There are literally hundreds of British and American spy movies that have been made over the years, from the 1935 classic, The 39 Steps, the 1940 other classic, Ten Days in Paris starring Rex Harrison about a double agent in France, to the more recent 2021 historical drama, The Courier about Grenville Wynne, the British businessman played by Benedict Cumberthatch sent to deliver messages to an agent in the Soviet Union. The 1944 Hitchcock classic, Hotel Reserve, initiated a spy theme Hitchcock repeated, the innocent man suspected of being a spy. (North by Northwest) There was also the 1950 Highly Dangerous about counter-intelligence operations against germ warfare. In 1951, High Treason dealt with the activities of British counterintelligence agents operating in Britain to capture a saboteur. The 1967 thriller, The Double Man, starred Yul Brynner as a brooding CIA agent operating in the Austrian Alps. Spy films almost always reflect the major concerns of the time when they are made rather than of the time portrayed. Thus, Ring of Spies (1964) portrayed the real-life case of the Portland Spy Ring, the possible origin of the late twentieth spy scares. The Ring’s activities led to “Reds under the bed” scare stories in the early 1960s.
The 1970 thriller, The Looking Glass War, wasabout another agent sent behind enemy lines by his superiors indifferent to his safety. Betrayal by one’s own superiors became an important new theme in spy movies. The Executioner (1975), starring Dick Bogarde and Ava Gardner, was about a plot to prevent a Communist defector from returning to the Soviet Union. The Eagle Has Landed (1976) starring Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland and Robert Duvall was about a fictional German plot to kidnap Winston Churchill. Night of the Fox (1990) starring George Peppard and Michael York was another film about an officer sent behind enemy lines. The central figure in the 1993 The Innocent was an American engineer sent to Berlin to spy on the Soviet Union. The Ipcress File (1996) starring Michael Caine also focused on counterintelligence and told the story of an espionage agent at war with his own bureaucracy as he investigates the kidnapping and brainwashing of British scientists.
Whether innocents or traitors, whether working in intelligence or counterintelligence, virtually all the agents were male. In contrast, the 2019 movie, Official Secrets,starring Keira Knightly is a morality tale for the 21st century. Official Secrets tells the true story of a real British Intelligence whistle-blower, Katharine Gun, who leaked a top-secret NSA memo exposing a joint US-UK illegal spying operation against members of the UN Security Council in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, As usual, Knightly is brilliant in that role.
These spy films all may deal with intrigue, deceit, disguise and discovery, some may be thrillers while others are comedies and still others are comic books like the Bond series, but the most common ones are dramas. The ones I find most interesting are based on real life spies. Commemorating real life female spies and whistleblowers should be no surprise in the twenty-first century even when the stories go back to WWII.
Last evening, we watched a British movie released last year called, A Call to Spy. It is another docudrama, this time about women who were trained as spies and dropped behind enemy lines in France during WWII. There were a number of women British spies, such as Violette Szabo, a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent during WWII who on her second mission into occupied France, was captured by the Germans army, interrogated, tortured and finally sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp to be executed. A Call to Spy is specifically about three of those women:
- Noor Inayat Khan, played by Radhika Apte, eventually like Szabo was awarded the George Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. She was a Sufi Muslim, a very young author of children’s books, and daughter of a very famous Indian musician – her mother was the American poet Pirani Ameena Begum. Noor was the first female radio operator to be sent from the U.K. into Occupied France in the summer of 1943 under the code name “Madeleine”.
- Virginia Hall, played by Sarah Megan Thomas, was also one of the film’s screenwriters. She was a one-legged American plutocrat from Baltimore with a prosthetic leg who ran a whole spy network in France during the war and eventually became, I believe, the first female agent in William Donovan’s CIA, then originally the OSS; the American Office of Strategic Services. Her most heroic feat was not fighting the Nazis but her fight against nature’s cruel and cold winter as she trekked across a 7,500-foot pass through the Pyrenees to Spain with a prosthetic leg. (Cf. Sonia Purnell (2019) A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of Virginia Hall, WII’s Most Dangerous Spy, about the code named spy, Brigitte Le Contre)
- Vera Hall, née Vera Marie Rosenberg, the Jewish émigré from Romania played by Stana Katic who starts as a secretary to the senior military officer on Baker Street, Captain Harry Walsh, charged with training the spies, setting up the network in France, but for whom Vera emerges as the individual directly responsible for training, deploying and protecting those spies; she was undoubtedly the model for Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond series.
All three women worked for the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) under the command of Walsh. The SOE volunteer force was established in June 1940 in London to wage a secret war behind enemy lines and “set Europe ablaze” through espionage, sabotage and building a resistance network in occupied Europe.
