The Imitation Game: A Poor Imitation of Reality

23Sep - by Alan - 0 - In
The Imitation Game poster
The Imitation Game poster

Alan Turing is my hero. I’ve read several books and articles about him, my favourite being The Annotated Turing. This book walks you through his seminal work On Computable Numbers (PDF). The first biography about him that I read was Enigma, by his ‘official’ biographer, Andrew Hodges. This is probably the authoritative, definitive biography on Turing. He acted as consultant to the movie The Imitation Game, which I watched recently.

It didn’t take long for me to start suspecting that this movie might not at all be about Alan Turing, or actual historical events associated with WW2 and Bletchley Park. The Turing portrayed in the movie was an arrogant and obnoxious Asperger’s victim with no sense of humour or other redeeming features other than being the brilliant genius who invented computers and saved us from Nazi invasion. I was also surprised by events and characters in the movie that I couldn’t recall ever reading about, such as the detective investigating him on suspicion of being a Soviet spy. So I immediately started researching how accurate the movie was…

As I’m late to the game, I’m not going to go into great detail about it, because others already have done a pretty good job (see list below). For example, here’s the Wikipedia list of some of the inaccuracies. And I don’t think that list is particularly comprehensive. From other articles on the web, I suspect there may be twtwice as many more errors as listed in Wikipedia. So my purpose here is mainly to give you the TL;DR (executive summary). You could also try Googling this article’s title, because using the word imitation twice in the title was also obvious to other authours.

So here’s my list of the most egregious inaccuracies:

  • Turing’s character wasn’t as obnoxious as portrayed. Yes, he was occasionally rude and arrogant, but most people liked him.
  • He was never suspected of being a Soviet spy. His arrest happened in 1952, not 1951 in connection with a burglary, which led to his being found out as a homosexual.
  • He didn’t work with John Cairncross, and they probably never even met.
  • He didn’t suddenly realise the technique of looking for standard or repeated phrases (cribs) and then rush over to his machine and break Enigma within minutes.
  • His ‘Christopher’ machine was a Bombe named Victory, initially inspired by Polish work, and with the help of Gordon Welchman.
  • Allowing the Germans to attack a convoy with the brother of one of the cryptographers in it, never happened (the brother didn’t exist). Such decisions were taken at a much higher level.
  • Turing didn’t write to Churchill to persuade him to put him in charge of the project. He wrote to ask for more resources, which Churchill granted.
  • His chemical castration wasn’t as debilitating as portrayed, didn’t last until his alleged suicide, and Joan Clarke didn’t visit him at his home.
  • His conflict with Denniston appears to be totally fictional.

Some of the scenes are disgustingly Hollywood cartoonish. I was particularly amused/saddened at the scene where he’s drinking with the other cryptographers, and somebody says something which makes him realise that people sometimes communicate with standard phrases, such as ‘Heil Hitler’. So a gang of them rush over to the hut, and test the hypothesis; it’s validated on existing data, so now they set it up in the Bombe on a new message, and discover an impending attack on a British convoy. All in a short space of time. And Turing says they shouldn’t alert the convoy because then the Germans would realise their Enigma system had been cracked. So this other guy punches Turing out. Well Hollywood, gangs rushing about and brawling blokes coming to fisticuffs might be how you do things over there, but I can assure you, it’s not how educated Brits of his generation (the one just before mine) did things.

I know this movie and Benedict Cumberbatch have received many accolodes, but frankly I was very disappointed. I would have hoped that an actor of BC’s calibre would have researched and realised that he was not actually being asked to portray Alan Turing, and demanded that the movie should be more faithful to Turing’s memory. I know, movies aren’t documentaries, you expect some adaptation of the historical facts for entertainment value, but this one does Alan Turing a gross disservice. And I’m surprised and disappointed that his so-called biographer put his name to this piece of nonsense.

Further Resources

Wikipedia:

Accuracy

The film has received criticism from historians and academics regarding inaccuracies in the events and people it portrays.

