Last night I went to see “The Imitation Game”, the film about Alan Turing and the Bletchley code-breakers. It was OK in a sort of “Foyle’s War” way, but I wonder whether the reviewers were a little dazzled by the Cumberbatch reputation so that they did not see the weaknesses of the film. The story of the code-breakers is well-known now, and it is truly extraordinary. By 1945, we were reading German messages more quickly than the German recipients were reading them. The Turing breakthrough of using a machine to cut through all the options of Enigma was clearly vital, but the achievements of Bletchley were a team effort by a vast army of service people, administrators, mathematicians and other academics, many of them women. I guess it is good for the drama to have a few people – usually arguing and occasionally punching each other in a very un-English, very un-1940s sort of way – because group work is not very cinematic. But still …
The film had a few easily eliminated anachronisms. I’m not talking about the right vintage of buses or trains (though there were no King George V class battleships in 1939), nor the claim that the real Joan Clarke wasn’t as pretty as Keira Knightley (who bloody is ?), as much as the dialogue. The use of the word “smart” rather than “clever” is American, and is even now not used a lot in UK conversation except in technology applications. Did Turing ever use the word ‘digital computer’ ? In passing, the programmable computer was built by one of his colleagues, a Post Office engineer called Tommy Flowers. The practice of throwing arms around another man in joy is (see above) not very British, and not very upper-class 1940s. To describe Turing’s hormone treatment in the 1950s as ‘government-mandated’ is a stretch (the court offered it to him as a way of avoiding imprisonment for indecency. Crap, but not a government plot). The end credits, which spoke of Turing being regarded with ‘honor’ (rather than honour) maybe gives a clue to the crudeness of the storylines that does not need to be expertly decrypted.
I’m not sure if there were any other historical inaccuracies in the film, but the emphasis on the Battle of the Atlantic missed the other uses of Ultra – outstandingly El Alamein (which was not mentioned, though Stalingrad was – eh ?). There was indeed a dilemma about how much of the information could be used before the Germans knew we were reading their codes, but (unlike in the film) convoys were routinely steered away from U-boat packs. And the soap opera scene when one code-breaker’s brother was on a ship being knowingly sent into danger was, well, soap opera. And whilst the accusation that the film skated over Turing’s sexuality – it did not – Turing’s homosexuality was treated in a way that was so restrained and dignified that it missed the real anguish that must have been there.
So, go to the film if you want a well-acted drama with great sets and costumes, but not if you want more insight into the Ultra puzzle. Or, I suspect, the real world Alan Turing.
Footnote. One argument against conspiracy theory asks whether it is plausible that vast numbers of people can keep a secret (about 9/11, or the moon landings etc.) without it ever leaking out. I don’t know of a single justified conspiracy theory (do you ?), but this particular rebuttal is weaker now we know that thousands – literally thousands – of people kept the Ultra secret for twenty or thirty years (from 1945 till the publication of F.W. Winterbotham’s “The Ultra Secret” in 1974).