What’s the difference between history and a good film? Quite a lot, quite often, is the unsurprising answer. Films – other than documentaries – are there to entertain rather than educate and their success is measured in tickets sold, not consciousness raised.1
Some films (and novels, paintings, poems) tell stories based more or less solidly on real events, but even with the best will in the world, historical precision and popular entertainment are not always easily aligned. Sometimes the real events are just a backdrop to a predominantly fictional story, and it is clear that no deeper lesson is intended. But sometimes there is an apparent intention to tell a true story in a broader sense, not suggesting that every word and every character is drawn from life, but certainly giving the impression that the main actors and actions are firmly grounded on historical foundations.
And so to The Imitation Game, which is partly about the life of Alan Turing and partly about code breaking at Bletchley Park during the second world war, in which he played a central role. Both Turing and Bletchley are very real, as is their significance in the history of the war.2 There is an important story to tell, with elements of personal and institutional history which make it a compelling one. Inevitably and unsurprisingly, it is a complicated story with many players. Turing’s role was critical but not, by itself, sufficient. His work built on pre-war cryptography by Polish mathematicians and was made usable by those who turned his theoretical concepts into working machines. Thousands of people worked at Bletchley Park, not just one.3 For those and other reasons, Sue Black’s verdict on the accuracy of the account given in The Imitation Game is damning:
The story of Turing physically building the Bombe machine, or “Christopher” as it was called in the film, formed a large part of the central story of the film. This is, to my knowledge, completely inaccurate. […]
The story running through the film of one main codebreaker, Turing, with a team of four or five, producing a machine that won the war, is a ridiculous oversimplification of what actually happened. More than ten thousand people worked at Bletchley Park, more than eight thousand of them were women. We didn’t really get a flavor of that coming through at all from the film. There were many teams of codebreakers working on different areas of codebreaking. […]
Gross over simplification of stories, people and facts, focusing on Turing’s one (platonic) heterosexual relationship and not giving any time to his homosexual relationships, attributing work carried out by several people who still have had almost no recognition for their enormous contribution to Turing, I could go on, and on, the film has many faults.
Sue is no casual commentator. She knows her stuff. So after having lacerated the historical inaccuracy and damned it as ‘a clichéd bubblegum version of the story’ with a ‘sometimes ham-fisted script’ in which ‘Turing’s character is so much a stereotypical English eccentric that I found it insulting to his memory’, it’s pretty obvious that she is going to tell the rest of us to stay well away from it.
But she does no such thing.
I have to say that overall I loved it. Thinking about The Imitation Game from the point of view of how it presents such an important part of our history in a user friendly and easily digestible way to the average person in the street gets me very excited. […]
The Imitation Game is probably the most fundamental contribution we have so far to the public understanding of the importance of Bletchley Park. I hope that it wins Oscars, breaks box office records and brings the story of our wonderful British hero Alan Turing into the public consciousness.
That contrast makes Sue’s blog post one of the most thought provoking film reviews I have ever read. I hope I am not being unfair if I summarise her position as being that The Imitation Game is a deeply flawed film with serious inaccuracies, but should nevertheless be recommended, because it is better that people have an imperfect understanding of Turing and Bletchley Park than that they should have no understanding at all.
That raises some really interesting – and really difficult – questions. Do film makers have a responsibility for historical accuracy? Does anybody else? Does it matter if history is broad brush if the gist of it is right? Do the answers to those questions change for more distant history?
On the face of it, the first question is easy. The thought that the history police should scrutinise scripts and rule on historical disputes is clearly risible. But that doesn’t stop films creating real concerns. Enigma machines are at the centre of another example, from fourteen years ago, when the US film U-571 was pilloried in the UK for what was seen as appropriating a British victory in capturing an Enigma machine from a German submarine, and representing it as an American achievement. The fact that the film did not even purport to represent a real incident did not stop a political outcry, including at Prime Minster’s questions. The switch had been made for very simple commercial reasons: American audiences are more likely to pay to see films featuring American heroes.
The fact that commercial factors might influence the content and structure of a film can hardly be shocking news. But the fact that there are concerns is a useful reminder that history matters, that our understanding of who we are and how the world works is in part a function of our understanding of the past. Trying to create and manage that understanding is not always a neutral and disinterested activity. A couple of days ago, my son brought home a copy of an article by John Sweeney, handed out in a GCSE Soviet history lesson, ‘Russian textbooks attempt to rewrite history':4
They call it “positive history” and the man behind it is Putin. In 2007, the former secret police chief told a conference of Russian educationists that the country needed a more patriotic history. Putin condemned teachers for having “porridge in their heads”, attacked some history textbook authors for taking foreign money — “naturally they are dancing the polka ordered by those who pay them” — and announced that new history textbooks were on their way. Within weeks, a new law was passed giving the state powers to approve and to disallow history textbooks for schools.
Systematically bending history to the service of a current state ideology is clearly different from being cavalier with the truth in the production of entertainment. But in their very different ways, they present a version of the same challenge. If history matters at all, truth matters. It matters that there was a state-induced famine in Ukraine. It matters that the Soviet Union did not win the second world war single handed. And it matters that Alan Turing was not complicit in treachery, it matters that the work of others was attributed to him, it matters that those others were brushed out of the story.
So back to the dilemma presented by Sue’s review. Is it right to ignore major inaccuracies in the telling of a story if that’s the only way of telling the story at all? What if Turing’s sexuality had been ignored altogether? What if he had been left out of the core narrative altogether? Would it still be better to tell the story than not? Does it make any difference if the distortion results from being selective about things which are true rather than from including things which are false?
I don’t think there are easy answers to those questions. There is not, and cannot be, a pure and perfect history of any event: history, as I have argued before, can be no more than what historians write and can never be anything other than selective. I still feel uneasy celebrating the learning of history through a medium which is careless of history. On balance though, and with some reluctance, I conclude that Sue is right. If the choice were between two powerful dramatic presentations, one more accurate than the other, it would be easy. But when the only choice we have is between flawed understanding and no understanding, the flaws need to be fundamental before we should favour ignorance.
So having got all that out of the way, maybe I should just go and see the film.
- Even documentaries can never tell the whole truth, even if they were able to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, as I have discussed before. ↩
- There is a much repeated claim attributed variously to Churchill and Eisenhower (and to ‘historians’) that Allied code breaking shortened the war by two years or more. The firmest attribution, and the clearest and best argued version of the claim is by Sir Harry Hinsley, whose view is that:
the war would have been something like two years longer, perhaps three years longer, possibly four years longer than it was
That is of course debatable, partly because counter-factual history is always debatable, partly because it assumes that the war would have been won the same way more slowly, as it was in fact won more quickly (rather than, for example, by using nuclear bombs against Germany), and partly because other historians draw different conclusions from the evidence – Paul Kennedy, for example, in his Engineers of Victory (p. 358 ) is explicitly dismissive of Hinsley’s claim. ↩
- And of course that summary is itself a ridiculous oversimplification. ↩
- The article is behind the Times paywall, but there is what appears to be a complete copy here. That piece is from five years ago, but more recent press coverage does not suggest any change of direction. ↩