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The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Just when you think they’ve run out of real-life World War II stories to turn into blockbuster movies, some documents get declassified, inspiring or at least suggesting new sagas of heroism. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” about a small mission of Allied fighters killing Nazis on a grand scale wherever they go, directed by Guy Ritchie from a script by Ritchie, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, and Arash Amel, claims as source material information that only became available after some secret history stuff was declassified in 2016. It also happens to be, according to its credits, based on a book by Damien Lewis called Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperados of World War II, which was published in 2014. As it happens, a book by Giles Milton called The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare was published in 2017, but apparently not used for this movie.

Confused? Imagine how I felt when the film itself purports to open in 1942, and yet features its fictionalized Winston Churchill (Rory Kinnear) complaining about the United States’ reluctance to join the war. Like Pearl Harbor never happened! Granted, it only happened in December of 1941, and this picture opens in January of 1942, and after its crowd-pleasing Nazi-slaughtering opening scene in which Our Heroes, big-chested and bushy-faced and looking like they stepped out of a 1960s Jack Kirby comic (the pictures of the real-life figures rolled out before the closing credits are of weedier, paler Brits), dispatch  not just a small squad but an entire gunship from their innocent looking “fishing boat,” there’s a title card reading “25 days before” and I’m sitting there doing math in my head and is it adding up ... ?

My advice to you if you’re going to watch this picture is to forget about these things. And, anyway, Churchill’s movie point has more to do with the Atlantic being stocked with German U-boats, which will likely blast any American ship bearing supplies or personnel right out of the water. British military intelligence, here represented by Cary Elwes and Freddie Fox (who plays Ian Fleming, and, yes, it’s the Ian Fleming; the movie makes a point at the end of telling us that the derring-do we’ve just witnessed and the folks who perpetrated it directly inspired his spy novels and James Bond and all that) concoct a scheme in which a special ops force will sail down to the Gulf of Guinea and take out a ship packed with supplies for the aforementioned U-boats. Without supplies, the subs can’t function and hence the shipping-across-the-Atlantic problem gets at least temporarily solved.

The movie goes for a “Dirty Dozen”/“Inglorious Basterds” vibe. Henry Cavill, extravagantly bearded and mustached, plays Gus March Phillips, first presented to the brass in shackles. After sampling their brandy and stealing their cigars, he puts together his crew, all of them apparent rebels and reprobates and rule-breakers, and which includes one really big-chested guy (Alan Richson) who’s a master archer. What good is a master archer in a firefight, you might ask. Well, you can take out Nazis in guard towers in relative silence with such weapons, which helps when you’re breaking out a team member who’s been imprisoned by the Germans. There’s also the requisite explosive expert, and so on. (Among the players of these mayhem-makers are Henry Golding and Alex Pettyfer.) On the ground a femme fatale played by Eiza Gonzalez and an undercover agent who operates a casino bar near the port (Babs Olusanmokun) conspire to distract the Nazis tending the targeted ship.

Unlike Alex Garland’s “Civil War,” “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is commendably upfront about its politics. That is, it’s extremely anti-Nazi. No prevarication here. Germans exist in this film pretty much only to be shot (with bullets and arrows) or stabbed (multiple times and in the most sensitive-to-stabbing corporeal locations) to death. Sometimes before they die, they deliver smug Nazi speeches, which gives their subsequent horrible painful deaths an added thrill. And while “The Dirty Dozen” and scores of other WWII movies bowed to the sacrifices of life and limb made by Our Own Fighting Forces, “Ministry” makes a point of … well, not to give too much away, but every time one of its heroic fighters seems in a spot, the danger is only there to reveal an ingenious way of getting them out of it. If World War II itself had gone this smoothly, the Allies would have made it to Berlin before “Casablanca” got its wide release. (That would be January of 1943.)

While the action and suspense set pieces are executed with typical Ritchie bravura, the movie falls flat a lot of the time in between. Despite its four credited screenwriters, there’s not much verbal crackle at play—this is a largely British production in which its characters signal their Britishness by calling things “bloody this” and “bloody that” mostly. And the historical oddities do continue to grate even after you’ve resolved to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. The sexually sadistic (of course) Nazi officer played here by Til Schwieger (speaking of “Inglourious Basterds”) entertains Gonzalez’s character by playing her a recording of “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” which we know as “Mack the Knife”; later in the picture, Gonzalez sings a (mostly) English version of the song. Given that the songs co-composers Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were expelled from Germany in 1933 (Weill was Jewish, Brecht a commie) the notion of a Nazi favoring that tune seems farfetched (and “The Threepenny Opera,” the satirical musical from which it was derived, was banned by the Third Reich). Brecht and Weill themselves would likely blanche at the notion of a Nazi being entertained by their work. But that’s what passes for cheeky iconoclasm these days I suppose.

 

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare movie poster

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare (2024)

Rated R

120 minutes

Cast

Henry Cavill as Gus March-Phillips

Eiza González as Marjorie Stewart

Alan Ritchson as Anders Lassen

Henry Golding as Freddy Alvarez

Alex Pettyfer as Geoffrey Appleyard

Director

Screenplay

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