The Man Who Never Was directed by Ronald Neame (Sumar Productions, 1956)
“Last night I dreamed a deadly dream
Beyond the Isle of Skye
I saw a dead man win a fight
And I think that man was I.”
(Traditional Scottish ballad which opens the film)
The Man Who Never Was, a 1956 British film, is one of the best WW II spy movies. It’s based off the story of Operation Mincemeat, where fake papers planted on a corpse by the British military fooled the Germans into thinking the allies were going to invade Sardinia instead of Sicily in 1943. The plan fooled even Hitler, although Joseph Goebbels was skeptical. Falling for the bait, the German military moved several divisions away from the coast of Sicily. Which caught them off guard when the allies hit the beach in full force.
The problem with every movie about WW II is we know who won. Schickelgroover and his band of demons were sent back to the evil place from where they came. The thousand-year reign of terror went down in a fire bomb raid. All the Aryan science couldn’t save them from the arsenals of democracy. You know the story. Therefore much of the mystery element in the spy movie is removed before the opening credits. What then can you look forward to seeing? Isn’t every WW II movie a documentary or a lie?
But since we already know the outcome of the war, the real fun in watching The Man Who Never Was is seeing how the good guys are going to pull it off. And most people weren’t aware of the whole Operation Mincemeat affair until the architect had published his book detailing the event. So you can watch this movie knowing the allies will win eventually, but still wonder if this particular plan is going to succeed.
The bulk of the film involves the planning. How can the Germans be fooled into thinking a corpse carries real documents detailing an invasion? There’s plenty of visits to the laboratory and discussion with coroners and chemists on how seawater can affect a dead body. Finally, where do you get the dead body with the right characteristics? It’s not the sort of mission you can ask for volunteers.
As a British admiral declares:
“It’s the most outrageous, disgusting, preposterous, not to say barbaric idea I’ve ever heard, but work out full details and get back to me in the morning!”
So the real reason to watch this movie is to see how the British military pulls off the whole operation. Will Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) be able to find the right body? This is the point of the film. You manage to learn a lot about how sealed messages are opened and resealed without anyone knowing the better. But it doesn’t fool the British chemist who handles the “sealed documents” after the body has washed up on the shore of Spain. He spots the German intelligence attempt at taking out the bogus information and putting it back in the envelope.
Simon Winder in his excellent The Man Who Saved Britain , a book about the cultural impact of James Bond, devoted a few chapters to British perceptions of itself after WW II. A lot of what came out British cinema in the 50’s consisted of war movies which fixated on British resourcefulness and glory in the face of imminent destruction by Germany. The British empire was in shambles after WW II because of the enormous cost of the war, but the cinema-going public could always look back on the days when a few plucky men reasoned a way to stop the Nazi juggernaut. The concept of the special operative who single-handedly saved the day would morph into the legend of Bond. These movies had influences outside of the UK. The final attack in Dam Busters was duplicated scene for scene in the first Star Wars movie.
The film concludes with an epilogue after the body’s been buried with full military honors in Spain. The Germans send in their own spy to verify the truth of the information snagged from the corpse. Playing the Nazi spy is the great Stephen Boyd, who travels to Ireland to check up on the background of the mysterious officer who may or may not exist. Fortunately, the Brits figure out what he’s up to and have everything in place to make the spy believe the Man Who Never Was did exist. And just as the villainous spy is about to radio to his Berlin masters his impressions, the British military barrel down the road, ready to nab an axis. And then the British officer realizes: if we capture the spy, won’t that prove it was a ruse all along? It’s a perfect example of “I know that you know that I know that you know that I know that….”
Another part of the film deals with the British military trying to convince a grieving father that his dead son’s body should be used by the government. It’s a gripping scene where the officer in charge is doing his best to assure him the young man’s body is needed for a greater cause. The father finally asks the officer if he can guarantee a proper burial. The officer drops his head and replies in the negative. Still, the father agrees, but it’s a powerful moment in the film.
A fine WW II caper film, The Man Who Never Was is available on Blu-Ray. I haven’t seen the new version, but it’s the story not the scenery which makes this film captivating.