The Man Who Never Was is a 1956 British espionage thriller film produced by André Hakim and directed by Ronald Neame.
It stars Clifton Webb and Gloria Grahame and features Robert Flemyng, Josephine Griffin and Stephen Boyd. It is based on the book of the same name by Lieutenant Commander. Ewen Montagu and chronicles Operation Mincemeat, a 1943 British intelligence plan to deceive the Axis powers into thinking the Allied invasion of Sicily would take place elsewhere in the Mediterranean.
Refer to Operation Mincemeat (2021).
Operation Mincemeat was a successful British deception operation of the Second World War to disguise the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. Two members of British intelligence obtained the body of Glyndwr Michael, a tramp who died from eating rat poison, dressed him as an officer of the Royal Marines and placed personal items on him identifying him as the fictitious Captain (Acting Major) William Martin. Correspondence between two British generals which suggested that the Allies planned to invade Greece and Sardinia, with Sicily as merely the target of a feint, was also placed on the body.
Part of the wider Operation Barclay, Mincemeat was based on the 1939 Trout memo, written by Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of the Naval Intelligence Division and his personal assistant, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming. With the approval of the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and the military commander in the Mediterranean, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the plan began by transporting the body to the southern coast of Spain by submarine and releasing it close to shore, where it was picked up the following morning by a Spanish fisherman. The nominally neutral Spanish government shared copies of the documents with the Abwehr, the German military intelligence organisation, before returning the originals to the British. Forensic examination showed they had been read and Ultra decrypts of German messages showed that the Germans fell for the ruse. German reinforcements were shifted to Greece and Sardinia before and during the invasion of Sicily; Sicily received none.
The full effect of Operation Mincemeat is not known, but Sicily was liberated more quickly than anticipated and losses were lower than predicted. The events were depicted in Operation Heartbreak, a 1950 novel by the former cabinet minister Duff Cooper, before one of the intelligence officers who planned and carried out Mincemeat, Ewen Montagu, wrote a history in 1953. Montagu’s work formed the basis for the 1956 British film The Man Who Never Was. A second British film based on the events was released in 2021 under the title Operation Mincemeat.
In 1943, Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) devises a scheme to deceive the Nazis about the impending invasion of Southern Europe. It entails releasing a corpse with a fictional identity off the coast of Spain, where strong currents will carry it ashore near where a known German agent operates. The non-existent Royal Marine courier, Major William Martin, would appear to be a plane crash victim carrying documents about an upcoming Allied invasion of German-occupied Greece, rather than Sicily, the more obvious target. Montagu receives approval to carry out Operation Mincemeat.
Following a medical expert’s advice, Montagu procures the body of a man who died of pneumonia, the condition of which will make it appear that he drowned. After proper preparations, the corpse is placed in a canister packed with dry ice and transferred to a waiting submarine. The body is released off the Atlantic coast of Spain and washes ashore as intended. Local authorities, observed by German and British consulate staff, identify the body and conduct an autopsy. After the attaché case containing the deceptive documents is returned to London, a forensics expert confirms that the key letter, which describes an Allied invasion of Greece, was cleverly opened, photographed, and resealed.
Hitler is convinced the documents are genuine, though Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, is sceptical. The Nazis dispatch Patrick O’Reilly (Stephen Boyd), a pro-German IRA spy, to London to investigate. O’Reilly investigates Martin’s “fiancée”, Lucy Sherwood (Gloria Grahame), who is the roommate of Montagu’s assistant, Pam (Josephine Griffin). O’Reilly arrives at their flat, posing as Martin’s old friend, on the same day Lucy has received news that her real boyfriend was killed in action. Her genuine grief mostly convinces O’Reilly. As a final test, he gives Lucy his north London address, telling her to contact him if she needs anything. He then radios his German contacts that if he does not send another message in an hour, he has been arrested. As Montagu, General Coburn (Michael Hordern) of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and police officers are en route to O’Reilly’s flat, Montagu realizes why O’Reilly left his address with Lucy and convinces a reluctant Coburn to let O’Reilly go. After no one arrests him, O’Reilly sends a “Martin genuine!” radio message. The Germans then transfer most of their Sicily-based forces to Greece, which helps the Allied invasion of Sicily succeed.
After the war, Montagu receives several decorations and awards for his wartime service, including the Order of the British Empire (OBE). He visits Spain and leaves his OBE medal at the grave of Major Martin, “the man who never was”.
