Sunday 7 December 2014

The Imitation Game, or, the Inventing Things That Didn't Happen Game.

Went to see the Imitation Game today, the film about Alan Turing, who is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Now, I know I am a miserable old pedant, but I'd like to warn you that The Imitation Game is about as historically accurate as the Sound of Music. WARNING: THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Like many modern films, the Imitation Game follows a set narrative of a single male genius who cuts a path through all the bullshit around him and thus saves everyone. He's the lone cowboy and nobody understands him, etc etc. In this movie, Cumberbatch plays Turing as Sherlock, a difficult, slightly autistic genius that can't get on with anyone. He cracks the code and saves humanity, before being accused of spying and destroyed by his closeted homosexuality. He's a tragic genius, oh, and because of it, he has to be misunderstood and horrible, obviously.

Poor Alan Turing. The only bit of this that's true was that he was a genius. He was certainly eccentric but there's absolutely no evidence that he was either a) horrible b) closeted or c) tortured - except by hay fever, and used to cycle to work wearing a gas mask to avoid it.

In the film, Turing has a difficult job interview for a post at Bletchley Park. In actual fact, he was working for Government Code and Cypher Services from 1938, prior to the outbreak of the war. He personally invents the machine which is used to break the German codes. In fact he developed it from a prototype created by Polish intelligence, which brought an enigma machine to Britain at the start of the War. In the film, he works alone, opposed and misunderstood at every move. In actual fact he worked with a number of other codebreakers, all of whom recognised his skills. Far from being his opponents, they were in most cases his allies.

The bizarrest falsehood created by the film is that, having hacked into the German Naval Enigma Code, Turing and his colleagues face a dilemma about whether to tell their bosses, who are so stupid they will waste this vital intelligence, and let on to the Germans that the code was broken. This is rubbish. British intelligence certainly had problems using the decrypted information without letting the Germans realise their codes were broken. However this was not Turing's problem, and decisions about the operating use of the decrypts were taken by military intelligence. There was no 'statistical' answer to this problem, as the film makes out, and to suggest that they would not have informed their immediate superiors of the breakthrough is balderdash.

(If you are interested in this at all, I recommend reading The Enemy is Listening by Aileen Clayton, a WRAF intelligence officer who worked out of North Africa for much of the war, and who occupied the equivalent rank of Major. Clayton started out intercepting radio communications on the South Coast of Britain during the early part of the war. There is a funny anecdote in her book about how they keep being slipped bits of information that were allegedly 'found in a wastebasket'. Eventually asked to go to a meeting at Bletchley, she finds herself eyeing the wastebins suspiciously, before being let in to the secret. Clayton spent much of the war wrestling with the torture of having access to information which could have saved lives, but being forced to hold onto it for the sake of concealing information gathering networks. Clayton's book is out of print, but you can get it through a library.)

Another weirdness of the film is when cryptographer Joan Clarke tells Turing she has to go home as her parents want her back. Again, this is inaccurate. Conscription for unmarried women aged 20-30 cut in in 1942: Clarke would have been as liable to turn up for service as any man of her age, whether her parents liked it or not. Equally, Clarke was not forced to work in some other part of Bletchley but was part of the team in Hut 8, and for a while was deputy leader.

Nor was Clarke ignorant of Turing's tendencies. Turing had been a fellow at Kings College Cambridge, then an all-male institution where close friendships and relationships between men would barely have raised a murmur, and he was not particularly discreet about his sexuality, either before the war of after. If anything, his eventual downfall was a result of him being more or less 'out' rather than closeted.

Nor is there any suggestion that Turing was disliked or persecuted by the authorities during the war. He was in fact promoted, and sent to the US to share his discoveries with them. He was eccentric, and like many hyper-intelligent people, relentlessly interested in all intellectual concepts about everything, including biology and philosophy, as well as maths. But there is a big difference between eccentric and loathed, and Bletchley Park was notoriously full of odd people.

Finally, he was never accused of spying. He did lose his security clearances during the early 50s, in the wake of the Cambridge Spy Ring revelations. But this film, which allegedly holds him up as hero, actually traduces him in so many ways.

Historical films have a number of purposes, and one of them is to mark the sophisticated, worldly present out from the ignorant past, thus appealing to the ego of viewers. This film paints the war years as some kind of sexually repressed wasteland. In fact the 1940s, with its 'we might die tomorrow' morals was, for many people, an anything-goes era. Prosecutions for homosexuality were rare, as the demands of fighting a total war meant that the state needed the help of any body it could lay its hands on, whether gay, straight, foreign, black or white. Intelligence was notoriously the most anything-goes. It was one of the few parts of the establishment where any kind of person could make a mark, far more so than the official services like the army and navy. In general, prosecutions for homosexuality, like the one that brought down Turing, were a product of the new repression and stringent enforcing of gender norms that took place in the 50s, as the cold war set in and a post-war-shell-shocked society decided that everyone should know their place, again. During the actual war, a nation fighting for its life largely had better things to do than police people's sex lives.

Another thing that bothered me about this film was the very modern insistence on the lone hero. Britain defeated the Nazis because of a giant collective effort, which involved most of the nation's (and several other nations') thinking brains, fighting bodies, and the armies of civilians who grew food, hacked coal, scrimped, saved, volunteered, and refused to give in. (Also, because of the Russians.) We love lone geniuses, in our age of individualism, and get nervous about the concept of collective effort, but the fact is, all Turing's efforts would have been useless without the people who helped him. Turing could only decrypt the information that was intercepted, and picking up this information took a great number of people. Turing himself would have seen himself as part of that giant effort, and to suggest that he was ever disloyal to the British cause is frankly insulting.

So I think the moral of this story is: reading history books will frankly ruin your enjoyment of popular culture, so don't do it, kids.

1 comment: