Stephen Arnell

The subterfuge movies that rival Operation Mincemeat

The subterfuge movies that rival Operation Mincemeat
Image: Warner Bros
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Until recently a ‘special military operation’ typically referred to a particular action/plan rather than all-out war. Unless you happen to live in Putin’s Russia, that is.

John Madden’s (Shakespeare in Love) take on the real-life Operation Mincemeat is a solid entry in the canon of WWII movies that concern themselves with a particular military objective and the various forms of subterfuge that are used to achieve it.

The plot of Operation Mincemeat centres on a ruse designed to distract the Germans from the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 by secreting false plans for the landing in Greece on a civilian corpse kitted out as a Royal Marine courier.

The picture boasts a first-class cast, including Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Alex Jennings, Penelope Wilton and Mark Bonnar.

Truly a Who’s Who of UK acting talent, and hopefully superior to the recent lacklustre adaptation of Robert Harris’ pre-WWII thriller Munich – The Edge of War (2022).

The story behind Operation Mincemeat was first tackled back in 1956 with Ronald Neame’s (The Odessa File) enjoyable The Man Who Never Was, where the waspish American actor Clifton Webb (Laura) took the role of Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu, played by Firth in the new picture.

Most WWII films revolve around a plan or some such, either a campaign, grand strategy raid or covert skulduggery.

Older titles include The Dam Busters (1955), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Longest Day (1962), Operation Crossbow (1965), The Heroes of Telemark (also 1965), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Codename: Emerald (1985), and of course Where Eagles Dare (1968).

With one exception, I will keep to later movies solely pertaining to Allied operations during the conflict.

Operation Mincemeat is released on Netflix on 11 May.

Inglorious Basterds (2009) Netflix, Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Quentin Tarantino’s WWII alternative history is a bit of a curate’s egg. There are some exceptionally good parts, but by golly, does it go on.

Tarantino’s dialogue is good, but not quite as sharp as he thinks, with Christoph Waltz’s SS officer Hans Lander taking the lion’s share of the best lines.

The movie takes its cue from The Dirty Dozen (1967) in making the mission’s aim the wholesale butchering of the German High Command at a Nazi propaganda film premiere in Paris, which old Adolf himself will be attending.

Der Führer’s favourite films supposedly included Mickey Mouse, Laurel & Hardy, and Gone with the Wind (1939).

Inglorious Basterds was the final film for Australian actor Rod Taylor (The Time Machine, The Birds, Zabriskie Point) who cameos as a wheezy Winston Churchill.

The Bombardment/ The Shadow in My Eye (2021) Netflix

This bleak Danish film tells the tragic true story of the RAF’s Operation Carthage.

During the final months of the war (March 1945) the RAF (at the urging of the Danish Resistance) decide to bomb Copenhagen’s Gestapo HQ, the Shellhus, aiming to free the prisoners, destroy Nazi files and take out the interrogation teams.

The mission succeeds, but when a downed Mosquito bomber crashes into the Institut Jeanne d'Arc, other planes mistake the burning school for a target. 86 schoolchildren and 18 adults died in the building.

The picture stars Alex Høgh Andersen, who readers may recognise as sled-bound Ivar the Boneless from Vikings.

Operation Finale (2018) Netflix

The flight of certain senior Nazis to South America meant that for the newly established state of Israel, WWII did not end in 1945.

The pursuit of Nazi fugitives was the subject for movie adaptations of thrillers such as The Odessa File (1974), Marathon Man (1976) and The Boys from Brazil (1978), as well as the more recent Amazon Prime series Hunters (2020).

Operation Finale differs in detailing the real-life capture of Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) in Argentina by a Mossad team headed by Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac, Dune, Moon Knight). The televised trial in Israel is the subject of the BBC TV movie The Eichmann Show (2015).

The picture is quite serviceable as a retelling of events, but as we know the outcome, lacks real jeopardy. Worth a watch though.

Stanley Tucci essayed Eichmann in a more subtle performance in 2001’s Conspiracy; Thomas Kretschmann was the Nazi bureaucrat in the less impressive 2007 biopic.

Ben Kingsley has played both Nazis and their opponents, taking the roles of Simon Wiesenthal (Murderers Among Us, 1984), Itzhak Stern (Schindler’s List, 1993) and Otto Frank (Anne Frank: The Whole Story, 2001).

In 2013 he was also a one-time Nazi ally, Hungarian Regent Admiral Horthy in Walking with the Enemy.

Black Book (2006) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Paul Verhoeven’s superb thriller is set amongst Dutch Resistance cells during the final months of WWII, where treasonous colleagues and a strangely decent SS man complicate the mission of Dutch-Jewish singer Rachel Stein (Game of Thrones' Carice van Houten) assigned to infiltrate the SD (German intelligence) HQ of dishy commander Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch – Bridge of Spies)

Unfortunately for Rachel, there are those who falsely think she is a Nazi double agent and are determined to make her pay. Not a movie to watch when tucking into your supper.

