Even though World War II started more than seven decades ago, nearly the same temporal distance to today that the American Civil War was to World War II, the war’s legacy endures today, particularly so at the movies. For Steven Knight, the British screenwriter of Allied, which opens this week, the war’s permanence in popular culture is partly attributable to the seemingly unambiguous nature of the fight between the Nazis and the Allies.
“In World War II, the Allies were fighting against a clear force of evil, which can’t exactly be said of any situation since. It was the last time of clear, dependable global good and bad, if you see a character in a Nazi uniform, you know what they stand for,” says Knight, who also wrote Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, and was the creator of television series Peaky Blinders. But what happens, when deception and spy craft enter the frame, and the villains are not wearing a uniform? Allied explores that foggy battlefield, but how much of what happens on the screen is true to life? As far as Knight is concerned, “I think when writing a film, the notion that something should be ‘historically accurate’ is often more about being accurate to what historians have written.”
Unlike other “based on a true story” movies, where the source material comes from a well-researched book, the inspiration for Allied came to Knight by happenstance. “I was tooling around America some 30 years ago, working in Texas, of all places. Sitting in a backyard, a friend of mine’s auntie said her brother had been a Special Operations Executive (SOE) behind enemy lines during World War II, gotten a French resistor pregnant, later found out she was a spy, and ended up killing her,” says Knight, 57. “It was the kind of story that couldn’t be made up. I always knew that someday it would be a film.”
In a piece written for The Telegraph this week, Knight says he can’t verify the veracity of the story, nor has he ever been able to unearth a reference to the events in any of the books about the SOE he’s read. In his research, Knight found that it’s believed the Germans never breached British security on its home turf. He is hesitant, however, to say the story is made up. By his reasoning, he was basically bumming around at that point in his life, so it wasn’t as though the woman was spinning a yarn in the presence of a famous writer. He also wonders why someone would invent a random family skeleton, and the way she delivered the incredible story struck him as sincere. He writes in The Telegraph, “I also got the distinct impression that the story was being told from a place of deep emotion, a painful memory being shared.”
Cinematic inspiration can arise from the most random of conversations, but Allied also evolved out of Knight’s life growing up in Britain; his family experienced World War II firsthand. His father served in the 8th Army, fighting in North Africa and Palestine, for which he received awards recognizing his valor, But like many men of that era, he never spoke of his experiences, leaving his son in the dark. (“All he ever said was they were playing cowboys and Indians,” Knight says.) Meanwhile, Knight’s mother did battle on the home front, working in an arms factory in Birmingham, the second-most heavily bombed British city by the Luftwaffe. One day, she stayed home to care for Knight’s older brother, who was ill; a bomb hit the factory, killing everyone inside.
Allied is the story of Canadian RAF intelligence officer Max Vatan (played by Brad Pitt), who encounters French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) on a deadly mission in Nazi territory in 1942 North Africa. They fall in love, have quite the steamy time in a car during a sandstorm, and end up married with a baby back in London. Vatan, to his dismay, comes to learn his beloved may have been a German spy all along. It’s a tense film—with nods to Bogart, Bergman, and Hitchcock—crafted around a story that is plausible enough to feel true.
As the latest addition to the World War II-movie genre, Allied evokes an era and feels honest to its time, but it isn’t beholden to specifics, which is where screenwriters and filmmakers get in trouble. Notoriously, 1965’s Battle of the Bulge was so inaccurate that former president and Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower came out of retirement to hold a press conference denouncing the movie. 2001’s Pearl Harbor was hammered by historians for its mistakes both small and large, the most egregious being the “Dr. Strangelove” moment when President Roosevelt (played by Jon Voight), a paraplegic, grimaces and rises up out of his wheelchair to deliver a rousing pep talk to his advisors. It was not supposed to be a comedy.
Allied shares a filmic DNA with Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, a bona fide classic of the spy genera, and succeeds as a combination of truth, fiction, and the unknowable fog of war that falls in between. It isn’t a documentary, so for Knight, what’s important is fidelity to the characters and the story, not to getting everything “right” in so far as we know it today.
“Ten or 20 years after events happen, humans look back and find patterns to make sense of it all, but when living through those times, especially in times of war, things don’t make sense,” says Knight. “It’s chaos and fear, and so much of what happens is random. Here’s an example. There was a British agent, married to a Spaniard and living in London. His wife demanded they move back to Spain. She told her husband if they didn’t leave, ‘I will tell the Germans about D-Day.’ You wouldn’t think that is how a war would be conducted. Imagine the consequences.”
Allied also brings viewers a slice of oft-overlooked wartime existence: the end-of-days revelry by those whose lives may have ended at any moment. Marianne and Max live in the Hampstead neighborhood of London, which was a WWII bohemian haven for Jewish intellectuals, creative refugees from mainland Europe, artists, avant-garde types and other assorted freethinkers and free-lovers. What better way to wait out the Blitz than through a healthy dose of smoking, drinking, and sex?
A long party scene in Allied captures that wild anarchic spirit. As Knight explains with a laugh, “I came across a memoir of a Hampstead fire governor during World War II. A house was bombed and burning and the fire crew came in and a room full of naked people. It was a massive orgy. They kept carrying on as the fire was put out. There’s this idea that all of Britain had the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ stiff-upper-lip attitude. Apparently, some people were more concerned with getting drunk and having sex.”
A firsthand account here, a secondhand story there. Historical evens and locales and random anecdotes join together in Allied, which is a thriller above all else. A screenwriter’s job is to tell the story they want to tell, not adherence to textbooks. And at least one prominent historian agrees that is how it should be.
“Historians will sincerely, patriotically, violently disagree with one another over their interpretation of events, so the idea that there is one ‘historical accuracy’ in itself a fallacy,” says David Culbert, the John L. Loos professor of history at Louisiana State University, and co-editor of World War II, Film, and History with John Whitely Chambers.
“It’s a useful exercise to know what separates a Hollywood depiction of events from what actually happened, but it’s not the only question that needs to be asked. I read a critique of everything that The Monuments Men got wrong. I enjoyed the movie and wasn’t troubled by its degree of fidelity to history. It’s fine to point out the defects, but if everyone learned everything simply by going to Hollywood movies, I’d be out of a job.”
Culbert, in general, says he isn’t a fan of most Hollywood blockbuster portrayals of World War II, saying dismissively that they’re aimed at people who “spend their lives stuck in traffic jams.” He says there are worthwhile films out there for understanding history, starting with Allied’s spiritual ancestor Casablanca, which Culbert singles out for discussing the oft-overlooked subject of Vichy-controlled North Africa. He also admires The Best Years of Our Lives for its depiction of the American home front, but says some of the best World War II movies weren’t made in the United States. He champions the Soviet-made The Fall of Berlin, the German movie The Crew of the Dora, and the British film Millions Like Us, all of which incorporate actual on-the-ground footage.
“I realize these aren’t five-gallon tub of popcorn films,” says Culbert. “The best we can hope for from big-budget movies isn’t accuracy, it’s that they may rouse viewers to learn more of history, which is more important than hashing out the details.”