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Film / The Man Who Never Was

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"Last night I dreamed a dreary dream, beyond the Isle of Skye,
I saw a dead man win a fight, and I think that man was I."
The Battle of Otterburn, Scottish ballad

This 1956 British espionage thriller, directed by Ronald Neame and starring Clifton Webb and Gloria Grahame, is the story of a World War II plot to deceive German intelligence regarding the then-imminent invasion of southern Europe by the Allied forces. The film was adapted from a 1953 memoir of same title by Ewen Montagu (played by Webb in the film), a serving Royal Navy intelligence officer then ranked lieutenant commander.

This was to be achieved by allowing a dead body, dressed as a British officer named William Martin, to wash ashore in southern Spain carrying "plans" for the invasion (which the Germans were expecting anyway), in the hope of making the enemy think that he was a courier who had drowned en route. Spain was technically neutral but friendly to Germany, and would certainly allow them to obtain a copy of any documents on the body, but they would also hand the body back to the British if asked, and so offer the Germans just a couple of days to handle the original documents and possibly investigate the body in detail. To make it all work, the British invented a Backstory about Major Martin's career, tastes, private life, etc., designed to provide enough detail to convince the enemy that their windfall was genuine.

It succeeded, and German High Command ordered several army units to move to Sardinia (where the purported invasion was to take place) from Sicily (where the actual invasion was going to be). As with D-Day a year later, the quality of the deception was such that while the actual invasion was underway, the Germans still believed it to be a decoy.

The story focuses to a large degree on the technical aspects of "inventing" a person that the enemy can believe is real and much of the pleasure comes from that. However, in making the movie, some extra elements are put in to flesh out the plot. This is an interesting movie and as well carries some of the "atmosphere" of a traditional British World War II movie.

The true identity of 'Major Martin' was a closely-guarded secret for the duration of the war; his body was obtained on the condition that his name never be revealed publicly. It wasn't until 1998 (a full 56 years later) that the British government added a dedication to 'Glyndwr Michael' (a semi-literate homeless man with no surviving family) on 'Major Martin's' tombstone.

Contains such tropes as:

  • Britain Is Only England: Montagu tells the father of the dead man whose body he wants to use that this is an opportunity to "do a great thing for England." The father, who is a Scotsman, takes umbrage.
  • Composite Character: Ewen Montagu in this film appears to be compressed with Ian Fleming (yes, that Ian Fleming) since in Real Life, the operation was partially his idea (he worked as a junior officer at the Secret Intelligence Service at the time of the operation).
  • Contrived Coincidence: The Irish spy sent to investigate "Martin"'s backstory visits his fake fiancĂ©e... who is legitimately grieving as she's just heard the news her real boyfriend was killed in action. This helps to convince the Germans that "Martin" is genuine.
  • The Film of the Book: The film was adapted from the real Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu's 1953 memoir of same title.
  • The Infiltration: The Irish Nationalist Agent sent by the Germans to investigate the credentials of William Martin.
  • Invented Individual: Major Martin is a completely fictional identity crafted from whole cloth for a cadaver for the purposes of planting disinformation about Allied plans for the invasion of Italy.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Slight variation: unlike typical examples of this trope, William Martin wasn't a murder victim but died in a hospital. However, the Backstory is that Martin is acting as a courier bringing battle plans to the British Forces HQ in North Africa. His plane crashed at sea, and his body, with messenger bag attached, washed ashore on the Spanish coast. So the cause of death would have to be indistinguishable from drowning.
  • My Nayme Is: Charles Cholmondeley's last name is pronounced "Chumly".
  • Reading The Enemy's Mail: Inverted and Subverted. The whole point is to make the Germans THINK they are doing this.
  • Real-Person Cameo: The real Ewen Montagu appears as an Air Marshal who is extremely sceptical of Montagu's plan. Montagu and his fellow mastermind Charles Cholmondeley both acted as uncredited consultants on the film, but only Montagu would agree to appear onscreen.
  • Unwanted Revival: One of the potential "candidates" at the hospital disappoints them by discovering his lack of qualifications for the operation. As Lt. Acres said, he "up and recovered: very unreliable type".
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The body of the real Glyndwr Michael was used without his family being told anything about it.
    • In Real Life it went off pretty well, too well to provide much drama anyway, so it was necessary to add some difficulties per Rule of Drama. The second half, where there is doubt among the German camp so they send an Irish spy, is entirely invented to extend the runtime.