“I would’ve done quite badly as a spy,” reflects Colin Firth as his new film Operation Mincemeat is released
War makes people do crazy things. Take Operation Mincemeat, for example. Hitting cinemas this weekend, director John Madden’s spy movie tells the remarkable true story of the bizarre mission that helped turn the tide on the Nazis during World War II.
Devised in part by James Bond mastermind, Ian Fleming, during his time working as a Naval Intelligence Officer in the late 1930s, this elaborate ruse involved finding an unclaimed corpse, packaging it as a fallen officer of the Royal Marines and surreptitiously dumping it on a Spanish coastline for the enemy to discover.
There’s more though: concealed within this fake officer’s belongings were some equally-fake ‘top secret’ documents that claimed to contain key details about Churchill’s supposed strike strategies regarding the ongoing war. As you’ve probably guessed, the documents were indeed found by enemy top brass and – astonishingly – the farce worked, leaving Hitler suitably bamboozled, much to the benefit of England and its allies.
Operation Mincemeat tells this unorthodox war story from the perspective of the two spies that helped construct it – Ewen Montagu, played by Brit acting icon Colin Firth and Charles Cholmondeley, brought to life by Succession fan-fave Matthew MacFadyen.
While it may come as little surprise that both manage to realise this tense espionage epic with a suitable nail-biting edge, it seems the duo would much prefer to stick with Hollywood over the spy life if given the chance to trade careers – as we discovered during an exclusive chat.
“I would’ve done quite badly – I find being on a film set quite stressful,” deadpans Firth when asked if he’d ever consider swapping his Oscar for a pseudonym and gun. “These are the people who could do the Times crossword puzzle in a matter of minutes – and that’s not me. Then with the stakes being so high as well… Can you do it under pressure?” he ponders.
Meanwhile, MacFadyen has similar thoughts on the idea of switching professions: “I would have been hopeless,” he says candidly. “I’m not clever enough. They were deeply, deeply bright people.”
As to whether either were aware of this unusual mission before signing onto Operation Mincemeat, Firth recalls an early encounter with a movie that also told the tale of a dead body decoy which initially spiked his interest.
“I’m older than Matthew, so growing up I knew there was a film called The Man Who Never Was,” he says, referencing Ronald Neame’s 1956 war drama that also detailed the same secret mission. “I was enthralled by it. This whole idea of a created figure who becomes real; a corpse who becomes human – notionally – and then becomes critical in such an important stage of the war was riveting to me.”
Played by Stardust actor Johnny Flynn, Ian Fleming’s impact on the narrative can be felt throughout Madden’s movie in countless subtle nods to the gadgets, action and clandestine antics synonymous with the iconic spy the author would go on to create in 1953.
As for the pair’s first encounter with 007? “My mum and dad let me stay up and watch the one where Roger Moore gets into a car, drives into the lake and his car becomes a submarine,” remembers MacFadyen, casting his mind way back. “That was my introduction to [the franchise] and Timothy Dalton was the first Bond that I watched at the cinema. He was quite a gritty Bond.”
Firth has similarly fond memories of the first time he spied the movie icon: “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – the George Lazenby one,” he says with a wry smile, recalling his inaugural encounter with Bond, James Bond.
“I think it might have been the first film I went to see in the cinema without my parents or any adults. I didn’t quite understand it all actually,” he admits. “I was mystified and I remember being slightly horrified by some of the gore – but Lazenby was Bond for me at the beginning and I fell in love with Bond through that film.”
Operation Mincemeat is in cinemas now.
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