The first casualty of war is the truth, and in the struggle for victory all is fair, even the most outrageous deceptions carried out in broad daylight with in the hopes of confusing the enemy, keeping them guessing when and where the strike will come so the true blow can be delivered unhindered.
Thus is the unbelievable yet true story of actor M E Clifton James, a second lieutenant in the Royal Army Pay Corps during World War II who in civilian life was an actor, but who bore a striking resemblance to a much more senior officer, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
Approached by British intelligence agents in 1944 in the prelude to the D-Day landings in Normandy, it was thought that by using James as a double for Montgomery and sending him on a highly visible tour of potential avenues from which the Allied Forces might attempt to land on continental Europe it would draw attention away from the real plans.
The story having been leaked in the aftermath of the war, James later wrote a book detailing his involvement in Operation Copperhead; titled entitled I Was Monty’s Double (released overseas as The Counterfeit General Montgomery), it was published in 1954 and then filmed in 1958.
Directed by John Guillermin from Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of James’ novel, it was released as I Was Monty’s Double or Hell, Heaven or Hoboken depending on the territory, and while the bulk of the film is carried by Quatermass‘ John Mills as Major Harvey, instigator and handler of the operation, the key role of M E Clifton James is played by the gentleman himself.
A second bite of the cherry of the biggest role of his life in more controlled conditions, James’ repeat performance is given another airing in the restored print recently released by Studiocanal as part of their Vintage Classics collection, a 4K 16bit scan of the original monochrome 35mm negative.
Produced little more than a decade after the cease of hostilities with the wounds and the devastation still fresh, the tone of I Was Monty’s Double is understandably light, for the most part a celebratory comedy rather than a traditional war movie, those aspects played up by Mills, The Ladykillers‘ Cecil Parker as his superior and the unflappable Barbara Hicks as their pointedly efficient secretary Hester Baring.
A star of over thirty years standing who in the same year had appeared in Dunkirk and Ice Cold in Alex, Mills is understated, never making the film about his character although he is the star, while James is a natural, nervous, out of his depth but never allowing his doubts to deter him from what must be done.
An actor turned screenwriter turned director whose later resume included two genre classics on both sides of the Atlantic in Séance on a Wet Afternoon and The Stepford Wives, Forbes has a significant role in the final scenes while there are prominent cameos from John Le Mesurier, Sid James, Michael Hordern and Leslie Phillips, a veritable army of contemporary British talent.
Included on the disc are a twenty minute discussion of historical context and the changes made in the name of dramatic licence from writer Terry Crowdy, a brief 1947 Pathé showreel of the reveal of M E Clifton James and, giving a very different perspective of the scenes in Gibraltar, three minutes of silent colour 16mm shot on location by John Mills himself, capturing rehearsals, candid moments with the cast and astonishingly blue skies.