Operation Mincemeat: not just another war film
If a tree falls over in the woods and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a film plays at 22.00 at Kinepolis in Kirchberg and no one is in the theatre to see it, did it ever play at all?
Salle 9 has become a regular haunt of mine because that’s where all the late showings of current films are held, but I have never before been the only one in there. But maybe the middling enthusiasm for Operation Mincemeat underscores how this kind of cinematic formula tells us more about the present than the past.
Operation Mincemeat follows a whole slew of other recent films in what could be called the World War Two ‘British Blitz Spirit Nostalgia’ genre. Set in 1943 before the allied invasion of Sicily, naval intelligence officers Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth), Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) and the familiar-seeming Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn) are tasked with duping the Germans into believing that the intended invasion target is actually Greece.
This wily crew of good ol’ chaps concoct a plan which, in the words of Churchill himself, is so outrageous it might actually work.
In between sips of rationed scotch and appeals to God to save the king, the crack team procure the corpse of a dead vagrant off the streets of London. The dead man, Glyndwr Martin, is to be made into a fictitious Royal Marine officer named William Martin and dumped off the coast of neutral Spain via submarine.
Laden with forged intelligence documents hinting at an imminent allied invasion of Greece, the plan is to have the corpse plus documents be discovered by Spanish authorities who would then secretly relay the information to the Germans.
The film’s plot really does have a stranger-than-fiction quality to it which the film is all too keen to point out in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Wartime London, crawling with soldiers and spies, is steeped in a pulpy atmosphere. Every other officer, Cholmondeley points out, seems to be writing his own secret spy thriller. He will only later realise that his partner-in-crime, Ian Fleming (future author of the original James Bond novels), might be the greatest of them all.
Operation Mincemeat, in embracing its own ludicrousness, tackles the often super-serious WWII genre by indulging in its most fantastical qualities. The plan itself involves double (and even triple) agents, international intrigue and daring escapades. But there’s still a certain melancholia to it, less to do with the source material and more to do with the cultural atmosphere in which films like these are produced.
As previously mentioned, the film falls into the category of recent British films about the war which highlight how the country came together in the face of imminent threat and invasion. The King’s Speech (2010), The Imitation Game (2014), Darkest Hour (2017), Netflix’s The Dig (2021) and even Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) are all, to varying degrees, haunted by a feeling that could interchangeably be described as nostalgia or melancholy.
All these films, whether glowing or more critical in their reviews of mid-20th century Britishness, all betray a country’s looking back to what once was.
Stiff-upper-lips, rationing, coming together, but also prejudice, class and the legacy of empire all tinge this genre of British melancholic-nostalgic war films into which Operation Mincemeat so squarely falls.
It’s a perspective back in time to when the British spirit overcame its greatest challenge – and when the Empire was at its greatest extent. But since then, modern Britain has been wracked by conflicting feelings of pride and guilt which can be felt in every facet of its cultural being.
That’s maybe why Operation Mincemeat, even just in its posters and trailers, feels like another one of those British films about the war. With contemporary convulsions in British society, this insecurity of identity seems all the more poignant.
The inability to articulate feelings towards this regal, ‘keep calm and carry on’ Blitz spirit can be felt in all the different ways the films listed above try to add their own twist to the genre. In Operation Mincemeat’s case, the outlandishness of the historical plot to deceive the Germans is contrasted with the whacky literary landscape of London and a relatively tender approach to the historical operation’s use of a homeless man’s dead body. It re-examines wartime Britain in its own way, absurdity and cruelty and all.
It's certainly worth the time for history buffs and lovers of high-brow British flair. But it’s also worth watching for its pathological insight into modern Britishness. If you do go to see it, I’d recommend going to a very late showing of it. You might just get the theatre all to yourself.