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I'm glad Montgomery led the troops, but I'd rather have a good chat with Clifton-James
on 2 September 2007
As improbable as it seems, Hitler sent a panzer division and 50,000 troops to the south of France just before the Normandy invasion. Hitler did it because he was so impressed by the performance of a second-string actor who up to May, 1944, was most proud of his lead role as Charley's Aunt in British regional rep. In this case, however, M. E. Clifton-James was playing Bernard Montgomery. Clifton-James bore an uncanny resemblance to the field marshall. When MI5 realized this, they organized one of the great WWII cons. Up until then, Clifton-James had been a middle-aged, low-ranking officer, in for the duration, who'd wound up in the Royal Army Pay Corps. He was pulled out of that, assigned for a few days to Montgomery's staff posing as an enlisted man so he could secretly study Montgomery's mannerisms and style, then sent as Montgomery first to Gibraltar and then to North Africa. Once there, posing as the field marshall, he attended high-level meetings, reviewed the troops, gave inspiring speeches...and all the while MI5 was insuring that his "secret" visits were being leaked to German intelligence. Would the Germans take the bait and believe Monty was prepping the field for a major landing at the underbelly of Europe? MI5 and Clifton-James had their answer when German fighters attacked the transport carrying the false Monty to another North African location. Then German commandos arriving by sub managed to kidnap "Montgomery" and move him to the beach before British soldiers (in the movie, two good-looking officers, one played by John Mills) daringly rescue the actor, who by now had fainted.
All true? Well, supposedly, most of it. I'd take the kidnapping and the rescue with a grain of salt. Clifton-James after the war wrote his auto-biography titled "I Was Monty's Double" and it sold briskly. He was 46 during the seven weeks of his training and impersonation. MI5 kept him in seclusion in Cairo until after the Normandy invasion, then returned him to duty in England in the Pay Corps. He probably never had a better role, and certainly never a more important one, in his life. He was 60 when the movie was made and died five years later. He carries off playing himself very well. He holds his own with John Mills as the fictional Major Harvey and Cecil Parker as the fictional Colonel Logan. Parker runs the scam; Mills makes sure Clifton-James doesn't lose his nerve and stays with him during training and in North Africa. This being a sort-of Mills war movie, Mills is cheery, competent and loaded with upper-class confidence, either when trying to rekindle an old love while on leave or gunning down a large group of tough German commandos.
The tone of the movie, with a screenplay by Bryan Forbes, is one of British insouciance, the undertaking of deadly serious actions with under-played bravery and deprecating humor. Some of the humor comes from cracks made by Mills as Major Harvey about actors' vanity. The last 20 minutes of the movie turns into a more standard war story with a midnight beach landing, silent knifings, an attack in the waves and bullets flying on the beach. The movie regains its footing of good cheer at the close.
I Was Monty's Double may not be an unknown war classic, but it's a well-made, well-scripted and well-acted movie. M. E. Clifton-James turns out to be a sympathetic and even endearing person, something that would never be said about Montgomery. The DVD looks quite good.