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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

The story of a wartime plot to deceive German intelligence regarding the then-imminent invasion of southern Europe by the Allied forces. 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 the Balkans (where the purported invasion was to take place) from Italy (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.

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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.

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Contains such tropes as:

  • Black Comedy
  • Britain Versus the UK: 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.
  • British Stuffiness
  • The Caper
  • Dead Person Impersonation
  • Dead Guy on Display
  • Forensic Phlebotinum: A lot of this is necessary to convince the enemy.
  • Gentleman Snarker: Commander Montagu and Lt Acres.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Several, including Churchill himself.
  • Hot Librarian: Lucy Sherwood, roommate of Pam the intell analyst.
  • The Infiltration: The Irish Nationalist Agent sent by the Germans to investigate the credentials of William Martin.
  • Invented Individual: Major Martin.
  • Lady of War: Pam, the intel analyst.
  • 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.
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  • The Noun Who Verbed: The title.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Montagu and Acres
  • 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 Ewan Montagu 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.
  • Rule of Drama: in Real Life it worked too well to make a movie and was pretty much The Perfect Crime. That had to be modified.
  • The Spymaster: Montagu and Admiral Canaris.
    • Montagu is more of a mid level spymaster.
  • The Strategist: Montagu and Acres
  • Thanatos Gambit: The whole story.
    • Debatable. It wasn't Maj. Martin who thought up the plot, to start rolling with his demise; the plan just called for a dead body with certain characteristics.
  • 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: In Real Life it went off pretty well, too well to provide much drama anyway, so it was necessary to add some difficulties.
    • That was the Real Life Montagu's version anyway. The popular historian Ben Macintyre disagreed somewhat.
  • Those Wacky Nazis
  • Worthy Opponent: The Irish Nationalist working for the Germans. Also Admiral Canaris the German Spymaster.
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