Historical events

  • Naming the Enigma-breaking machine "Christopher" after Turing's childhood friend and suggesting that Turing was the only cryptographer working on it, with others either not helping or outright opposed.
    In actuality, this electromechanical machine was called "Victory" and it was a collaborative, not individual, effort. It was a British Bombe machine, which was partly inspired by a design by the Polish cryptanalyst Marian Rejewski. Rejewski designed a machine in 1938 called bomba kryptologiczna which exploited a weakness in German operating procedures that was corrected in 1940. A new machine with a different strategy was designed by Turing (with a major contribution from mathematician Gordon Welchman, who goes unmentioned in the film, with the contribution attributed to Hugh Alexander instead) in 1940.
  • Suggesting that only this one machine was built, with Turing playing a large role in its construction.
    More than 200 British Bombes were built under the supervision of chief engineer Harold Keen of the British Tabulating Machine Company. None of them was built at Bletchley Park.[1]
Turing's rebuilt bombe machine, called Christopher in the film, on display at Bletchley Park Museum
  • Suggesting that the work at Bletchley Park was the effort of a small group of cryptographers who were stymied for the first few years of the war until a sudden breakthrough that allowed them to break Enigma.
    Progress was actually made before the beginning of the war in 1939 and thousands of men and women were working on the project by the time the war ended in 1945. The computing advances did not obviate the need for human labor, as the many teams of largely female operators certainly knew. Throughout the war, there were breakthroughs and setbacks when the design or use of the German Enigma machines was changed and the Bletchley Park code breakers had to adapt.[2][1]
    Moreover, the breakthrough depicted in the film provides the impression that first the Bombe was developed, then only became effective after it was later realised that deciphering could be made easier by looking for known or speculated items contained in an intercepted message, a practice known in cryptanalysis as employing a crib. However, in reality, the opposite is true; the use of cribs was the central attack model upon which the Bombe's principal design was based, rather than being an afterthought to the design.
  • Suggesting that Enigma was the only German cipher broken at Bletchley Park.
    The breaking of the Lorenz cipher, codenamed "Tunny", was arguably just as important as the breaking of Enigma in terms of contributing to the value of Ultra intelligence, and the code-breaking effort was in many ways more difficult. Neither the Tunny effort nor its main contributors, mathematician W. T. "Bill" Tutte and electrical engineer Tommy Flowers, are mentioned in the film. The Colossus computer they built goes unmentioned by name in the film, although there is an implicit suggestion that Turing was responsible for it, which he was not.[1]
  • Showing a scene where the Hut 8 team decides not to use broken codes to stop a German raid on a convoy that the brother of one of the code breakers (Peter Hilton) is serving on, to hide the fact they have broken the code.
    In reality, Hilton had no such brother, and decisions about when and whether to use data from Ultra intelligence were made at much higher administrative levels.[3]
  • Showing Turing writing a letter to Churchill to gain control over Enigma breaking and obtain funding for the decryption machine.
    Turing was actually not alone in making a different request with a number of colleagues, including Hugh Alexander, writing a letter to Churchill (who had earlier visited there) in an effort to get more administrative resources sent to Bletchley Park, which Churchill immediately did.[3]
  • The depiction of the recruitment of Joan Clarke as a result of an examination after solving a crossword puzzle in a newspaper.
    In reality, Joan Clarke was recruited by her former academic supervisor, Gordon Welchman, to the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS).[3]

Turing's personality and personal life

While a few writers and researchers have tried to assign such a retrospective diagnosis to Turing,[4] and it is true that he had his share of eccentricities, the Asperger's-like traits portrayed in the film – social awkwardness, difficulty working cooperatively with others, and tendency to take things too literally – bear little relationship to the actual adult Turing, who, despite enjoying working alone, was sociable and had friends, was also viewed as having a sense of humour, and had good working relationships with colleagues.[2][5][6][1]
  • Scenes about Turing's childhood friend, including the manner in which Turing learned of Morcom's illness and death.[7][3]
  • Portraying Turing's arrest as happening in 1951 and having a detective suspect him of being a Soviet spy until Turing tells his code-breaking story in an interview with the detective, who then discovers Turing is gay.
    Turing's arrest was in 1952. The detective in the film and the interview as portrayed are fictional. Turing was investigated for his homosexuality after a robbery at his house and was never investigated for espionage.[7]
  • Suggesting that the chemical castration that Turing was forced to undergo made him unable to think clearly or do any work.
    Despite physical weakness and changes in Turing's body including gynaecomastia, at that time he was doing innovative work on mathematical biology, inspired by the very changes his body was undergoing due to chemical castration.[2][3]
  • Clarke visiting Turing in his home while he is serving probation.
    There is no record of Clarke ever visiting Turing's residence during his probation, although Turing did stay in touch with her after the war and informed her of his upcoming trial for indecency.[3]
  • Stating outright that Turing committed suicide after a year of hormone treatment.
    In reality, the nature of Turing's death is a matter of considerable debate. The chemical castration period ended fourteen months before his death. The official inquest into his death ruled that he had committed suicide by consuming a cyanide-laced apple. Turing biographer Andrew Hodges believes the death was indeed a suicide, re-enacting the poisoned apple from Snow White, Turing's favourite fairy tale, with some deliberate ambiguity included to permit Turing's mother to interpret it as an accident. However, Jack Copeland, an editor of volumes of Turing's work and Director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing, has suggested that Turing's death may have been accidental, caused by the cyanide fumes produced by an experiment in his spare room, and that the investigation was poorly conducted.[3][8]

Personalities and actions of other characters

  • Depicting Commander Denniston as a rigid officer, bound by military thinking and eager to shut down the decryption machine when it fails to deliver results.
    Denniston's grandchildren stated that the film takes an "unwarranted sideswipe" at their grandfather's memory, showing him to be a "baddy" and a "hectoring character" who hinders the work of Turing. They said their grandfather had a completely different temperament from the one portrayed in the film and was entirely supportive of the work done by cryptographers under his command.[3][9] There is no record of the film's depicted interactions between Turing and Denniston. Indeed, before the war, Denniston recruited lecturers at Oxford and Cambridge, and Turing, Welchman, and others began working part-time for him then.[10]:9 Turing was always respected and considered one of the best code-breakers at Bletchley Park[3] and in short order took on the role of a leader there.[1]
  • Showing Turing interacting with Stewart Menzies, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service.
    There are no records showing they interacted at all during Turing's time at Bletchley Park.[3]
  • Including an espionage subplot involving Turing working with John Cairncross.
    Turing and Cairncross worked in different areas of Bletchley Park and there is no evidence they ever met.[2][3] Alex Von Tunzelmann was angered by this subplot (which suggests that Turing was for a while blackmailed into not revealing Cairncross as a spy lest his homosexuality be revealed), writing that "creative licence is one thing, but slandering a great man's reputation – while buying into the nasty 1950s prejudice that gay men automatically constituted a security risk – is quite another."[7]