The anti-British lie at the heart of Oscar favourite Argo
Ben Affleck's film about Tehran hostage rescue suggests Brits turned US fugitives away. Not true
BEN AFFLECK'S thriller about the 1979 rescue from Tehran of six American diplomats who managed to slip away from the US Embassy when it was stormed by Iranian militants (including a young Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) won best picture and best director at the Baftas earlier this month and is tipped for best picture at the Oscars this Sunday.
The film is based on a first-hand account of the rescue by the Hispanic American CIA agent Tony Menendez (played by the Episcopalian New Englander Affleck) who cooks up a plan to smuggle the American fugitives to safety by pretending they are location managers for a fake Canadian sci-fi film – with the working title Argo – complete with fake offices in Hollywood in case the Iranians checked up.
It's a brilliant film but I hope it crashes and burns on Oscar night – because there is a startling, insulting lie at the heart of it about our country and countrymen that Bafta graciously overlooked.
"Brits turned them away, Kiwis turned them away," says Jack O'Donnell, a senior CIA man played by Bryan Cranston in the film. Just one snag: Our Man in Tehran didn't do anything of the sort – nor did the New Zealanders.
After slipping out of the overrun American Embassy, the six fugitives initially headed for the British Embassy a few blocks away, but it too was surrounded by a baying mob. Instead, some of them made it to another British diplomatic compound in the north of the city where they were taken in before being dispersed to safer Canadian locations, while the CIA organised the clever and daring 'exfiltration' plan that forms the basis of the film.
Robert G Anders, the unofficial leader of the six, now in his late 80s, tried to put the record straight in a Sunday Telegraph interview when the film came out last October. "That is absolutely incorrect, absolutely untrue," he said of the claim that the Brits turned them away. "They made us very comfortable, the British were very helpful and they helped to move us around to different places after that too.
"If the Iranians were going to start looking for people they would probably look to the British. So it was too risky to stay and we moved on. They put their lives on the line for us. We were all at risk."
Affleck happily admits he has been unfair to both the British and the New Zealanders who also helped out. He changed the story to heighten the feeling of abandonment and aloneness of the small group and did not intend to "diminish" anyone.
That might be excusable – just - if it were a one-off but Hollywood has a long history of "diminishing" British involvement. The Warner Brothers film Objective Burma, starring Errol Flynn and released in February 1945, had to be withdrawn after just a week in British cinemas because it depicted the war against the Japanese in Burma as largely an American affair. In fact, British, Indian and Commonwealth soldiers did most of the fighting. Winston Churchill was appalled. The film wasn't re-released in the UK until 1952 - with a rather limp apology at the end – and was banned in British colonies.
Sadly, it's not just American film-makers who have indulged an anti-British bias. Richard Attenborough's 1977 epic about Arnhem, A Bridge Too Far, paints a glowing picture of can-do American troops delayed by rule-bound chinless wonders from the Guards Armoured Division. Hardly surprising, since the whole thing was bankrolled by American money.
Not content with recycling American propaganda, Attenborough took time to indulge in the ugly reputation destruction of the overall British commander, Lieutenant General Frederick 'Boy' Browning (Dirk Bogarde).
In one scene Major General Roy Urquhart (Sean Connery), the commander on the ground, visits Browning and is astonished by the campness and comfort of his headquarters. The intention of the scene is to contrast Urquhart, efficient fighting soldier devoted to his men, with Browning, foppish, slightly camp REMF, drenched in dubious hair oil and smoking girly cigarettes. It's a powerful scene but entirely dishonest.
In reality, the opposite was true. Browning was a battle-hardened veteran of some of the most bloody hand-to-hand fighting of the Great War.
Commissioned into the Second Battalion Grenadier Guards in October 1915 - Churchill was briefly attached to the same company for training - Browning remained with them at the front for nearly three years, commanding a platoon in the hell of Passchendaele and winning a DSO at Cambrai aged only 22.
Urquhart had little experience at the sharp end having been too young to fight in 1914-18. Indeed, Browning had tried to block his appointment on the grounds of inexperience.
The Browning family thought the treatment unfair and inaccurate. Richard Attenborough did write a letter of apology to Browning's widow, Daphne Du Maurier, but it was too late – the Attenborough/Bogarde distortion has now entered history.
As will Affleck's version of the Brits in Tehran. There isn't much we can do. But if Argo does get the Oscar for best picture, I'll be reciting Tony Menendez's explanation of why they chose the title Argo for their fake sci-fi movie.
He and his CIA buddies based it on an obscene knock, knock joke. 'Knock, knock', 'Who's there?', 'Argo', 'Argo who?', 'Arr...go...f*** yourself.'
Crispin Black's new thriller, 'The Falklands Intercept', is published by Gibson Square