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The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Operation Postmaster was a British special operation conducted on the Spanish island of Fernando Po, now known as Bioko, off West Africa in the Gulf of Guinea, during the Second World War. The mission was carried out by the Small-Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in January 1942. Their objective was to board the Italian and German ships in the harbour and sail them to Lagos. The SSRF under the command of Major Gus March-Phillipps left Britain in August 1941 and sailed the Brixham trawler, Maid of Honour, to the Spanish colony.

The British authorities in the area refused to support the raid, which they considered a breach of Spanish neutrality. Permission for the operation to go ahead eventually came from the Foreign Office in London. On 14 January 1942, while the ships' officers were attending a party arranged by an SOE agent, the commandos entered the port aboard two tugs, overpowered the ships' crews and sailed off with the ships, including the Italian merchant vessel Duchessa d'Aosta. The raid boosted SOE's reputation at a critical time and demonstrated its ability to plan and conduct secret operations no matter the political consequences. The 2024 film The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare portrays a heavily fictionalized version of the operation.

There is much to like about this heavily fictionalized version. Guy Richie’s usual film making smarts are on full view, with moments of outright genius; yet the film makes the case for getting certain screenwriting essential right. It is also questionable morally, and as a tribute to the real people whose actions serve as a basis for the story. The former issue first.

As a film (by which I mean as a screenplay, because a film can only be as good as the screenplay it’s based upon) The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare deals with too many characters to focus on one or two of them sufficiently that we can come to know them or care about them. It’s interesting that films like THE LONGEST DAY or THE DAMBUSTERS and WHERE EAGLES DARE etc do the same thing, but we don’t find ourselves not caring about characters in them. I suspect that other factors play a role in the disengaging nature of the characters in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.

THE LONGEST DAY and THE DAMBUSTERS don’t try to stylize everything (including violence) with cool music and cliched mannerisms. In The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Major Gus March-Phillipps is portrayed by Henry Cavill (no doubt at Guy Richie’s behest) as 'archetypally posh English' to the point of absurd cliché. Brigadier Gubbins 'M' (played by Cary Elwes) is similar, as is the young Ian Fleming (author of the James Bond books – Henry Cavil being a front runner for the role of Bond – geddit?). These characters come across as cold to the point of psychosis, however.

In the film, Major Gus March-Phillipps (and others) is psychotic . In this, screenwriting shortcomings and the moral turpitude of the film meet: all the evidence suggests that Guy and all those who were part of the Small-Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during WW2 were doing what they saw as the right thing to do for the greater good without infantile blood lust. If they could not have done any of it, they would have. In the film, Cavil’s Gus enthusiastically hoses down Nazi’s with his automatic weapons with childlike relish. This makes him a deeply unpleasant character about whom we cannot care. It’s also a character assassination of Gus March-Phillipps.

Others in the Small-Scale Raiding Force cohort are also unfeasibly cool and enthusiastic about slaughtering others. If Guy Richie is saying that violence is cool, he is wrong (as is Tarantino).

As character in the film all do, Alex Pettyfer’s (surely the perfect next James Bond!) character, too, displays impossible obduracy in the face of torture and indifference to the suffering of others. Alan Ritchson’s Anders Lassen is portrayed as a total psychopath who slaughters with indifferent and happy relish, thirsty for more. This is not only a slight on the real Anders Lassen, it creates another character we can’t care about or root for – another character who is untethered in a profound relationship.

No one in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare has a caring or intimate relationship with anyone else in the film. Relationships are cursory at best. This is a problem, and it leads into other areas of film making. Casting the superb Eiza González as Majorie Stewart is not only physically inaccurate, it gives us another impossibly attractive character in the film that no one else makes a play for.  

What we get is all these gorgeous people not getting involved with each other in any other way that as a means to killing as many other people as possible (bigotry on steroids). The unreality that the actors’ good looks creates serves to suspend belief. Their good looks tell us this is all made up, so we disengage. It was real, however, and it was far from cool. Killing people is always very uncool.

Some of these problems with the film are caused by politics. Any masculine sexual interest in Marjorie Stewart would be seen as toxic, so best avoid. Why then cast the very beautiful Eiza González in the role? She too, is gorgeous, and entirely disengaged with anyone around her.

The film makes powerful points about antisemitism and slavery, too, which while morally on-point and welcome, don’t belong in an adventure film like this designed to entertain people.

Making a modern action film based on historical reality, then, is a tall order for modern political reasons - but this we know. If The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare had been made (with a nip and a tuck) like THE LONGEST DAY and THE DAMBUSTERS were, it would have flopped. Or would it?

In any case, writing nuanced characters we can care about who have nuanced and plausible relationships that we can invest in and relate to is a screenwriting essential that this film omitted.

You don’t have to make the same mistake. Get in touch to find out how your screenplay fares in terms of screenwriting basics, or to hire me to write a screenplay that works for you.


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