Truth and fiction in The Imitation Game, the movie based upon Alan Turing’s enigmatic life and death
We’d been waiting to watch it ever since we first saw the trailer 6 months ago. Even the two month lag between the movie’s international release and its arrival in Indian theatres failed to sway us towards you-know-what : this was a movie made for the big screen. When we finally watched it, we liked it almost as much as Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones (Meghan O’Keefe speaks for all Cumberbitches when she declares that “Mr. Cumberbatch’s cheekbones are so high and so valleyed that they’ve sliced their way not just into the psyches of his fans, but his screenwriters.”).
But The Imitation Game left us with far more questions than answers. We knew about the widely held belief that the goings-on at Bletchley Park – especially the cracking of Enigma and the holding back of this success from the Germans – rescued the British from near-imminent starvation and defeat in World War II. We were also aware of Alan Turing’s reputation as the father of Artificial Intelligence and the famous Turing Test, though we were ignorant of the finer aspects of his life. But did Turing name the Enigma cracking machine in memory of his first love? Was he really suspected of being a Russian spy? And most intriguing of all, why do we know so little about Joan Clarke, the cryptographer who, it seems, was indispensable to Turing’s life and success?
So while we await our copy of Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma and resist Amazon’s “suggestion” that we read this Kindle single, we discovered some excellent sources of information: a fantastic comparison between the movie and the book that inspired the movie; this blogpost by London-based Science Museum, an honours research project on the life of Joan Clarke and the 1992 BBC documentary on Turing. Here’s what we learnt:
Christopher vs. Christopher
It is true that Turing was a loner at school and that Christopher Morcam was Turing’s first love (though the devotion was probably one-sided), but the machine that Turing created at Bletchley Park was not called Christopher. In fact, it was called Bombe, named after an earlier Polish version called bomba. Turing not only designed an improved version of the original Bombe , he also created a new code-breaking technique called Banburismus, which is believed to be the first instance of Sequential Analysis and was critical to the success with Enigma. Nonetheless, it seems almost certain that Christopher continued to be an inspiration to Turing and his work:
Christopher’s death inspired him to look very seriously into what modern science was saying about the nature of the mind, how the mind could be embodied in the physical world
What about the romance between Turing and Joan Clarke? Contrary to what is shown in the movie, Turing did not hire Joan through his 6 minute crossword test (in fact, it is doubtful whether Turing ever had such a test. According to this Turing expert, The Telegraph ran a 12 minute crossword competition, winners of which were approached for a job at Bletchley). Also, Turing did not propose to Clarke simply to keep her from returning home to get hitched. The affection and subsequent engagement between Turing and Clarke is real, as is Clarke’s remarkable chutzpah upon being informed of Turing’s homosexuality. Watch this delightful extract from the BBC documentary in which the real Clarke talks about their engagement:
From Russia, With Love
The opening sequence of The Imitation Game shows Detective Robert Nock aka Rory Kinnear suspecting Turing of being a Russian spy after a break-in at Turing’s apartment. It is Nock’s doggedness that leads to the discovery of Turing’s homosexuality and his subsequent prosecution. In real life, Turing was never suspected of being a Russian spy, though there was a petty theft at his apartment which led to the police arresting him for violating the prevailing law of indecency.
As for the curious case of John Cairncross, a member of Turing’s code-breaking team who was also a Russian spy, while it is true that there was a real Cairncross at Bletchley who spied for the Russians, he never worked directly with Turing. So the Russian angle shown in the movie is largely fictitious.
Keira Knightley’s feisty Joan Clarke is not far removed from the real Joan Elisabeth Lowther Murray (née Clarke), who was made Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1947 for her role in the War. Clarke was not just the sole female Banburist (code breaker) at Bletchley, she was accomplished enough to be made Deputy Head of Hut 8 (where Turing and his team worked) at a time when women were considered suitable only for clerical roles. She was also a feminist – by all accounts, she refused to pass judgement on Turing’s homosexuality and even agreed to continue their engagement, believing that their shared passions would compensate for diminished physical intimacy. As her obituary rightly observes:
She is remembered as “one of the really good cryptanalysts” of GCHQ who was liked and admired by colleagues throughout her long and dedicated career.
Homosexuality and The Second Sex
Aside from honouring Turing’s conflicted genius, The Imitation Game is also a reminder of the progress we have made on rights for women and the LGBT community. Turing committed suicide because he had to undergo chemical castration to “cure” his homosexual tendencies – same-sex sexual activity was considered sinful during the early 20th century, and was decriminalized in the United Kingdom between 1967 and 1982. The British have moved on but we in India continue to encourage this prehistoric thinking – sex between persons of the same gender is punishable under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, an unfortunate legacy of British rule in India.
As for gender equality, Joan Clarke earned a double first class (first class honours in two subjects of the same course) in mathematics at Cambridge, but was denied a full degree because, hold you breath, Cambridge University awarded degrees only to men at that time. Thankfully the policy was abolished in 1948, and as we shared on Facebook a couple of days ago, it’s time to stop talking about “Girls’ brains are better suited to..” because:
A study published in Intelligence looked at the academic achievements of 15-year-olds in countries around the world from 2000-2010 and found that girls performed better than boys in fully 70% of countries surveyed while only falling behind in 4%
Image courtesy: The Western Gazette