Brits hit back at Hollywood lies
by Neil Norman for the Evening Standard
Hollywood's hijacking of British wartime history is nothing new. According to the movies, Americans engineered escapes from Colditz, fought and died exclusively in the Normandy landings and, under the courageous leadership of Errol Flynn, won the war in Burma.
However, U-571 - the recent Hollywood movie that showed Americans capturing the first vital Enigma encoding machine from a German U-boat in an action that was to change the course of the Second World War - was a gauntlet too far.
The ensuing outcry claimed U-571 was American jingoistic fantasy showing profound disrespect for the real British heroes involved in the U-boat boardings. Hollywood's response was characteristically robust: if you Brits think you can do better, go ahead. The challenge was accepted and the man who picked up the gauntlet was Mick Jagger.
At 0300 hours last Thursday morning, Enigma, the film of Robert Harris's novel of wartime codebreakers, was officially wrapped. Unlike U-571, it is British in virtually every respect, from its stars - Kate Winslet, Dougray Scott and Saffron Burrows - to its executive producer, Jagger. While the film-makers are keen to divert attention from the notion that it is a riposte to yet another Hollywood travesty of historical fact, Enigma nonetheless arrives carrying credentials of far greater authenticity.
Though the romantic narrative is fiction, as in the novel, it is set within a framework of assiduously researched facts and personalities. One of Britain's best-kept secrets was the team of young men and women who worked against the clock to break the German U-boat codes in a collection of hastily-erected buildings in Bletchley Park - codenamed Station X. They remained the unsung heroes of the war until the last decade of the 20th century. Not even their children, who were able to grow up in a free democratic society as a direct result of their parents' actions, knew anything of their secret lives. Now the story has been told.
Aside from Harris's novel, a Channel 4 documentary entitled Station X, Hugh Whitemore's play Breaking The Code (which revealed the contribution made by leading codebreaker Alan Turing), and Hugh Sebag-Montefiore's book, Enigma: The Battle For The Code, have all explored the operation and its participants in extraordinary detail.
It is the film, however, that is exciting most interest. Scripted by Sir Tom Stoppard and directed by Michael Apted, it is a wholesale reconstruction of the period and the technology that led to the all-important breaking of the Enigma code. And its genesis is almost as intriguing as any wartime tale of espionage and derring-do.
According to Victoria Pearman, Jagger's producing partner and cofounder of Jagged Films, the rock star read Harris's novel just before it was published and immediately set about acquiring the film rights which were owned at the time by Lorne Michaels, US television producer of Saturday Night Live. Michaels came on board and the team approached Paramount Pictures with a view to producing it in Hollywood. Jagger's old friend Sir Tom wrote the screenplay and the project was up and running, until Paramount shelved it indefinitely.
Pearman, Jagger and Michaels retrieved their script and the rights and brought it home to Britain where they took it to Intermedia, Guy East's London-based distribution and producing operation. "It was clear that Intermedia would do it, not as a big US studio picture, but would be more sympathetic to the material," said Pearman.
With Michael Apted signed to direct - though he had the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough to complete first - it was a go project. Casting commenced but an unforeseen complication arose.
Kate Winslet had originally been considered for the role of the young codebreaker Hester. She had been rejected because she was pregnant but suddenly she announced that she wanted to do one more film before having her baby. Unfortunately, Natasha Little had been signed to star as Hester. Miss Little was "uncast" and Miss Winslet took the role. It was a tough call but the producers acted as honourably as they could under the circumstances and Miss Little received her full fee of £300,000. The postscript to this is that while Hester, is pregnant in the film, Miss Winslet herself was not pregnant "enough" and had to have extra padding.
The other stars of the film are not actors at all but the sets, designed by John Beard. His distinguished CV as art director and production designer includes associations with Martin Scorsese, Nic Roeg, Terry Gilliam and David Mamet. For Enigma, Beard recreated U-boats in a tank at Pinewood, the huts at Bletchley and the all-important "bombe room". This was the top-secret room where the huge decoding machines - the first primitive computers - worked night and day to reduce the random sequences of coded letters down to an identifiable pattern.
The Enigma machines resembled oldfashioned typewriters with lights and were the key to cracking the codes used by the Germans. Jagger owns an original four-rotor Enigma encoding machine which he brought into Bletchley Park for repair and lent to the film for historical accuracy in constructing props.
This was just as well; about a month afterwards, an Enigma machine in Bletchley Park museum was stolen. An inveterate collector of militaria and wartime memorabilia, Jagger had acquired his machine at auction around two years ago and Dougray Scott uses it in the film. The original three-rotor encoding machines were capable of 150 million million combinations. The later four-rotor developed for U-boat use had, according to Sir Tom Stoppard's screenplay, "about 4,000 million billion starting positions."
On completion of filming, the bombe machines and the prop Enigma machines will all be donated to Bletchley Park museum, where they will take pride of place in an exhibition designed to show the real story of wartime codebreaking.
Of all the actors, Dougray Scott spent most time researching the equipment in Bletchley Park. He told me this week that after five months he became so proficient that he could break codes as well as strip an Enigma machine and reassemble it with his eyes closed. "And I can do the Times crossword much quicker than I used to."
There is little doubt that his role as principal villain in Mission: Impossible 2 will boost Enigma in which he plays university graduate Tom Jericho, who helps break the code with assistance from the Kate Winslet and Saffron Burrows characters.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic of all concerned is Jagger, who is in the unusual position of being able to develop a collecting hobby into a full-fledged feature film. His frequent appearances on the set have been low-key, but he did don an RAF officer's uniform as an extra in a crowd scene.
Hollywood's cavalier approach to matters of British history is well-documented and executives will be intrigued to see how successful a British film made for a fraction of the typical Hollywood budget (estimates for Enigma are $28million) will be in the international market. In the words of one US journalist following the "fantasy" of U-571: "The Brits strike back with the truth!"
You don't need a bombe machine to decode that sentiment.
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