Thursday, May 23, 2024

Film Review: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

When Germans delve and Britons span, who was then the gentleman?

There is undoubtedly a certain romance to commandos. The very term originally meant not a single individual, but rather a small group of men sent behind enemy lines to cause havoc. It’s a term originally from the Boer War, a war that saw all sorts of horrors brought to the mainstream European and American presses. But the modern archetype doubtlessly comes from World War II, where Allied commandos doubtlessly fought for the good of the world, even if filtered through their own ideologies. Once the domain of a great many pulp stories, magazines, and films, it has come to feel dated in the public’s mind. But Guy Ritchie has decided to serve us another go at this revered old genre in 2024’s The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, distributed by Lionsgate Films, with a script written by Ritchie, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, and Arash Amel.

The film is a not particularly accurate depiction of Operation Postmaster, a British covert operations mission to destroy ships refueling the German submarines that threaten shipping routes in the Atlantic. Those routes carry urgently needed supplies for a Britain that is being pulverized by the Luftwaffe as Hitler tries to starve the country into submission. Even within the halls of Westminster, there are doubts as to whether this war can be won. In an attempt to ease the burden on Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill orders the aforementioned team to the place where these ships are docked: the island of Fernando Po, nowadays Bioko, in Equatorial Guinea. Unfortunately for the British, that island is a colonial possession of officially neutral Spain, run by fascists whom Hitler and Mussolini helped bring to power, and certainly favorable towards the Axis.

One of the things that struck me about this film is the cinematography. I couldn’t help but see the influence of Sam Mendes’ 1917 here, with a simulated long shot that Mendes openly admits was influenced by his son’s video games. There’s nothing quite that ambitious here on display, but there are a number of shots that reminded me of real-time strategy games, with the camera hovering above bloody chaos in a manner that feels almost detached. I found it to be an interesting gambit, and one that I think worked.

As I said, the script is not afraid to take liberties, but those feel appropriate. For example, there is a raid that never happened on a prison in the Canaries (ruled, again, by Spain) that never existed, but I am willing to forgive it because that sequence is just fantastic generally. I’m reminded of a review I read many years ago of the real-time strategy game Company of Heroes, set after the Allied invasion of Normandy, that I cannot find anymore, that talked a lot about the actual correctness of every little detail, every bolt and nut and rivet, and the authenticity of how a work feels, and this film passes that test (and may rivet-counters be ever silenced, and learn why normal people actually engage with fiction to begin with).

Walking out of the theater, I concluded that the film that The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare bears the most resemblance to is Inglorious Basterds, albeit without the history-changing ending (the history-changing is instead woven throughout the film, which makes it straight history. I don’t make the rules here). Very much like Sisu, a Finnish film I reviewed on this blog some months ago, this is fundamentally an action movie that happens to be set eighty years ago. There is plenty of humor to go around, mostly of the snarky one-liner variety, but also many moments that arise mainly due to character. There’s a deftness in the script in regards to its characters, many of whom do not conform to the vaunted British stiff upper lip. Some are in prison, and others are fans of making things go boom. Despite all this, there’s that British wryness that pervades their worldview, indeed the film’s worldview, and I’m thankful that the Briton Guy Ritchie got to helm it. I’m not sure an American could have made it as well.

The action here is very good. The historically inaccurate raid on the Canaries has already been mentioned. There’s also a deliciously tense, then gloriously Tarantino-esque shoot-out on a boat that begins the film, which is a masterclass in using the boat’s restricted space to build suspense. There is the Timothy Zahn-esque gambit pileup that builds through the film and erupts in pure chaos in the film’s last act, which involves all sorts of shenanigans with ships, elaborate parties for Germans (with great big band jazz music to boot—and not the boring Nazi-approved stuff), a Jewish secret agent, and a local nightlife impresario who hates fascists.

I do, though, have some unformed thoughts about how this film portrays Africa and Africans. The aforementioned nightlife impresario is a wonderfully sly character, played by Babs Olusanmokun, and is one of the best parts of the film. But I feel like one of the thematic emphases of the film coexists uneasily with its African setting. Much is made of how these commandos are breaking the ‘civilized’ rules of war, and how that is a necessary thing when fighting an enemy as ruthless and loathsome as Hitler. I don’t disagree with that per se, but I know enough about the history of international law to know that there was always a rule of ‘gentlemanly’ warfare between ‘civilized’ white people on the one hand, and unbridled savagery when Europeans fought those whose skin was darker than a lily. It was Hilaire Belloc who described British colonial policy as “whatever happens, we have got / the maxim gun, and they have not.” I am certain the Sudanese who fell at the hideously lopsided Battle of Omdurman, which Churchill witnessed as a war correspondent and soldier, would not have considered British conduct in that engagement ‘gentlemanly.’ Other than a few African characters, the film focuses mostly on the white inhabitants of a colonial society, for better and for worse. I’m not sure what could have been done here, and I don’t really think it’s fair to blame Ritchie and company for it, but I feel like there could have been a better way around it.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is, on the whole, good fun, perfect for those who wanted more like Inglorious Basterds or perhaps the Wolfenstein games, or those who enjoy Ritchie’s filmmaking style, or off-the-hook action in general, or old-fashioned war movies. It has its weak spots, but it makes up for them with good humor, good characters, good cinematography, and just plain old fun. I highly recommend it.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.