- Clifton Webb as Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu.
- Gloria Grahame as Lucy Sherwood.
- Robert Flemyng as Lieutenant George Acres.
- Josephine Griffin as Pam.
- Stephen Boyd as Patrick O’Reilly.
- Laurence Naismith as Admiral Cross.
- William Russell as Joe (Lucy’s fiancé).
- Geoffrey Keen as General Archibald Nye.
- Moultrie Kelsall as the Father.
- Cyril Cusack as taxi driver.
- André Morell as Sir Bernard Spilsbury.
- Michael Hordern as General Coburn.
- William Squire as submarine commander Bill Jewell.
- Allan Cuthbertson as Vice Admiral.
- Miles Malleson as scientist.
- Joan Hickson as landlady.
- Terence Longdon as Larry.
- Gibb McLaughlin as club porter.
- Gordon Bell as Customs Officer.
- Wolf Frees as Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (uncredited).
- Ewen Montagu as an Air Vice Marshal (uncredited).
- Peter Williams as Admiral Mountbatten (uncredited).
The film earned an estimated $1.1 million in North American receipts in 1956.
The Man Who Never Was was entered into the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, and Nigel Balchin’s screenplay won the BAFTA for that year.
The Goon Show Parody
The BBC’s radio comedy show, The Goon Show, made a send-up of the story of The Man Who Never Was (based on the book) and incorporated most of the regular Goon Show characters. Written by Spike Milligan and Larry Stephens, the first version of the script formed two-thirds of the episode broadcast on 31 March 1953, before the film’s release, with the first third comprising a separate sketch. Like most of these early episodes, this no longer exists.
Milligan and Stephens later wrote a full-length version which was broadcast on 20 March 1956. Milligan later revised this script for the episode broadcast on 17 February 1958. Both of the later versions have been issued on CD sets. Coincidentally, Peter Sellers (one of the Goons) provided the voice of Winston Churchill in the film, although the character did not appear in The Goon Show adaptation.
- The vessel used to deploy the body in the sea during the real Operation Mincemeat was the S class submarine P219 HMS Seraph.
- The same vessel would later reprise its role in Operation Mincemeat (2021).
- In this movie, Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) selects a man who had died of pneumonia, because the corpse would need to have similarly damaged lungs if it had really drowned.
- There is also a very emotional scene where the man’s father is persuaded to allow his son to be used for the deception.
- In a rare straight role, an uncredited Peter Sellers impersonated the voice of British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.
- Peter Sellers can also be heard as the voice coming over the airfield speaker during the parachute demonstration and, very briefly, as the voice of an unseen taxi driver.
- The quote that opens and closes the movie, “Last night I dreamed a deadly dream, beyond the Isle of Skye, I saw a dead man win a fight, and I think that man was I” is from the song “The Battle of Otterburn,” Child Ballad #161 and appears in a manuscript dated circa 1550.
- The original reads, “But I hae (have) dreamed a dreary dream, Beyond the Isle of Skye; I saw a dead man win a fight, And I think that man was I.”
- Ewen Montagu, the officer who was in charge of Operation Mincemeat, has a small cameo role as an Air Marshal.
- The real-life General Nye objected to several lines that this movie’s General Nye (Geoffrey Keen) said in the script. The production team had to have talks so that General Nye would not have to be deleted from the script.
Production & Filming Details
- Ronald Neame.
- André Hakim … producer.
- Bob McNaught … associate producer.
- Ewen Montagu … (book) (as The Hon. Ewen Montagu C.B.E. D.L. Q.C.).
- Nigel Balchin … (screenplay).
- Alan Rawsthorne.
- Oswald Morris (director of photography).
- Peter Taylor.
- Sumar Productions.
- Twentieth Century Fox Film Company (1956) (UK) (theatrical).
- Twentieth Century Fox (1956) (USA) (theatrical).
- Fox Video (1991) (USA) (VHS).
- Odeon Entertainment (2012) (UK) (DVD).
- Topanga Canyon Films (2018) (Spain) (all media).
- WME Home Entertainment (2020) (Germany) (DVD).
- Release Date: 14 February 1956 (San Francisco, US) (Premiere) and 14 March 1956 (London, UK) (Premiere).
- Rating: U.
- Running Time: 103 minutes.
- Country: UK.
- Language: English.