Friday, 2 October 2015

I Was Monty's Double

I Was Monty's Double (1958) 

Starring M.E. Clifton James and John Mills
Directed by John Guillermin 

This remarkable, if somewhat curiously inauspicious film, tells the true story of a remarkable episode  from the Second World War; British Military Intelligence, who displayed something of a penchant and particular accomplishment for subterfuge and deception in their quiet war with the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) during the conflict, hatched a plot to try to convince the Nazis that the inevitable invasion of Europe would come from the South, rather than from France in the North, by having British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery sighted in the Mediterranean just days before the assault was launched.  As a favourite to be a senior figure in the Allied assault, if not Supreme Commander, surely it would be inconceivable that "Monty" wasn't with his troops on the eve of invasion.  A fortuitous sighting brought one Clifton James, known affectionately by his comrades as Jimmy, (not the chap who played the Sheriff in "Live and Let Die"!), a lowly Second Lieutenant in the Royal Army Pay Corps and an amateur actor, to their attention.  He bore a striking physical resemblance to the feted Field Marshall.  If he could play the biggest role of his life he could be sighted in various Mediterranean, North African and Middle Eastern locations in the days leading up to D-Day - June 6th 1944 - in the slim chance that the Germans would buy into the "open-topped secret" and could not be certain where the invasion was coming from.  Might this crazy plan just work?

The film, scripted by Bryan Forbes from James' own 1954 book, is notable for casting James as himself - playing Monty.  One might think that since he'd pulled off the ruse in real life, and would be playing himself, it wouldn't be a great challenge.  But the drama of the stage is very different from the drama played out in the theatre of war.  Clifton James is by far the greatest thing about the movie.  His performance is nuanced and breathtaking.  Bubbling and giddy when first approached about the job, anxious to please as he thinks he's up for a role in a recruitment film.  He displays touching uncertainty and nervousness when the scheme is laid before him, knowing the potential dangers.  And ultimately, monumental courage, which he - the man - doesn't milk.  But as he grows into the role the viewer can see that he gets a taste for it.  Being treated as a renowned Field Marshall, a warrior who has won victories over the estimable Rommel in North Africa, starts to affect him.  Jimmy bluffs his way through a series of tensely played potentially disastrous encounters, having to meet people who know the real Montgomery, under constant threat of exposure, with potentially fatal consequences, especially in the Iberian Peninsular which is riddled with enemy spies.  He grows in strength and confidence, most notably in the scene in which he has to give a speech to a group of less than impressed U.S G.I's about the coming "party".  Given a pre-approved script by Colonel Logan (Cecil Parker), he is instructed not to deviate one word from it.  But he goes down his own track.  His vision swims and he is clearly racked by stage fright.  But gradually he wins his skeptical audience over with jokes about cricket and baseball, and he's motoring.  It's an inspiring scene.

Many triumphalist scenes of "Monty" rallying the troops follow, and the tone is suitably rousing.  It's a typical 1950s British war film; the war had been one, but at a heavy price.  Empire had been lost and times had been hard.  John Addison's score, preformed by the London Sinfonia, is at times almost unbearably stirring.  But it's purpose is to rouse the audience of the time.  Things might be tough at the present time, but look what we did.  We defeated Nazism.  These men are heroes.  But heroism is a mighty task.  There's a pair of wonderfully touching scenes in which, firstly Jimmy is told that the big show is on the way, and his gig is over.  The sadness is visible in his face, as he realises he won't be able to tell anyone what he's done and will have to return to his old drab life, despite being comforted by his minder / companion Major Harvey (the utterly incomparable John Mills - what would a British WW2 film be without John Mills?!) that the Germans have held back a horde of troops instead of sending them to Northern France to repel the landings.  Latterly, in a tiny moment, he chats with a Sergeant, head of Security where he is, and asks if perhaps he might be permitted to share a drink with him.  In that moment his humanity and humility are back on show.  It's deeply affecting. 

 Director John Guillermin, who went on to make "The Towering Inferno" and "Death on the Nile"  amongst many others, and who sadly recently passed away, juggles bombast and melodrama with a surprising amount of humour, and some standout moments.  There's a vastly over-wrought final act, in which Monty is target for kidnap by the Germans, thanks to some nefarious spies (not sure about the historical validity of this part!).  But the scene in which they approach the house in which he's waiting to depart, features a great shot where the camera passes through the bushes outside and up to the door of the house.  When they get inside, he is listening to a gramophone, and the short scene plays out with no dialogue, no thundering score, but just with the loud music playing out.  It feels slightly more interesting than most films of the time.  There's just enough time for John Mills to perform his customary heroics in rescuing Jimmy from his abductors in time for an inspiring, flag-waving climax.  This story has been widely written about, but coincidentally I just read the excellent book "Double Cross" by Ben MacIntyre - highly recommended to all.  Whilst largely that's about equally outlandish history of the network of Double Agents run by Britain and later the US against the Germans and expounds on the various deceptions (building a "fake army" in Kent so that German spotter planes would be convinced the assault would come in the Pas-de-Calais, for example) , it does talk about the plan depicted in this picture.  I have yet to track down Jimmy's book but from what I understand, much of it is truthful, but then truth is often stranger than fiction.
This is a solid film, by turns funny, enjoyable, tense and exciting.  Clifton James was an ordinary fellow, thrust into an utterly surreal and unpredictable scenario, asked to perform a virtually impossible task under huge pressure.  The movie - known in the US under a few different titles I believe - is a huge tribute to the courage of such ordinary men who played such a large part in winning the war.  If you come across a copy or a showing on television, please do check it out.

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