Here’s another curiosity I came across thanks to an assignment from Turner Classic Movies, all the more fascinating because it’s all true (well, most of it anyway). Music hall actor Meyrick Clifton James really did impersonate General Bernard Montgomery in a British plot to distract Nazi intelligence during the lead-up to D-Day, and he plays himself in the film based on his memoir, which screenwriter Bryan Forbes and director John Guillerman saw fit to enhance with added drama and action that never actually happened. It’s not a great film but it is an interesting historical curiosity and a great gimmick, and perhaps most interesting for the fact that James is rather bland on screen until he inhabits the Monty role, where he suddenly fills out with confidence and authority.
While James is the subject of the film I Was Monty’s Double, 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 and solidified his reputation in David Lean’s Great Expectations as one of the class acts of British filmmaking. 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.
See the complete feature at TCM here. I Was Monty’s Double (which is not on DVD) plays on Sunday, August 22 as part of a day-long tribute to John Mills.