The Man Who Never Was

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This article is about the 1956 film. For other uses, see The Man Who Never Was (disambiguation).
The Man Who Never Was
The Man Who Never Was.jpg
Directed by Ronald Neame
Produced by André Hakim
Written by Ewen Montagu (book)
Screenplay by Nigel Balchin
Based on The Man Who Never Was (1953 book)
Starring Clifton Webb
Gloria Grahame
Robert Flemyng
Music by Alan Rawsthorne
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Edited by Peter Taylor
Sumar Productions
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date
15 March 1956 (1956-03-15) (London)
Running time
103 min.
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The Man Who Never Was is a 1956 Second World War film, based on the book of the same name by Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu and dramatising actual events. The film was directed by Ronald Neame and starred Clifton Webb, Gloria Grahame and Robert Flemyng. It is about Operation Mincemeat, a 1943 British Intelligence plan to deceive the Axis powers into thinking Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily, would take place elsewhere.

It was entered into the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.[1] Nigel Balchin's screenplay won the BAFTA for that year.


In 1943, Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) comes up with a scheme to deceive the Nazis about the impending invasion of southern Europe. It entails releasing a dead body just off the coast of Spain, where strong currents will almost certainly cause it to drift ashore in an area where a skilled German secret agent is known to operate. The corpse will appear to be the victim of an airplane crash, the non-existent Royal Marine Major William Martin, who is carrying letters that describe a forthcoming Allied invasion of Greece, rather than the obvious target of Sicily. Time is short, but the impatient Montagu is finally given approval to carry out the mission.

On the advice of a medical expert, Montagu procures the body of a man who died of pneumonia (so that he will seem to have drowned) from the grieving father. Then, after proper preparations, he and his assistant, Lt. Acres (Robert Flemyng), take the corpse (concealed in a canister) to a waiting submarine. The submarine evades a depth-charge attack and later surfaces at night to release the body. As hoped, it washes ashore. Montagu is at first disappointed when it appears that the documents were not tampered with, but an expert assures him one of the letters was cleverly opened and resealed.

Hitler is convinced the document is genuine, but the German officer in charge of intelligence is skeptical. He orders an IRA Nazi spy Patrick O'Reilly (Stephen Boyd) dispatched to London to investigate. What he uncovers is inconclusive, in his mind, until he checks out Martin's "fiancée", Lucy Sherwood (Gloria Grahame). She is actually the roommate of Montagu's assistant, Pam (Josephine Griffin). O'Reilly shows up at their flat, posing as Martin's friend. By chance, Lucy has that same day received news that her real boyfriend has been killed in action, so her genuine grief mostly convinces O'Reilly. As a final test, however, he leaves the address of his lodgings with her, telling her to contact him if she needs anything. He then radios his superiors to expect a message from him in an hour, then waits to see if British counterintelligence comes for him. Montagu almost makes a mistake, but realises in time why O'Reilly left his address and, with some difficulty, convinces his superior to order that O'Reilly be left alone. Convinced, the Germans transfer some of their forces to Greece.

After the war, Montagu leaves a medal he was awarded at the grave of the man who never was.


Historical accuracy[edit]

Operation Mincemeat involved the acquisition and dressing up of a human cadaver as a "Major William Martin, R.M." and putting it into the sea near Huelva, Spain. Attached to the dead body was a brief-case containing fake letters falsely stating that the Allied attack would be against Sardinia and Greece rather than Sicily, the actual point of invasion. When the body was found, with all the false pocket litter data, the Spanish Intelligence Service passed copies of the papers to the German Intelligence Service which passed them on to their High Command. The ruse was so successful that the Germans still believed that Sardinia and Greece were the intended objectives, weeks after the landings in Sicily had begun.

The screenplay of the film stayed as close to the truth as was convenient, with the remainder being fiction. For example, the Irish spy in the film is a complete fabrication. Ewen Montagu declared that he was happy with the fictitious incidents which, although they did not happen, might have happened. During filming, Montagu has a cameo role, that of a Royal Air Force air vice-marshal who has doubts about the feasibility of the proposed plan. It was described[by whom?] as a "surreal" moment when the real Montagu addressed his fictional persona, played by Webb.[citation needed]


The film earned an estimated $1.1 million in North American rentals in 1956.[2]

The Goon Show[edit]

The BBC's popular radio comedy show, The Goon Show, made a send-up of the story of The Man Who Never Was and incorporated most of the regular Goon Show characters. Written by Spike Milligan and Larry Stephens, it was broadcast on 20 March 1956 and remade later and broadcast on 17 February 1958. Coincidentally, Peter Sellers (one of the Goons) provided the voice of Winston Churchill in the film, although the character did not appear in The Goon Show adaptation.


  1. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Man Who Never Was". Retrieved 2009-02-04. 
  2. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956', Variety Weekly, 2 January 1957

External links[edit]