Posts Tagged ‘bill tutte’

imitation game, alan turing, benedict cumberbatch, bletchley parkThe Golden Globes and the BAFTAs are behind us, and the Academy Awards ceremony for the best films in 2014 will be held this Sunday 22 February. Leading with the way with the most nominations for an Oscar are Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel with nine nominations each, followed by The Imitation Game with eight nominations.

I saw The Imitation Game and I thought it was a stirring and persuasive film, particularly its portrayal of the last few years of the life of wartime cryptanalyst Alan Turing following his prosecution in 1952 for homosexual acts, and his death from cyanide poisoning in 1954. However the statement in the film credits that the film was ‘based on the true story’ stretched the claim to the limits of its meaning. There were so many inaccuracies in the film, particularly those that served to exalt Alan Turing’s role in the Second World War to quite ridiculous heights – as if that should have been necessary considering his genius and pivotal role – that the film is a sad distortion of history. For the film to have received eight nominations, including that for best picture and best adapted screenplay, says a lot about the superficiality of our emotions and our disregard for the truth. The quote from Mark Twain ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story, unless you can’t think of anything better’ is most apt, and The Imitation Game is a dashing good story.

Bletchley Park and Ultra

bletchley park, mi6, gc&cs

The arrival of ‘Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party’ at Bletchley Park in August 1938 was the cover for a visit by members of MI6 to see whether it would work as a wartime location, well away from London, for intelligence work by GC&CS.

The Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing played a key role in the allied victory in the Second World War in the cracking of German radio messages, or signals, which had been enciphered using Enigma machines. This decipherment yielded high-grade German military intelligence, dubbed Ultra, from ‘ultra secret’, which had a dramatic impact on the course and duration of the war. (Strictly speaking when one letter is substituted by another to make a message secret, it is a cipher, not a code, which is when letters or symbols are used to mean whole words or phrases. Therefore when codes or code breaking are spoken of it is usually ciphers and decipherment that are being referred to).

Turing started working part-time at Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire in September 1938. Bletchley Park was the central site during the war of the government’s secret code and cipher school (GC&CS). Every one of the 12,000 staff who had ever worked at some point at Bletchley Park had signed the Official Secrets Act, and the government continued to enforce their silence long after the war was over. This was mainly because Britain’s code-breaking success had to remain secret during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but also because Enigma machines were still in use around the world and Britain wanted to be able to read this signals traffic. Therefore the relatives of the staff at Bletchley Park never knew more than that they had done some kind of secret war work, or were told a cover story about clerical or statistical work. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the war referred to the staff at Bletchley as ‘The geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled’. It was only with the publication of Frederick Winterbotham’s book The Ultra Secret in 1974, some thirty years later, that the public began to learn of the secret of Bletchley Park.

The Imitation Game

alan turing, cambridge university, universal computing machine, turing machine

In 1936, Alan Turing (23 June 1912–7 June 1954) was a shy, eccentric student at Cambridge University, but he conceived in his ‘universal computing machine’ the basic principle of the modern computer, that is, controlling the machine’s operations by means of a program of coded instructions stored in the computer’s memory.

In the film, the Second World War has just broken out, and the British intelligence agency in September 1939 recruits Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing to join a team at Bletchley Park who are attempting to decipher Enigma messages sent by the German military, that cryptanalysts had thought unbreakable. Turing wants to build a machine to help crack the messages, but the head of Bletchley Park, Commander Alastair Denniston opposes this. Turing appeals to Winston Churchill for funding and is put in charge of the team. Turing sacks two members of the team, and recruits Joan Clarke, with whom he subsequently becomes engaged.

Turing successfully builds the machine – which he names Christopher after one of his childhood friends – that deciphers the messages. The deciphered messages, called Ultra, are used by the team to warn Britain’s armed forces of Germany’s detailed war plans, thus shortening the war. Some years after the war, Turing is prosecuted for indecency (at a time when homosexual acts were illegal) and he accepts chemical castration as an alternative to prison. He deteriorates physically and mentally with few people knowing of his crucial role.

The screenplay was written by American screenwriter and author, Graham Moore and was said to be based on the 527 page biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. The main characters in the film and the actors who played them are Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), and the other members of the team, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and Jack Good (James Northcote).

So what was wrong historically with the screenplay?

Characters in the Film

Turing’s social difficulties – he is brusque, arrogant and narcissistic, he doesn’t understand jokes, he avoids eye contact – are exaggerated in the film to the point of depicting him as being on the autistic spectrum. While it is true that Turing had his share of eccentricities, Turing had friends and was viewed as having a sense of humour with good working relationships with colleagues.

gordon welchman, cryptanalyst, alan turing, bletchley park, bombes

Like Turing, Gordon Welchman decrypted German messages, and they both worked on the re-design of the code-breaking machines called Bombes, but Welchman doesn’t appear in the film.

Hugh Alexander plays Turing’s boss at the start of the film, though he never was in real life. Turing joined Bletchley Park in 1938 before the outbreak of war and Alexander didn’t arrive until 1940 as until then he was head of the John Lewis research department. A better counterpart to Turing would have been Gordon Welchman, who was in charge of Hut 6 at Bletchley Park breaking German army codes, when Turing was in charge of Hut 8 breaking German naval codes. The two also worked together designing the code-breaking machines, called Bombes. But Welchman doesn’t appear in the film perhaps because Turing would not then appear so pre-eminent. Turing did not get involved in organisational matters at Bletchley Park. Welchman was the man who realised the necessity of setting up staff into three shifts to handle intercepts 24 hours a day. Hugh Alexander eventually took over the running of Hut 8 from Turing, and eventually became head of cryptanalysis at Bletchley.

Turing originally worked on the naval Enigma on his own and he does break it. He was joined by Tony Kendrick and Peter Twinn, who are not featured. Clarke, Alexander, Good and Hilton only joined later, in that order.

The film sets up Denniston, the operational head of Bletchley, as an antagonist to Turing, portraying him as an overbearing rigid officer bound by military thinking and eager to shut down the decryption machine when it failed to deliver results. Denniston’s grandchildren have said that the film takes an ‘unwarranted sideswipe’ at their grandfather in showing him as a ‘baddy’. He was a gentle man with a completely different temperament than the one portrayed in the film. There is no record of the film’s depicted interactions between Turing and Denniston.



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