The Imitation Game

By Jon Agar, on 20 November 2014

The Imitation Game is film about the life of Alan Turing, ‘based on real events’ and taking as its main source Andrew Hodges’s biography, The Enigma of Intelligence. It is mostly set at the Government Code and Cypher School, also known as Bletchley Park. It was there that Turing, and many others, gathered to attack German coded messages.
The cultural interest in Bletchley Park has several motivations. There is the tragic story of Turing himself. Most powerfully Turing’s life and work has become an icon and rallying point in LGBT politics. This interest has motivated the best historical work on Turing in the form of Hodges’ extraordinary biography. (Here’s my UCL LGBT history week public lecture on Turing, very much in praise of Hodges’ account.) Second, there is the attraction of the secret, compounded by the fact that a silence, partly officially but also partly self-imposed, around Bletchley Park activities lasted until the 1970s (not the ’50 years’ after 1945 claimed by the film). The subsequent rush of information, all the more emotionally-charged for having been pent up so long, has given Bletchley Park extraordinary prominence. Third, there is a narrative, inflected with nationalism, that celebrates Bletchley Park as a distinctively British contribution to the defeat of Nazism: it was by brain-power not brute production (undercutting claims that it Russian and American contributions that were decisive), it is presented as amateur (it was anything but), and it is nostalgic.
At Bletchley Park, the signals intelligence, collected by outlying stations was channelled, and made subject to cryptanalytical attack. The messages coded using the Enigma machines were subject to human and machine (‘bombe’) analysis. The messages encrypted using a cipher machine codenamed ‘Tunny’ were processed by Colossus, the extraordinary electronic valve-based symbol-manipulating machine designed and built by the General Post Office team under Thomas H. Flowers. The first Colossus was built in 1943. Ten Colossi were in operation by 1945.

We should remember that Bletchley Park was an industrial operation: large-scale, a focus on speed and flow, with innovation and mechanisation at reverse salients. I made this observation in The Government Machine (2003). Other historians agree. Aldrich writes of the wartime sigint sites: ‘All of them were symptomatic of an industrial revolution in secret intelligence: both Bletchley Park and the outstations operated like factories, with three gruelling shifts each day’. Copeland describes the ‘two vast steel-framed buildings’ that housed the Colossi as ‘a factory dedicated to breaking Tunny’.

The Imitation Game gives little sense of this scale of operations.

But most of the complaints about the film’s inaccuracies have focussed elsewhere. Alex von Tunzwelmann has written an ace (pun intended) take down of The Imitation Game in a Guardian blog piece. She says, rightly, that the film missteps in many ways: presenting the revelation of the death of schoolfriend/object of desire Christopher Morcom to Turing as cold and brutal; misrepresenting Turing’s honesty with Joan Clarke about his homosexuality; inventing that Turing called the Bombe and later machines ‘Christopher’; and, by placing the spy John Cairncross in Turing’s team, suggesting that Turing was suspected at Bletchley Park as a Soviet spy.

There are plenty of other factual errors, from the major (Turing did not build a replica Manchester Mark I computer in his home, let alone call it ‘Christopher’) to the minor (Hugh Alexander, cryptananalyst and chess champ, did not attack the Bombe with a spanner).

But, I asked on twitter, do the historical inaccuracies matter when the bigger dramatic points work?

So far everyone – @rmathematicus, @HPSGlonk, @JamesBSumner, @NicksFlickPicks and @alexvtunzelmann – has said ‘yes’.

I think ‘no’, for this reason. The Imitation Game, aside from tragedy, is a dramatisation of Hodges’ central argument, that the cause of Turing’s profound inquiry into the materialisation of mind was the trauma of Morcom’s death. The scenes with ‘Christopher’ the machine, however much invented, run with this insight and present it as a cinematic, not documentary, truth. It is present too in the final scenes – also fantasy – in which the conflicted police detective (played by Rory Kinnear) has Benedict Cumberbatch take the Turing Test, an imitation game in which the impossible bind of hiding or revealing homosexuality is equivalent to saying or not saying a mind can be a machine.

If that was the biggest point, then The Imitation Game, despite its inventions, dramatised it well.