I wasn’t looking forward to viewing this film, it has to be said. Jill told me a little about her pick a few days ago and all that stood out from the synopsis were the words: World War II.
This made me assume that I wouldn’t find anything to enjoy about it, as war movies are my least favourite type of film, joint first with Westerns. I was wrong, of course, as I quite often am and I’m glad we went with this one, as I would never have seen it of my own volition. Thank you J for picking it and prodding me to step outside my comfort zone.
Fitting also that we should view it today on Remembrance Sunday.
(Incidentally, we’re doing a free for all at the moment, post-Halloween so expect lots of weird and wonderful film choices in the lead up to Christmas!)
So, on we go! As always *spoilers!*
The Man Who Never Was (1956)
IMDB Synopsis: True story of a British attempt to trick the enemy into weakening Sicily’s defenses before the 1943 attack, using a dead man with faked papers.
Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu and his mate George are faffing around at some sort of parachute demonstration (?) when George jokingly comes up with a macabre plan to confuse the Germans (something to do with fake papers, a faulty parachute and an unsuspecting British soldier being sent crashing to his death).
Montagu initially poo-poos George’s idea but later comes back to it, having refined it in his mind. The men decide to send an already dead body into Spain (too obvs to send it directly to the Germans, so they’re counting on the grape vine to carry intel to them), carrying fake papers saying they’re planning to invade Greece next (when really they’re heading into Sicily). Sneaky, eh?
They have to get this plan through the heads of the country first, including Churchill himself (voiced by an uncredited Peter Sellers). They then have to iron out every last detail to make it seem legit, so there’s a lot of to and fro, as they wait to be authorised. Then they have to find a body, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Said body needs to wash up casually on the Spanish shore, so it can’t be damaged or suspicious in any way.
Despite this tall order, Montagu gets his body. This is thanks to his right hand woman, Pam (Josephine Griffin) who tends to waft about the office making coffee and looking good in cardigans. She finds a recently deceased gentleman in St John’s Wood so the team rush over there, where they have to convince his father to donate the body to their cause (without being able to tell him what it is).
The deceased, Willie Martin, is a Scotsman who didn’t put much stock in the human body after death, believing only in the soul (or something), so his father lets him go without much fuss. He just asks that his son’s body is treated with dignity and that he gets a Christian burial. Montagu agrees to the first one (fingers crossed behind his back presumably) and says he’ll try to get the second one.
Pam lives in an apartment with her BFF Lucy, a hot librarian who’s dating a soldier called Joe. Joe’s going off to fight and Lucy makes him promise to call her every day. He says he will and if, for whatever reason he can’t, his friend Larry will instead.
Pam and Lucy talk about men (because that’s what us sheilas do, non-stop, some things never change) and the more pragmatic Pam admits she doesn’t want to fall in love with someone, only to lose them to the war. She vows to get through it before thinking about that. Sensible.
Now the gang have their body, they have to make Willie a back story and load him with possessions that make it seem realistic, such as watch, ID, cross bow.
George suggests that Pam write a love letter to him, to make it seem like he had a personal life. So Pam tries but fails to come up with anything believable (never been in love, innit).
Luckily, lovelorn Lucy is at hand to inject some flava into the letter, dictating some gorgeous words dripping with passion. Pam laps it up and gets it down on paper. Luc speaks from the heart so can only be heading for pure devastation in her own love life.
PS. Joe has just come back and then left again on a bigger mission, not before proposing to Lucy and putting a ring on it, yo.
The men are impressed when the letter comes back and rib Pam, who admits her friend wrote it. The men label Lucy the “alleged friend” because they don’t believe she exists, though this doesn’t stop George being a perv and asking questions about what she looks like. This is a fifties movies, so probably not surprising that this is all he really cares about.
I’m really stretching this out but basically, the plan is followed to the letter and the Spanish find the body as expected, which the Germans in turn learn about. Meanwhile, Lucy frets about Joe and Montagu keeps getting little stabs of conscience about the unceremonious dumping of Willie’s body.
Later, the briefcase with the papers in it is returned to the British with the letters seemingly untouched. For a minute there Montagu thinks all hope is lost and that their plan has failed. But, with the help of possibly the shittest scientist of all time (who has an iron and a pair of scissors to work with – government budget cuts?) they learn that the letter was steamed open and then expertly resealed to look like it hasn’t been read. Ooooooh!
So now they know that the Spanish (and more importantly, the Germans) know their fake information… Victory, bitches!
Well, not quite as suddenly a sinister Irishman named Patrick O’ Reilly (Stephen Boyd) (a Nazi spy with a shocking accent) rocks up and starts digging into Willie Martin’s (fake) past, thus alerting himself to Montagu and co.
It seems like the game is up but is it though?
Will Team Montagu achieve what they set out to? Will Joe come home in one piece? How fucking cool is Lucy? Why is Patrick O’ Reilly so scary (he’s like the Christoph Waltz of the 1950’s, all passive aggression behind an ice cold smile).
All these questions and more will be answered if you watch to the very end!
This film was actually way more entertaining that expected. I mean for a start the plot is satisfyingly dark. Planting a corpse with fake papers to throw off the Germans? Bit sick, innit?
I like the main characters, particularly the women and felt suitably sad for Willie Martin’s dad, who’s completely deflated when he hands over his son’s body.
There’s a little dig at the Fuhrer at one point, which made me smile and O’ Reilly genuinely gave me the willies. All in all, colour me impressed.
My Rating: 3.5/5