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Several Observations Regarding The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Several Observations Regarding The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

It’s that time of year again. There’s a new Guy Ritchie film in theaters. Last year, I went to the movies and experienced the soul-warming balm of the nearly-incoherent heist movie Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, and this year, I wanted to experience that again.

So, I took myself to see Ritchie’s new film, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, which seemed like it would be a heist story set during World War II.  When the movie began, a title card flashed that said the film was based on true events, and I was like, right, it’s based on the factual event of World War II. But I wasn’t open-minded enough. Turns out, the film is specifically based on a real-life and very cockamamie WWII mission called “Operation Postmaster” that was only declassified in 2016. Upon learning that, I wondered for a moment why Ritchie had not called the film “Operation Postmaster,” but then I remembered that his movie last year was called “Operation Fortune,” and it’s a known fact that you can’t have two operations so close together.

Speaking of which… I was surprised to hear about the existence of “Operation Postmaster” because of that very rule! The British are already known for an absolutely bananas, top-secret WWII mission to turn the tide of the war: Operation Mincemeat. I have read the book Operation Mincemeat, seen the movie Operation Mincemeat, and seen the West End stage musical Operation Mincemeat, and I thought that this was the only absolutely insane, t0tally confidential war operation that the British had pulled off. But no, turns out there’s another one, too. And that’s the one this movie is about. Clearly, the educational merits of The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare are manifold.

I was surprised to learn anything from this movie because, truthfully, I’ve never learned anything from a mid-career Guy Ritchie movie besides the fact that I really like a movie in which bad guys carrying guns have slower reaction times than the good guy who is carrying just one knife. I like a movie about a heist team made up of several hulking, wisecracking men and a single cool woman! I like a movie where something goes wrong with the plan that a crew has meticulously worked out to the very last detail and now they have to improvise a whole new plan and it works anyway. I want a large body count provided by the same stuntmen over and over and you can actually tell, you’re like “oh that’s the guy who got nailed with the fishhook in the opening” or whatever. I like a movie where people are so British, they can barely speak English. I like a movie with a cast that includes Cary Elwes. I like all this, and Guy Ritchie has never not given it all to me.

What is The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare about? It almost doesn’t matter! But I’ll explain anyway. Henry Cavill plays G.H. “Gus” March-Phillips, a military officer of some kind who’s currently serving jail time because he doesn’t play by the rules. This is great news. I also love a movie in which no one follows the rules. If someone follows the rules, I will walk out.

Anyway, Winston Churchill (Rory Kinnear, only I didn’t realize that he was supposed to be Winston Churchill for like 2/3rds of the movie because he doesn’t look or sound like Winston Churchill and why would you cast Rory Kinnear as Winston Churchill?) and Cary Elwes, who plays a military commander they call “M,” want March-Phillips to lead a secret, unofficial, unsanctioned, and illegal renegade mission. It’s very cool. He has to take a crew down to the Atlantic-side African island of Fernando Po, where the Nazis are keeping a giant ship that they use to store all their equipment to maintain the U-boats which patrol the Atlantic Ocean. The plethora of U-boats has been preventing American ships from bringing aid to Britain and the Allies. So, if March-Phillips blows up that ship, the Brits will basically stymie the Nazi control over the Atlantic. Sounds like a plan!

March-Phillips says he’s down to help, but he needs a badass crew. He has a few guys in mind: an Irish firearms virtuoso who hates the Nazis (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), an explosives weirdo (Henry Golding), a Swedish one-man-killing-machine (Alan Ritchson), and his best friend, Geoffrey Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer), I guess because they’re best friends. So, the British government is like, hm okay, we’ll let you include these guys as long as you add to your team 1.) this really cool agent (Babs Olusanmokun) who has set up a contact in Fernando Po already, and 2.) a very sexy woman (Eiza Gonzalez) who knows how to do everything and who will have a million costume changes despite traveling with only one small valise. March-Phillips is like, you drive a hard bargain, but you’ve got a deal.

So then, yeah, they all go to Fernando Po and pull off the mission. Eventually, March-Phillips recruits another cool guy, Kambili “Billy” Kalu (Danny Sapani), who has his own crew of cool guys, and they all join in together. There are snags that require some fancy-footwork, and a Nazi or two that Eiza Gonzalez has to seduce, but they all overcome all these obstacles. Honestly, it doesn’t even seem that hard.

And that’s it, that’s the whole movie. There is no complicated multi-act structure. There are no sophisticated themes. There is absolutely no character development. And that’s fine! Who needs character development? This is a movie about several tough men and a very cool woman who go on a journey to kill Nazis and sabotage their large-scale plans for World Domination. I fail to see how anyone could develop character beyond that, anyway! And sure, sometimes the action scenes are a little confusing, like it’s hard to know where the characters are, exactly, in relation to each other. But you know what, that’s also fine! They know! The characters know. When I watch a Guy Ritchie movie, I’m not going to backseat drive. I know we’re going to get where we’re supposed to go and I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense. Everyone involved appears to be having a bloody great time, and so am I. The only thing that would have made this movie more enjoyable is if I were also eating an entire family-size bag of Doritos.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is a chipper extravaganza of nonsense black-ops, a jolly-diverting entrant in the canon of “Nazi killing” movies. It’s like if The Dirty Dozen weren’t gritty or unhinged. Actually, it is a great movie for people who wanted to watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds but were worried that it might be too shocking and bloody.

And, you know what? I learned stuff from this movie. One thing I’ll say seriously is that we as a country are not taught enough about the Nazi occupation of Africa and this movie reminded me to go do more research on that topic. But, and I’m returning to being unserious now, perhaps the thing I learned the most from The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is that the guys who ran MI5 or whatever during the 1940s probably had the same psychological profile as Guy Ritchie—a flair for dramatic narrative and a devil-may-care attitude about the finer points of execution. It all checks out.

Overall, I had a great time. I do have a few questions, though. I’ve laid them out as follows.

  • There are a million scenes of people being obsessed with their gold cigarette lighters. British brigadiers, scrappy agents, Nazi scum… they’re all yanking out and flicking open their cigarette lighters, even when no one is lighting anything. Why is that?
  • Literally, though, why did they cast Rory Kinnear as Winston Churchill? Actually, let me rephrase this. Why did they cast Rory Kinnear, a man who doesn’t look a thing like Winston Churchill, as Winston Churchill and not Darkest Hour-the hell out of him, prosthetics-wise? He’s clearly wearing some makeup, but it is not enough and therefore doesn’t work. Why would they not lean into the physical “Winston Churchill”-ness of the character of Winston Churchill? Aren’t there like six hundred Winston Churchill-looking actors just walking around London? Why wasn’t one of them captured and brought to set?
    • Honestly, “Rory Kinnear” is an even weirder cast because (while he’s a talented actor and deserves widespread recognition), he’s not famous enough for this to be some fun, forgivable stunt casting.
    • You know who they should have cast, if they wanted to do stunt casting for Winston Churchill? Mike Myers. I think that would have been great.
  • At one point in the film, Eiza Gonzalez wears this denim outfit that appears to be a tight-fitting romper, but is revealed to be a set of separates; a tiny, midriff-bearing jacket and high-waisted pants. Is this outfit historically accurate? I’m not being an asshole; I really want to know. Because it’s really cool.
  • When does it come out on DVD?