The movie could have concentrated on the foreignness of each of these three women, but that fact is given only a glancing reference. Much more is made of the fact that these were women. But other than as interesting givens, these crucial facts play only a small part in understanding the risks these women took with their own lives and the lives of others, thereby underplaying a critical dimension to the drama.
For example, because Vera is a Jew, she is often scapegoated and suspected by her British upper crust peers and is only at the very end, after her boss goes to extraordinary lengths (again, only hinted at) obtains citizenship papers. It is well to remind us and all Britons in the age of Meghan Markle what an important part that foreigners played in Britain’s struggle for survival and how easily they were taken for granted and how much prejudice they had to overcome.
None of these women use their fragility or supposed helplessness to become stereotypes to get around the Nazis, but they were less recognizable as spies for there were many women their age on “the home front”. Evidence also has mounted that male agents were less resourceful and inventive than their female colleagues. That is not the only critical dimension underplayed. The acts of betrayal by Frenchmen are part of the film, but just as incidental facts. The failure to go into any depth of any of these various dimensions that make spy movies so fascinating, are missed opportunities. They are all there – self-doubt, heroism and cynicism, and many more characteristics of the genre – but not one of these themes is given its proper due.
As a sign of the bravery of the three women, it is well to note that after the liberation of France in 1944 and the eventual dissolution of the SOE in January 1946, Atkins searched for the missing 118 SOE personnel only to learn that all but one of them had been killed. Atkins traced all 117 and brought their killers to war crimes trials (more about that in the next blog). However, this blog is about one of America’s worst and most deplorable hours, when captured alleged terrorists were kept in Guantanamo Bay, held without charge and tortured.
One of the scenes in A Call to Spy involves subjecting one of these spies to water torture – that is forcing their heads underwater and holding them there until they almost drown and then releasing them gasping for air. It is a scene that I am sure you have seen in many movies. It is but one of the many illegal and unethical actions during war conducted by one side against its enemies on the other side. In the film, The Mauritanian, it is dealt with not just as a horrific technique in the spy’s and the counter-intelligence officer’s kit of tools, but it becomes a central focus. For the CIA had come a long way from Donovan’s days and the OSS when he initiated what became the Central Intelligence Agency to eventually become a behemoth based in Langley, Virginia where it adopted the use of Nazi horrors against its enemies, though The Mauritanian is more concerned with the use of such measures by military intelligence.
The problem is that films which focus on bravery and self-sacrifice in our cynical age are viewed more as hagiography rather than in-depth explorations of the critical virtue of courage and the important role that this particular trait plays in a country’s finest hour. But what if the film is about a country’s most disrespectful hour when the practice of intelligence and counterintelligence were employed in the twenty-first century on the model of the practices of the Third Reich, when “enemies” were kept in prison without charge and outside the boundaries of the United States presumably to escape the strictures of US domestic law against torture?
The Mauritanian is perhaps more a prison and a legal drama as much as it is a tale about intelligence operations. Based on the account of Sohrab Noshirvani’s experience in Guantanamo based on Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s account in Guantanamo Diary of Sohrab’s experience, the movie stars Jodie Foster, Sohrab’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander (Foster was nominated for a Golden Globe and won the British Academy Motion Picture award as best actress). Tahar Rahim plays Sohrab and Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Grenville Wynne in The Courier,and in this film plays Lt, Colonel Stuart Couch, the intrepid military prosecuting attorney intent of proving terrorists guilty and sending them to prison, but, as a man of integrity, discovers that this was not his mission or what was expected of him as he uncovers more and more evidence that there was not even a shred of evidence supporting the guilt of the man arrested by the CIA and held in Guantanamo Bay.
Yet Sohrab was held there for fourteen years – yes 14 years, and without a criminal charge ever being levelled against him. Worse yet, evidence was fabricated. Sohrab, as I stated above, was subjected to water torture. Of course, he eventually confessed, but his confession is worthless, does not fit in with actual facts and is simply extracted from the victim who wants to escape the pain. In a time of COVID, it is unlikely that the movie will earn back its costs. However, it will win a place in the tales of international injustice and provide solid fuel for the need for an International Criminal Court (ICC).
However, as I will try to show, this is not a simple morality play in which the ICC stands for objective and true justice while spy agencies are the repositories of evil and injustice. As one might expect, history is far more complicated. However, as a propaedeutic in support of the ICC, one would do well to watch The Mauritanian that has been nominated for many awards, including best supporting actress above, best actor in a leading role (British Academy, Golden Globes)), best adapted screenplay and best cinematography,
Best of all, it is free on Netflix.
With the help of Alex Zisman