The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Was Monty's Double

World War II produced its fair share of personalities on all sides, both good and bad.  They were bigger than life people from the high-ranking generals like Patton to the more common soldier like Audie Murphy or JFK who rose to heroic levels through their actions.  The obvious charisma, machismo, whatever you want to call it, translates well to the movies so viewers get the chance to see the Pattons, the Kennedys in their war exploits.  But what about someone who impersonated one of those heroes?  That's 1958's I Was Monty's Double, AKA Hell, Heaven or Hoboken. 

Maybe one of the most famous British generals in history, Bernard Montgomery is also one of the more controversial figures from the war. For all his positives as a general, there's two or three things you could counter with in an equally negative light.  He was egotistical beyond all belief and often made decisions that would benefit him more than his army, his staff or even the war effort, in the process driving Supreme Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower absolutely crazy.  An interesting figure if there ever was, Monty's fame and influence play heavily into this 1958 British war picture.  Of course, it was the 1950s and Monty was still alive so this isn't exactly the most factual retelling of a true story.

Early in 1944, two British intelligence agents, Major Harvey (John Mills) and Colonel Logan (Cecil Parker) concoct a plan that could heavily influence the amount of lives saved during the coming invasion. One night at the theater, Harvey sees a General Montgomery impersonator and an idea is formed.  What if the Allies could use this impersonator and have him travel to Gibraltar and North Africa, hoping to trick the Germans into thinking the coming invasion will come from the south and not at the actual Normandy location.  Harvey and Logan work with the actor (M.E. Clifton James, playing himself) to get the mannerisms, the characteristics of the famous general down, and quickly enough, he's the spitting image of Monty.  But that's just for practice.  Can he pull off the ruse in public, even with people who've personally met the general?

Based on a true story -- James actually did impersonate Montgomery during the war in 1944 -- director John Guillermin's movie has a quasi-documentary feel to it.  For such a serious topic though, the tone is often surprisingly comical (and not in a good way).  Much of James' transformation is played for laughs with an oddly out of place musical score from composer John Addison. A story about an Aussie actor posing as one of the war's most recognizable faces leans toward a more serious subject matter if you ask me.  It's never straight slapstick or anything, and the humor is fairly subtle, but it felt grossly out of place for me in an otherwise quality movie.

Even 13 years since the end of the war, James still resembles General Montgomery and right off the bat the movie starts off on a positive note because of his casting.  The guy actually passed for this most famous of generals, convincing the German High Command to move over 60,000 and a Panzer division to the south because German agents saw James making appearances in Gibraltar and North Africa.  Playing himself, James is very natural, a man who questions if he can perform this most epic of performances.  As a viewer, you feel for him in this odd predicament.  He may not have carried a gun on the front lines like so many millions of soldiers, but his actions showed a different bravery.  He displayed a courage that saved the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers.

So when a movie's title describes your character, the movie basically sinks or swims with that person.  James is perfect playing himself, but Mills and Parker are extremely key characters to go along with the lead.  Neither part is especially flashy as the British duo tackle the more workmanlike roles that keep the story chugging along.  Mills gets more screen time as Major Harvey and doesn't disappoint.  Once James goes out as Montgomery, Mills' Harvey poses as an adjutant always by his side, always there to help him out in a pinch.  The more I see of John Mills, the more a fan I become, and this is another solid part.  Parker is given less to do but nails the part of the stiff upper lip, highly sophisticated, smooth British agent.  Barbara Hicks has a good part too as the secretary who helps arrange this ambitious spy game.

When at its best, 'Double' deals with the high-wire act James and his support team go through.  One slip-up and the whole thing goes down the drain with disastrous consequences.  The 2nd half of the movie when James steps up to the plate is the more exciting half obviously, including one fictionalized account of a possible German commando mission to kidnap "Monty."  Fictional maybe, but it's an exciting ending with a good build-up to a genuinely funny final line.  A true story and generally a forgotten one, but a good movie nonetheless.

I Was Monty's Double <---TCM clips (1958): ***/****    

No comments:

Post a Comment