it would be a catastrophe. And the idea of this fragile, highly implausible, and very, very difficult-to-pull-off plot sitting against that level of odds is where the power of the story comes from.”

A highly original kind of war film in that it focuses not on frontline heroes, but on figures in the shadows

“I came at it knowing that it was a Second World War movie, and what I was concerned about was that it would feel like something that had been done before. But then in reading Michelle’s scripts and understanding what John saw in it, it did feel surprising and twisting and actually strangely modern. It was a different way of approaching a war film, and that was really exciting for me,” says producer Kris Thykier, who is collaborating for the third time with Madden on this film.

Operation Mincemeat is also a highly original kind of war film in that it focuses not on frontline heroes, but on figures in the shadows. According to Ashford, “It’s a story about the nobility of unsung heroes. People who had fantasies of being warriors on the frontline realised it was their lot to work behind the scenes and do their bit in another way. People should ask themselves, ‘What’s my role in saving the world?’ That’s what these guys did.

“They said, ‘I don’t need to grab the headlines. I can quietly do my bit behind the scenes’. That is just as worthy, if not more worthy, than the headline grabbers. We live now in a world obsessed with celebrities, but what is tremendous about this story is the notion of praising those working behind the scenes. It’s about those who don’t grab the glory but actually make things happen. It’s important to get that out there.”

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The strength of Operation Mincemeat also lies in the fact that it is utterly grounded in reality, an aspect that Macintyre is eager to highlight. “It wasn’t until MI5 began declassifying its files that you could really begin to tell true stories about a subject that’s been so heavily mystified and fictionalised. And so I began to look into the MI5 files, and they really are the most extraordinary cornucopia of detail because they’re written by and for people who never expected them to be made public.

“They were always intended to be kept secret. And so they’re honest in a way that most official files are not. Most people who know that this material is going to come out one day try to shade it slightly. They try to slightly cover up or make themselves look better or other people look worse. Not in these files. They’re absolutely genuine accounts of what is going on.”

The film stands out as well because it encompasses moments of great humour, as well as high seriousness. Madden says that “I’m very attracted to films that have a variation of tone in the script, have many ways of communicating and traverse many moods. So Operation Mincemeat can suddenly become absurd and funny at moments that you’re not expecting it to be and then swerve as quickly into something else. I find navigating that very exciting as a filmmaker, and I’ve been around that kind of material a lot.”

What makes the film all the more remarkable is the fact that the post-production took place under the severe restrictions imposed during the global pandemic. Thykier discloses just how challenging that task was. “It did make post-production complicated. I’m sure this will be something that’s mirrored in other people who’ve been through the post process during the virus.

“But it brought out the best in us in lots of ways. All of us had to raise our game and figure out how to finish this film remotely. What were the best ways of doing it? How do you cut a picture with people in different parts of the country? I’m very proud of the fact that actually we did it with aplomb, and we did it with a lot of humour even though at times it was incredibly frustrating. We may well have ended up with a better result. I think it meant that we all watched the film over and over and over again and actually dug beneath the surface of it to try and get the core of that story.”

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What do the makers of Operation Mincemeat hope that audiences will take away from it?

Macintyre stresses that it is very different from your usual Second World War drama. “It’s not a wartime story that we’re really that familiar with. This is a story about the effect of imagination. It’s about the uses imagination can be put to. We are all familiar with the Second World War story of bombs and guns and bullets and armies and tactics and so on. But this is a story about what imagination can do in wartime. It’s about how you can actually use lateral thinking, deception, fakes, fraud, counterfeiting, to think your way around a story, and that’s what makes it so fascinating.”

Thykier concurs. “I’m very proud of the way the film has ended up. The thing that sets it apart from what one would consider the more traditional period or war film is that it’s a ride once you get on it. You’re continually being taken round corners and down different avenues, and it’s constantly exciting and different and surprising.”

Michelle Ashford wraps up by expressing her hope that Operation Mincemeat will engender in audiences, “A profound respect for how difficult the task was and how much people sacrificed to keep the world safe and free. I hope viewers have a sense of awe about all the people on the right side of history who worked so hard to defeat tyranny.”

There are definite parallels with the world today. Ashford carries on that, “I hope people have a deep admiration for those people who made it happen and continue to make it happen and fight on the side of right. I hope audiences are quietly humbled by their example and inspired to keep our planet free and fair and out of the clutch of tyrants.

“I hope this movie will say to people, ‘Wake up! We can’t go around in a fog or slip into a slumber. These forces recur, and we must be on our guard against them’. In the movie, everyone pitches in. Operation Mincemeat reminds us that when we find ourselves in unbelievably complicated and challenging times, we must all do our part.

“We are all in it together.”