"I take orders from the Octoboss."

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

THE MINISTRY OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE is the new Guy Ritchie picture, and that title sounds like some Matthew Vaughn KINGSMAN type fantasy-secret-agency shit, but it’s a real thing, based on a true story. They say that at the beginning of the movie but I thought, “Yeah, uh huh, ‘true story,’ thanks Guy Ritchie,” so I was surprised when at the end they showed pictures of the real people. Oh shit, you were serious?

Yeah, of course it’s heavily fictionalized, but not as much as I’d assumed. The main characters are at least named after specific real people who really were on a WWII-era British special ops mission called Operation Postmaster, in which an undercover agent from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) threw a party on the Spanish island of Fernando Po to distract German officers and Spanish merchants while commandos snuck into neutral territory and stole the ships they used to deliver supplies to the Axis powers.

This isn’t serious Guy Ritchie (like last year’s surprisingly great THE COVENANT), it’s flippant Guy Ritchie, a fun time watching big handsome men sneak around massacring Nazis. The leader is Gus March-Phillipps, played by Superman himself Henry Cavill (HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD), and he always gets to say snappy British guy things dryly underplaying what’s going down. He sounds like a guy who would give James Bond a briefing, but he’s playing the actual guy James Bond is maybe kinda inspired by. In fact Ian Fleming is a character in the movie, played by Freddie Fox (Paul W.S. Anderson’s THREE MUSKETEERS). As in real life, he’s a naval intelligence officer who helps plan the mission. And of course he introduces himself as “Fleming. Ian Fleming.” They kinda had to do it.

(The screenplay is credited to Paul Tamasy [AIR BUD] & Eric Johnson [THE FIGHTER] & Arash Amel [HIDDEN STRIKE] and Ritchie.)

It’s great to see Cavill being charming again (as he was in THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., honestly one of my favorite Ritchie movies), but the biggest scene stealer, probly figuratively and definitely literally, is Reacher himself, Alan Ritchson (DARK WEB: CICADA 3301) as Anders Lassen. His arms are so cartoonishly huge I wonder if he’s going to have to lose some muscle to play Reacher again, and then he wears little round spectacles and (kind of) does an accent. He also seems to indicate he enjoys men, but might not be serious. We do know he enjoys killing to such an extent that the others find it sort of amusing. His main weapon is arrows, which he’s able to shoot all the way through one guy and then a second guy and then into a solid surface. But when he needs to he gets in close and, in one scene, cuts a guy’s heart out and is standing there casually holding it. My favorite bit with him is when he’s cornered on a boat and savagely chops up some dudes with an ax. When he’s done he realizes the others are watching through the window in the door and he gives them a little “hey guys!” wave with the bloody blade of the ax.

If you want someone less He-Man on the team you’ll be happy to know there’s a GI Joe – Snake Eyes himself Henry Golding (A SIMPLE FAVOR) as explosives expert/enthusiast “Freddy the Frogman” Alvarez. The ultimate smooth charmer who enjoys blowing up fortresses and warships and shit.

There’s a young Irish sailor on the team named Henry Hayes (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, THE WOMAN KING) and I kinda felt bad for him because he’s probly used to being the center of attention but surrounded by these guys he seems like just a normal random dude they pulled off the streets. But I’m sure he was happy just to get to hang out with them, go on a boat trip, kill Nazis, etc.

One thing I got a kick out of is that the head of the SOE (who calls in Gus in a funny scene where he’s way less interested in the mission than in mooching as much expensive Scotch and cigars as possible) is played by Cary Elwes (NEVER ON TUESDAY), who did the exact same “everyone hates you because you’re a huge fucking pain in the ass but I and only I understand your greatness so I’m making them, under protest and against their better judgment, put you on this dangerous mission” shtick in Ritchie’s not-very-good OPERATION FORTUNE: RUSE DE GUERRE. I hope Elwes just continually plays versions of this character in all Guy Ritchie movies for now on. If Ritchie ever makes a sequel to ALADDIN Elwes can be all “listen Aladdin, I’m not looking for a prince, this is a job for a street rat,” and Aladdin will say how he’ll only do it if he can bring in his own guys, because he knows the best monkey pickpocket and flying carpet in the business.

