Spoiler alert! This story contains plot details about the World War II movie “Operation Mincemeat” (streaming now on Netflix).
By 2022, you’d think every possible real-life World War II drama had been explored and exploited by Hollywood. And then along comes “Operation Mincemeat,” which makes, well, just that of this notion.
The new Netflix film tells the improbable yet true story of a ruse the British used successfully against the Germans. OK, that’s putting it mildly. More specifically: British intelligence used a corpse planted with fake troop orders to convince the Nazi high command that the Allies would be invading Greece, not Sicily.
The mission’s success hinged as much on careful planning (a meticulous backstory for the dead body) as dumb luck (banking on local Spanish fishermen to haul him in). But the stakes could not have been higher: Fail and Europe falls.
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“It’s one of those movies that makes you wonder, did this truly happen like this?” director John Madden tells USA TODAY. “Incredibly, it did.”
The British filmmaker, whose credits also include the Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” movies, walks us through aspects of this historic episode that proved almost too good to be true.
Was James Bond creator Ian Fleming really part of the plan?
Ian Fleming was indeed part of “Operation Mincemeat” in his post as the assistant to Britain’s director of naval intelligence, Rear Admiral John Godfrey, who also appears in the movie.
The future author of the James Bond novels is heard in “Mincemeat” referring to Godfrey as “M.” When asked why, he responds that Godfrey was as terrifying as only one other person in his life: his mother. M, of course, is the cantankerous boss that Bond reports to at MI5 headquarters in London.
“Fleming was a decade away from his first Bond novel at that point, but he was a budding writer,” says Madden, who chose to have the Fleming character be the movie’s narrator. “There’s also a gadget man in our movie who worked in Q branch, which clearly was the model for Q in Bond. So it was all there in the real story.”
Was the identity of the dead man truly kept secret for decades?
It was, as any dissemination of information about the corpse’s real identity could have jeopardized the mission. “Despite having a really good reason, this presented a moral challenge as they basically robbed a grave,” Madden says of the difficult task facing two British military men, Ewen Montagu (played by Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen).
The corpse in question had to be fresh enough not to arouse suspicion upon its discovery in waters off Spain, a neutral country crawling with German officials and spies. The duo found their man in a morgue and got to work creating an elaborate life for him as one William Martin.
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In his post-war book “The Man Who Never Was,” Montagu described the dead man as a vagrant who died of rat poisoning. Accurate, but he offered no other details. Decades would go by before war-era secrets were declassified and the body was revealed to be that of Glyndwr Michael. In 1997, British officials added a postscript to his grave that revealed all: “Glyndwr Michael served as Major William Martin RM.”
Were Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley both obsessed with the same female colleague?
Much of “Operation Mincemeat” revolves around relationship drama between the two British officers and a co-worker, Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald). In the movie, Montagu (who was and remained married) and Cholmondeley (who was single) heatedly pursue Leslie (who married someone else years later), but the triangle was magnified greatly to avoid a purely procedural plot, says Madden.
“In wartime, you’re dealing with a world where people are thrust together with extreme emotional stakes,” he says, explaining the decision to amplify that triangle. “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.”
Madden says that Montagu and Leslie did call each other Bill (the corpse’s new identity) and Pam (the corpse’s invented lover), and Leslie’s photo was used as a stand-in for Pam and found among the corpse’s belongings when he washed up. But there was no affair.
Was the corpse almost returned to England without falling into the hands of the Germans?
If anything, Madden says, the real story had to be simplified in order to keep the pace of his movie flowing. The corpse was discovered by fishermen as planned, but instead of being turned over to Nazi officials in the area, an Allied-loyal Spanish official almost upended the ruse by sending the corpse back to England.
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“The story at that point really spins off into another world without our main characters,” says Madden, referring to a small army of Spanish and German agents and double-agents who eventually do take charge of the body and relay the false contents in his leather satchel to Hitler. This helped the Allied forces gain a crucial foothold into relatively undefended Sicily.
Madden says the various layers of deception ran so deep that the real truth about whether Operation Mincemeat had succeeded was only confirmed when U.S., Canadian and English soldiers stormed Sicilian beaches in July 1943 only to find light resistance. This kicked off an Allied invasion of Europe that led to D-Day.
Did British military officials really party as elegantly as depicted in the film?
When not indulging in elaborate and time-consuming efforts to ensure that Nazi Germany didn’t take over Europe, the movie’s protagonists are often seen in fancy clubs drinking and dancing the night away. Really, in the middle of a war?
“Remember, this is after all those dramatic moments most Hollywood movies use as a reference, like the Blitz, Dunkirk, so at this point people had adjusted and tried to live as normally as they could,” says Madden. “People thought they were going to die. So, yes, people were going to the movies and dancing away at private clubs like the one in our movie, the Gargoyle Club.”
One other detail in “Operation Mincemeat” also is lifted from those times: a lack of street illumination for fear of helping enemy bombers pick their targets. “Everyone did walk around with little flashlights, which you could only point at the ground,” says Madden. “In a way, it’s the way you might show people in 2020 with masks in a movie years from now. Those were the times.”
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