Building support for the latest US war, Hollywood seems bound by a code to produce at least a movie a year glorifying World War II by portraying the Allied countries as bastions of human liberation. By telling the true story of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game has broken the code.
Turing was a British mathematician who worked at Bletchley Park, a secret centre for cryptographers who were trying to break the German Enigma code—allowing the Allies to read Nazi military communications. By designing a machine that could rapidly process information, Turing broke the code—which ended the war an estimated two years sooner, saving millions of lives—and through the process laid the foundation for modern computers.
How was Turing rewarded? The British state drove him to suicide, and wrote him out of history, for being gay. He was persecuted in 1952 with the same law that destroyed Oscar Wilde, avoided prison only by agreeing to be chemically castrated, and ate a cyanide-laced apple in 1954 (urban legend claims Apple’s original logo of a rainbow apple is an homage to Turing).
The Imitation Game intertwines Turing’s early life as a schoolboy, his work breaking the code, and his post-war persecution. Benedict Cumberbatch could win a well-earned Oscar for his portrayal of Turing, and took the role in order to restore Turing’s place in history. As he explained, “The feeling you have for the man after getting to know him through the duration of the film is really exacerbated by the frustration and anger, not just at the injustice served him, but also at the fact that, why don’t I know this story? It seems unbelievable that someone who is a war hero, someone who is the father of the modern computer age—and a gay icon—could remain in such relative obscurity to the scale of his achievements in his brief time on this planet. One of the main reasons I was really attracted to playing him was to try and bring his story to as wide an audience as possible.”
Bringing Turing to the big screen is a process that has taken decades. In 1983 Andrew Hodges wrote his biography, Alan Turing: the Enigma, which was adapted for the stage—and portrayed by the brilliant Derek Jacobi in the 1996 BBC film Breaking the Code (available on Youtube). In 2011 the new screenplay was voted the top of the Hollywood Black List—representing the best unproduced films in Hollywood—and was finally released this year.
Bringing Turing’s life to film has been part of a campaign to challenge his persecution. In 2009 the British government issued a posthumous apology but in 2012 refused to pardon him—and the other 49,000 gay men criminalized under the former law. Justice Minister, Lord McNally, claimed, “A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offense.” The Queen issued a royal pardon to Turing last year, but as Cumberbatch said, “It’s an insult for anybody of authority or standing to sign off on him with their approval and say, ‘Oh, he’s forgiven.’ The only person who should be (doing the) forgiving is Turing, and he can’t because we killed him. And it makes me really angry. It makes me very angry.”
The film also has a strong performance from Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, who worked at Bletchley and was briefly engaged to Turing. (The BBC mini-series The Bletchley Circle is another recent attempt to recount the role of women cryptographers, including the sexism after WWII that drove them back into the home.) The Imitation Game has been criticized for over playing their relationship and not showing Turing’s relationships with men (unlike the 1996 film). The film also reinforces the myth of the solitary genius, ignoring the role of Polish code-breakers in providing their initial work on Enigma to the British.
WWII: the good war?
As Cumberbatch said, “To think that a society and a democracy—that Turing could save from fascism in the second World War—rewarded him with that (punishment) is the most sickening irony of all.” But this irony pervades the history of WWII. Films that glorify WWII use the horrors of Nazism to obscure an understanding of how fascism arose, whitewash the history of the Allied countries, and pave the way for more Western intervention.
Fascism did not emerge from the deranged mind of Hitler but from the economic crisis of capitalism (which has reappeared and giving rise to new fascist parties across Europe), and the defeat of the workers’ movement in challenging it. Before WWII it was clear what the Allies thought of Hitler: Ford and General Motors collaborated with the Nazis, Hitler was Time Magazine’s “man of the year,” and Germany was rewarded with the Olympics. When Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King met Hitler in 1937 he described him as “one who truly loves his fellow man.” While many on the left supported the fight against fascism in Spain in the 1930s, the future Allied powers had a policy of non-intervention—while those who went to fight fascism in Spain were labeled “premature anti-fascists.”
WWII has been called a “war for freedom and democracy,” but at the time the US was running it apartheid Jim Crow system, Canada has its concentration camps—the residential schools—and both countries interned families of Japanese descent, and turned away boats of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. Canada had the same homophobic laws as Britain, criminalized abortion and had eugenics programs in BC and Alberta based on forcible sterilization. Meanwhile Britain and France were repressing their colonies while sending their soldiers to die. (France belatedly acknowledged the role of Algerian soldiers, documented in the movie Days of Glory). The Allies refused to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, and carried out their own atrocities—from the firebombing of Dresden to the atomic bombing of Japan.
After the war the US recruited Nazi scientists like Werner von Braun, while Britain supported fascists in Greece. The WWII mythology around Churchill erases the rest of his career, including sending troops against British miners in 1910, using chemical weapons against Iraqis in 1920, and after WWII supporting fascists in Greece. As a recent article in The Guardian pointed out, Churchill “switched allegiances to back the supporters of Hitler against his own erstwhile allies.”
The Imitation Game leaves the impression that the persecution of Alan Turing was an isolated abnormality in an otherwise noble war effort—instead of a symptom of imperial rivals bombing each other while repressing their own citizens. But by breaking the official code of WWII, The Imitation Game encourages us to learn more, and to challenge the bigotry on which war depends.