The anti-British lie at the heart of Oscar favourite Argo

Feb 22, 2013
Crispin Black

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

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Argo is not a brilliant movie. All the award show buzz seems to be lulling writers and critics alike into some kind of alternative universe where this film didn't come out several months ago and only did so-so, but that's the truth of the matter. It's not a bad film - it's pretty solid for a first shot out, but it is in no way great. There is no connection created with any of the characters at all. It relies entirely on the conceit of 'will they, won't they?' which, spoiler in case you aren't aware of history, they do. And they do it by creating some severely implausible scenarios for drama. Affleck himself as the main character seems to have given himself one note only... 'walk around acting depressed for the entirety of the film'. So all you're left with is a bit of Keystone cop caper... kind of fun, a little suspenseful and not a total waste of several hours.

Affleck you are an arsehole to come out with that lie I hope I never have the misfortune to work with you

Yeah. Imagine how the Serbs and Russians must feel about holywood movies! Or the Romanians about horsemeat palaver...

Argo is obviously vintage Hollywood. Roosevelt told Hollywood directors not to make any criticism of Hitler for fear of offending the 5' 2" corporal. All the directors complied with the exception of Charlie Chaplin (and he was born in Britain).

Some film-makers.

not really at the heart though is it? more a detail glossed over to make a more dramatic film. the producer guy was made up for the film too, why dont you complain about that? does being angry about inconsequential things pay well or something? you should get a job at the daily mail.

Americans must be rather short of real heroes. They stole the heroism of the Poles who risked their lives to obtain Enigma code books from a sinking U-boat; the whole "Great Escape" nonsense featuring Americans was mostly about British and commonwealth escapees, but of course that would be of little interest to a US audience. "Gangs of New York" denigrated us and they make a hero of men like George Custer who was an evil strutting peacock who slaughtered many innocent people. I am sick of Americans twisting history to glorify themselves. No wonder Americans are so ignorant when they take history lessons from Hollywood.

Lets not forget Saving Private Ryan and the airbrushing out of British landing craft & anything 'historical' by Mel Gibson. The truth is that an influential minority in the US wish us harm, just ask their President.

The best a movie can do is cast light on a part of history the viewer knew little or nothing about. Then, maybe they will be interested enough to find out more and discover the truth for themselves.

youve made a hugely embarrassing blunder here Crispin. Attenborough got into real trouble over 'a bridge too far' for underplaying the american effort generally but specifically boosting Robert Redford's role and in the process insulting a great american hero. The dvd version of the film i saw contained an extended apology to this individual, including footage of the individual in question telling his own true story. The fiasco nearly destroyed attenborough's career. You need to re-write the article, after doing some preper research. delete this comment as soon as you've read it , is my advice

Re. "Objective Burma" when I was doing Nat. Service in 1956, I met a Sergeant who was in Wingate's Chindits in Burma, named after the Chindwin river I think. After the film was shown he told me that the Quartermaster who left the film early, stood outside the camp cinema , snipping off small pieces from a roll of Burma Star ribbon and presenting it to and American military who came out.