Oct 17, 2011

Tradecraft: Leo to Play Alan Turing?

Tradecraft: Leo to Play Alan Turing?

Deadline reports that Warner Bros. has spent seven figures to acquire a red-hot script by first-time screenwriter Graham Moore about the life of genius codebreaker Alan Turing called The Imitation Game. The script is based on the definitive 1983 biography of Turing by Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma, and the trade blog reports that Leonardo DiCaprio "has the inside track" to star, with Ron Howard interested in directing. (Though the project would undoubtedly take him close to the familiar ground of math geniuses and codebreaking that he covered in A Beautiful Mind.) DiCaprio seems drawn to biopics (he was even once rumored to be considering playing Ian Fleming in a film his production company is developing), and at least he's the right age for this one (his baby face never works for me in old age makeup), even if he'd have to pull off an English accent.

Besides his crucial role in creating the modern computer, Turing is best known now for his secret work during WWII at Bletchley Park, where he and his colleagues successfully cracked the supposedly un-crackable German Enigma codes, striking a huge blow for Allied intelligence and turning the tide of the war. Despite his heroic service, Turing suffered an ignoble fate after the war when he was prosecuted for homosexuality at a time when it was still illegal in Britain. Horrifically, he was sentenced to a form of chemical castration and chose to commit suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple—widely believed (though perhaps apocryphally) to be the inspiration for the name and logo of Steve Jobs' computer company. The Enigma machines (there were several different ones, with different numbers of rotors creating totally different codes) have inspired a lot of spy fiction and movies already, most notably Michael Apted's superb 2001 Robert Harris adaptation Enigma, written by Tom Stoppard and produced by Mick Jagger, for which John Barry provided his final score, capping his career in the spy genre that launched it.

Each Enigma machine the allies captured has a thrilling story behind it, but the story likely best known to readers of this blog is one that never occurred. Ian Fleming, working for Naval Intelligence during WWII, proposed a plan (with the full support of Bletchley Park) to capture a 3-rotor naval Enigma in an operation dubbed "Ruthless." According to a Fleming memo published in Craig Cabell's Ian Fleming's Secret War, Operation Ruthless entailed sending a "tough crew" of German-speaking British airmen out in a captured Heinkel 111 bomber and crashing it in the English Channel to attract a German rescue boat (ideally a minesweeper). When the crew was pulled out of the water, they would overpower the German sailors, capture the craft and sail it and its precious code machine back to Britain. Sadly, the operation was cancelled. (There are varying accounts of the precise reason for this, but the one most commonly cited it bad weather.) This frustrated Turing, who was very keen indeed to get his hands on this particular prize. Frank Birch, head of the Naval Section at Bletchley Park, wrote a memo to Fleming that's reprinted in Cabell's book in which he complained that "Turing and [his colleague] Twinn came to me like undertakers cheated of a nice corpse two days ago, all in a stew about the cancellation of Operation Ruthless." Needless to say, Fleming was none too happy about it himself.

I merely mention this anecdote, of course, because it's likely to be of interest to readers here. Operation Ruthless was but a footnote in the history of Bletchley Park; it's highly doubtful it will feature at all in The Imitation Game. Alan Turing's contribution to the British war effort was far, far more significant than Ian Fleming's, and his is a fascinating story that I can't wait to see unfold on the big screen.

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