The Monuments Men (2014) – full movie available free to watch on YouTube, Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

George Clooney may have taken too much on when he directed, co-wrote, co-produced and starred in this undemanding, easy on the eye big-budget ($70m+) recounting of the real-life unit of experts assigned to recover works of art purloined by the Nazis.

Clooney surrounds himself with a gallery of familiar faces as the team, including Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett as a French Resistance member and art historian who helps the group track down the Nazi loot.

With a nod to the final scenes of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Schindler’s List (1993) the picture ends on a similar note, as the older version of Clooney’s character (played by his father Nick) takes his grandson to see Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna, which he recovered at the cost of two comrades.

The Dirty Dozen (1967) full movie available free to watch on YouTube, Amazon Rent/Buy

There is little or no subtlety in the mission assigned to the twelve criminals seeking pardons under the command of Lee Marvin’s bolshie hardcase Major John Reisman.

After a short but intensive period of training, the reprobates turn out just fine – although with one big exception.

Archer J. Maggott (Telly Savalas), a psychotic religious fanatic/rapist.

I guess his name should have raised a red flag to Marvin.

The gig?

Simple – slaughter everyone in a château near Rennes stuffed to the gills with high-ranking Wehrmacht officers partying their time away before returning to their respective Front(s).

Which they do, but with only one of the Dozen surviving (Charles Bronson’s Joseph Wladislaw), and unpleasant additional havoc caused by Maggot’s off-the-leash antics in the château.

Marvin was only 43 when he shot the picture, but his hell-raising lifestyle meant that he looked at least 10 years older.

Although to be fair, people tended to look considerably more mature only a few short decades ago.

Witness Sean Connery in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, where his lumbago-afflicted 007 appears positively geriatric, despite being just 53 years of age.

Overlord (2018) Amazon Rent/Buy

This silly but fitfully enjoyable action-horror flick has a decent pedigree (produced by J. J. Abrams and co-scripted The Revenant writer Mark L. Smith) but the movie tends to waste its premise with too much yakking.

Parachuted in to take out a German radio-jamming tower on the eve of D-Day, a crack US squad find they get more than they bargained for when they face enhanced Nazi soldiers and mutated locals, who have been exposed to the mystical black goo that lies beneath a nearby village.

Works for me.

Lookout for Pilou Asbæk as the chief Nazi baddie SS Captain Wafner, you’ll no doubt remember him as the wacky Iron Born pirate-admiral Euron Greyjoy.

Allied (2016) Amazon Rent/Buy

Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) directed this curiously flat wartime spy romance from overstretched Peaky Blinders scribe Steven Knight.

Even when the picture ventures out on location (the Canaries standing in for Morocco) the movie appears stagey and inert.

The unconvincing tryst between Brad Pitt as a Canadian intelligence officer and Marion Cotillard as a French Resistance fighter (or is she…?) doesn’t help either, although Allied passes the time well enough if you’re in the mood for an old-fashioned, fairly predictable espionage yarn.

Resistance (2020) NOW, Amazon Buy

If your knowledge of legendary mime artist Marcel Marceau is confined to Kenny Everett’s caricature character ‘Morris Mimer’, prepare to be surprised by Resistance.

During WWII, the aspiring mime artist (played by Jesse Eisenberg) successfully evaded Klaus 'The Butcher of Lyon' Barbie’s (Matthias Schweighöfer) SS many times when helping Jewish children escape across the French border to Switzerland.

At the end of the war Marceau is hailed as a 'unique human being' by General George S. Patton (Ed Harris).

And that’s before Marcel begins his cute mime act in front of the assembled battle-hardened GIs.

No word on whether they enjoyed the show though.

Incidentally, Marceau was the only character to utter a spoken word ('Non!') in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie (1976)

The 12th Man (2017), IMDb TV, Pluto TV, Amazon Rent/Buy

A return to the frozen Norway of The Heroes of Telemark, where the failed true life Operation Martin sees only one of a 12-man Resistance team manage to escape the Germans after their TNT-laden boat blows up.

Revenant-stye action as Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad) must elude relentless SS officer Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) whilst surviving sub-zero temperatures and harsh terrain – which includes avalanches and snowstorms, which at one point blind him.

Whilst sheltering in a cave, Baalsrud uses a pocketknife to amputate several of his toes in the hope of preventing the further spread of gangrene/frostbite.

It is heartening to the viewer that (as in real life) he was aided in his escape to Sweden by locals risking their lives to help him.

The story was the basis for the earlier Oscar-nominated Nine Lives (1957); in 1991 Norway’s TV viewers rated it the greatest Norwegian film ever made.