That’s basically what Gus does, he says he won’t do it without this guy Geoffrey “Apple” Appleyard (Alex Pettyfer, MAGIC MIKE) to mastermind it. But Elwes (whose character is nicknamed M, by the way) says they knew he’d say that so they already sent him ahead but he got captured by the Gestapo and is being tortured in the Canary Islands. That’s okay, Gus says, it’s on the way. So on this dangerous mission there’s a bonus sub-dangerous mission where they walk into this Nazi base and fairly effortlessly massacre everyone there to get to their friend. Arrows, machine guns, commandeered gunning station. For as long as they can they time all their shots to be masked by the sounds of a truck engine revving. Doesn’t seem necessary, but gets them extra points in the fun little game they’re playing.

An obvious precedent for modern Nazi-killing men-on-a-mission movies is INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and though I’d hardly call this a ripoff it’s pretty shameless about following in Tarantino’s footsteps. The score by Christopher Benstead (Ritchie’s guy since THE GENTLEMEN) immediately goes into spaghetti western mode – gee, I wonder where they got that idea. I’m not complaining, though – it’s a really cool score, so authentic in its retro/Italian sounds that I sometimes wondered if it was reconstituted like Tarantino’s was. (It’s mostly new, though there’s a part where they used the crunchy, badass guitars from Lalo Schifrin’s DIRTY HARRY.)

There’s a whole other thread happening on the island as Gus and friends make their way there on a fishing boat trying not to get arrested or killed. Mr. Heron (Babs Olusanmokun, WRATH OF MAN) is the agent who’s been there for a while running a gambling den. Semi-famous actress and singer Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González, BLOODSHOT) is his secret accomplice, whose job is to get close to SS Commander Heinrich Luhr (Til Schweiger – oh, what do you know? He was in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. What are the chances?). They have preparations to make, they find out information that changes the mission, they almost get caught, all kinds of drama.

I was excited to see Olusanmokun, who I know as Dr. M’Benga from Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Only this week did I learn from Vyce Victus that he’s also a champion and black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu! He had a significant role in DUNE PART ONE but I was so happy that here he really is one of the main characters.

The team also recruit an African prince turned pirate (Danny Sapani, THE OXFORD MURDERS) to provide backup. I like that everybody pretty much trusts each other and enjoys each other’s company. Dramatic but easy-going, a pretty standard Guy Ritchie tone. I think some people may appreciate that Ritchie keeps the drawstring on his bag of stylistic tricks mostly tight. Nothing too tricky in the chronology, not too show-offy with the camerawork, light on the speed-ramping, no crazy nicknames for the lads, none of those touches like the giant elephants or modern allusions in KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD where you think “Is he allowed to do that in this?”

I’m saying that like it’s a compliment but actually I’d be more excited about it if it was more of an “only Guy Ritchie would ever make something like this” type of situation. But I guess it’s fair to say somebody else wouldn’t have made it the same. Jerry Bruckheimer produced it, and you certainly wouldn’t mistake it for any of his other guys. It’s not generic, it’s just toned down, without feeling like brand new territory for the director either.

I also don’t think this is a movie with a whole lot of substance to it. It’s saying that these “ungentlemanly” tactics stopped the Nazis, but obviously it’s not a deep or serious exploration of their morality or consequences in other situations. The movie’s pleasures are simple, and there was a point where I felt it was becoming repetitive – okay, I get it, you killed those guys, they didn’t see it coming, then you made light of it. But shortly after I started to feel that way the clock started ticking more furiously, things started going wrong, and the pressure was on to maneuver around and make it work. So it succeeds as a light-hearted, anti-Nazi mission movie, a superior remake of OPERATION FORTUNE, and a 21st century take on THE DIRTY DOZEN where they’re prisoners at the end instead of the beginning (admittedly not as cool). I love that this whole mission is about stopping the Nazis from delivering carbon dioxide filters to their U-boats. Little things matter.

It’s definitely tempting to groan when the title is said out loud by Winston Churchill (special guest appearance by Al Jourgensen from the band Ministry [just kidding it’s Rory Kinnear, the men from MEN]). But I kinda liked that scene. And I read that Churchill really did describe the team that way, so I think we should allow it.

