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In 1944, the German High Command knew D-Day was coming. Not the exact date or specific landing target of the invasion, but the general parameters were known and anticipated and the Germans built up their defenses on the coast of France across the channel from England. As part of the general campaign of disinformation and distraction, British Intelligence launched a scheme to convince the Germans that British forces were preparing to launch an invasion from North Africa across the Mediterranean to the South of France. They gave a small-time music-hall actor named Meyrick Clifton James, currently serving in the Royal Army Pay Corps, the role of a lifetime: impersonate General Bernard Montgomery in an openly "secret" tour of Allied bases from Gibraltar to North Africa. Operation Copperhead, as it was named, was a success. James successfully convinced the Nazi spies and covert agents that the real Monty was indeed in Africa. As the information was sent directly to Berlin, James slipped quietly back into obscurity, his major role in the run-up to D-Day unacknowledged for years. At least until he published his memoir, I Was Monty's Double, in 1954 (ten years after the events described), and followed it with an encore appearance. "Introducing M.E. Clifton-James as himself," proclaims the credits of the 1958 feature based on his memoir.
While James is the subject of the film I Was Monty's Double (1958, aka Hell, Heaven or Hoboken), John Mills takes the leading role as British Intelligence officer Major Harvey. Mills first made his name as a British everyman in such wartime films as In Which We Serve (1942) and solidified his reputation in David Lean's Great Expectations (1946) as one of the class acts in British cinema. By 1958 he had aged into tougher, more varied character parts, and he brought confident bravado and a sly sense of humor to Harvey, who enters the film dodging agents and hitting on girls. Charged with hatching a scheme to draw the attention of the German High Command to Africa, he observes James successfully fool a British theater audience (including himself) into thinking he's the real General Montgomery making a surprise appearance and is struck with an inspiration. With the blessing of his commanding officer (Cecil Parker), Harvey has James transferred, under the guise of working for the army's film unit, and offers him a part in the biggest show of his career. He studied Montgomery's speech and mannerisms as a temporary member of his staff, drilled names and events, rehearsed his presentation and was finally sent to Gibraltar and Algiers to play the part for his most demanding audience: Allied officers and soldiers and the network of spies and informants swarming around the bases. With his real identity hidden from all but a few key co-conspirators, James had to keep up the performance at almost all times until the plan was complete, and while the film shows a stalwart James holding up ably under the stress, it was considerably more difficult for the real James.
I Was Monty's Double, scripted by actor/screenwriter (and future director) Bryan Forbes and competently but indifferently directed by the busy but undistinguished John Guillermin (who went on to direct The Blue Max (1966), The Towering Inferno (1974) and the 1976 King Kong), follows the general narrative of James' book but takes a few liberties with history, most obviously a third act kidnap attempt by a German strike force (a scene that give Mills an opportunity to play the steely hero). On the balance, however, the changes are minor. It was actually actor David Niven, then serving with the British Army's film unit, who contacted James for the assignment. The plan is renamed "Operation Hambone" for the film. There was no dinner with the German spy (a silky Marius Goring) in Gibraltar; the mere presence of James' faux-Monty, and the appropriate deference from the local British officers, was enough to sell the ruse. And according to recently declassified documents released by the British intelligence agency MI5 (information that the filmmakers and even James may not have been privy to in 1958), James was not the first choice for the role. He was, however, the final choice. And, just as the film states, James indeed drew General's pay for the five weeks of his engagement, perhaps to make up for the fact that, in accordance with the state secrets act, this was one role he could not put on his resume.
The real James, a forty-five year-old World War I veteran serving the war effort at a desk, was a heavy drinker (the film portrays him indifferent to alcohol) and a smoker, vices he had to give up to play Montgomery (who was a teetotaler and a non-smoker). He was fifty-eight when he took up the role again for the film and the years show, yet it's a minor issue. While he's hardly a dynamic presence in the film, James offers a convincing self-portrait of a minor actor terrified at the scale of the role. He communicates self-doubt with a bracing honesty and only slowly gains confidence in the role. Even as he exudes confidence and command while playing the part in public, he immediately reverts to the junior officer looking to Harvey for direction once he exits the public stage. For a man taking his first public bow for a role that was unacknowledged for years, he evinces no vanity or ego.
The film is carried largely by the personable Mills and the chummy little group that forms around the conspiracy. Cecil Parker is blithely sardonic as his acerbic but affectionate commanding officer and their friendship and mutual respect shows through their lively working relationship. As well as scripting the screen adaptation, Forbes has a small but important role in the dramatic climax. Newsreel footage puts the real Montgomery in many scenes but for a few key moments, James stands in for the real Monty. It's hard to tell the difference.
I Was Monty's Double was the first significant film role for M.E. Clifton-James (he has a couple of minor credits listed on the IMDb) and, it turns out, his last screen performance. He died in 1963 at age 65 and Viscount Montgomery gave him a fitting epitaph, as quoted in the Daily Mail the day after James' death. "Only met him once. Of course he observed me a great deal. He did a very good job, a very good job, and fooled the Germans at a critical time of the war."
Producer: Maxwell Setton
Director: John Guillermin
Screenplay: Bryan Forbes; M.E. Clifton James (book)
Cinematography: Basil Emmott
Art Direction: W.E. Hutchinson
Music: John Addison
Film Editing: Max Benedict
Cast: M.E. Clifton-James (General Montgomery), John Mills (Major Harvey), Cecil Parker (Col. E.F. Logan), Patrick Allen (Col. Mathers), Patrick Holt (Col. Dawson), Leslie Phillips (Major Tennant), Michael Hordern (Governor of Gibraltar), Marius Goring (Karl Nielson).
by Sean Axmaker