Alan Turing, Allen Leech, Benedict Cumberbatch, Homosexuality, John Cairncross, Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game, World War II
When word about The Imitation Game’s (2014; dir. Morton Tyldum) plot came out, there was some concern among gay activists that the decision to focus the film on Alan Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) relationship with a female co-worker was an exercise in ‘pinkwashing’, rewriting a gay man as a straight man by giving him a conventional heterosexual romance. (As an example of pinkwashing, see the way Dallas Buyer’s Club rewrote its bisexual, gay-friendly protagonist as a heterosexual homophobe.) So I want to explore whether the film gives Turing’s homosexuality appropriate treatment.
Spoiler Alert: I discuss a couple of major plot points in the film, so if you plan on seeing the film in the theater, you may want to put off reading this until after you’ve seen it.
In 1941, Turing proposed to co-worker Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly), who accepted his proposal. But a few months later, Turing had second thoughts, apparently because he felt it was unfair for him to marry her when he was a homosexual. He came out to her, which did not faze her, but the engagement came to an end. The incident appears to have been a fairly minor event in Turing’s life, and in fact his relationship with Joan Clarke does not seem to have been one of his more important ones.
In the film, Turing proposes to Clarke mostly because her parents are trying to force her to leave Bletchley to find a husband. Desperate to keep whom he regards as the most important co-worker on the Enigma project, he fumbles his way into a proposal. He eventually breaks it off with her because he knows that his homosexuality may be revealed and he doesn’t want her ruined; when she says that she doesn’t care about his homosexuality, he does that clichéd film trick where he says mean things to her to convince her to go away for her own good. But their engagement is a central point in the film, and early critics feared that the film would use the engagement to gloss over Turing’s homosexuality entirely, implying that his relationship with Clarke was a traditional one.
Fortunately, the film does a reasonable job of acknowledging Turing’s sexuality. A school friendship at Sherborne School is explicitly shown to be a first crush. He describes himself as homosexual several times in the film. The frame tale with the police officer deals directly with the legal side of the issue, and at the end of the film he is receiving chemical castration. So the film doesn’t shy away from what ultimately happened to Turing, and an epilogue text tells us that nearly 49,000 men were prosecuted in Britain under anti-homosexuality laws. For addressing the role of homosexuality in Turing’s life, the film is certainly to be commended, even if it doesn’t, in my opinion, truly deal with the way homosexuality influenced Turing.
However, there is a significant problem with one part of the film. Early in the film it is revealed that there is a Soviet spy at Bletchley Park. Turing eventually figures out that it is John Cairncross (Allen Leech), one of his fellow cryptanalysts, who threatens to out Turing as a homosexual if Turing reveals Cairncross’ crimes. Turing initially accedes to Cairncross’ demands stays silent. But he gradually decides that he needs to do something. He breaks off his engagement to Clarke to protect her, and at one point attempts to report Cairncross but backs out. Eventually Cairncross is revealed without Turing having to out himself.
Unfortunately, none of this is true. Cairncross did work at Bletchley Park, not in Turing’s Hut 8, but in Hut 3, where he smuggled decrypted messages out for the Soviets. There is no reason to think the two men ever met; security at Bletchley kept the various working groups separate, and Cairncross only started at Bletchley in 1942, the year that Turing left Bletchley. So the last act of the film is entirely invented.
On the surface, this seems like a minor invention for dramatic purposes. But as a couple of reviewers have pointed out, this means that the film makes Turing a traitor for failing to reveal Cairncross’ espionage activities. More seriously, it also unintentionally validates the 1950s gay scare, which was predicated on the notion that homosexuals were an inherent security risk and therefore had to be driven out of government and military service. This element of the film is underscored by the frame tale of the police detective working to uncover Turing’s secret. The detective is convinced that Turing is a Soviet spy until evidence turns up that he is a homosexual.
Given that the film’s screenwriter and director have both claimed that historical accuracy was a major consideration for the film, this has the effect to falsely teaching viewers, who probably don’t know much about Turing coming into the film, that that Turing was investigated for spying and that he was in fact a security risk and complicit in treason. This is not explicitly homophobic, but it does reinforce the canard that gays are security risks, an issue in American government down into the early 21st century.
So while the film deserves some praise for looking honestly at the role anti-gay prejudice played in Turing’s life, it deserves some criticism for employing careless fabrication in a way that partly undermines the film’s message of toleration for gays and lesbians. As I’ve said before, historical accuracy matters, because movies are a major source of historical knowledge for the general public, and this is a good example of how historical fabrications can be serious problems.
Want to Know More?
The Imitation Gameis available on Amazon in a couple different formats.
Turing has been the subject of a number of works. The film is based on Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film “The Imitation Game”, which is probably the most highly-praised on them. Also worth a look is a biography written by his mother, Sara. Alan M. Turing: Centenary Edition was, as the title suggests, reissued for the centenary of his birth, and includes new material by his brother that in some ways contradicts his mother’s version of Turing’s life.