It’s based on a book by historian Damien Lewis, and the full title is The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops, but I think it was originally published as Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII. I don’t think CHURCHILL’S SECRET WARRIORS would be as good of a title. Maybe SPECIAL FORCES DESPERADOES OF WWII. Thank you for your forces, desperadoes of WWII.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 24th, 2024 at 8:56 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, War. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”

  1. This was just such a good natured film about mowing down waves and waves of Nazis. Guy Ritchie must have the most chill movie set imaginable, because in his more lighthearted fair, everyone just seems like they’re having a blast. Operation Fortune was kind of a bust, but it almost got by just on the fact that all the actor seem like they enjoyed hanging with one another.


    At first I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more tension or real opposition to the heroes. But then I decided to just sit back and enjoy the Nazi killing, which is especially cathartic these days. My favorite part of Ritchie’s approach here comes when Olusanmokun returns to try and save Gonzales from Schweiger. Normally, you would have Schweiger torturing her to up the stakes and get the audience primed for his comeuppance. But instead Gonzales just casually shoots him in the head with a hidden gun. I love that they casually sidestep the captured damsel trope. (And as an aside, doesn’t Olusanmokun have an absolutely wonderful voice. It’s so unique. I’m a big Trek fan, so I’ve enjoyed his performance on Strange New Worlds, and I was so pleased to see him appear here).

  2. I saw the trailer and wondered, “is Cary Elwes serving the exact same plot function as he was in ‘Operation Fortune’? Nah, couldn’t be.” But he IS! I’m not sure if I’m annoyed or if I respect the chutzpah.

    I didn’t see this, but does anyone think it’s weird that Til Schwieger and Thomas Krestchsmann keep taking all these Nazi roles?

  3. This is a bit of weird one for me. As a movie, it’s fine. As a history, it’s uh… well… it’s not like The Untouchables was a documentary either, and I’m never going to throw The Untouchables out with the bathwater, but it seems a touch off to do the typical Ritchie bantering and casually blowing away bad guys with a bunch of real people who, ah, mostly died in battle shortly after Operation Postmaster. That ‘watch war heroes die for your entertainment’ feeling from Michael Bay’s 13 Hours.

    And Heron is a complete invention, replacing real-life human Richard Lippett. Which just seems pretty sleazy to me, erasing an actual person from historical events so you can put in a made-up guy… for whatever reason… and they did the same thing with Freddy the Frogman… I get that they were reducing fifty-some people down to a manageable cast. But there’s got to be a line between making composite characters and just creating a guy wholesale like you’re adding an action figure to the G.I. Joe line.

    It kinda makes me wonder why they wanted to sell this as a true story at all when the true story seems diametrically opposed to the movie they wanted to make. Could Ritchie just not get the rights to remake The Dirty Dozen?

  4. Oh shit, I just now remembered – wasn’t Guy Ritchie supposed to do an actual DIRTY DOZEN remake some years back?

  5. It wouldn’t surprise me.

    I’m not saying Ritchie intended to be disrespectful. Him making Gus a devil-may-care scoundrel or Lassen a queerbaity berserker is obviously a compliment by his lights. I’m saying it’s like he wanted to make a movie about these action hero cliches–the rogue that they fetch straight from prison to send on a mission, the brute that rips Nazi hearts out like fucking Rambo–but the real Gus was ‘just’ a professional soldier who saluted his superiors and followed his orders, so how respectful is it to erase that guy’s personality and replace it with this stock characterization?

    The whole thing is in this uncomfy gray area for me where I’d be okay if they went full historical accuracy, Band of Brothers and I’d be okay if they said it was completely fiction & they just took some inspiration from this real mission, but they’re kinda doing Fast & Furious and then saying they’re doing Band of Brothers.

  6. Glaive, it’s even weirder because Schweiger once famously stated that he didn’t want to go to Hollywood to just play “The Nazi” and even declined a part in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN because of that. However, both he and Kretchmann have said that if you are a German, you will be automatically offered every Nazi role that Hollywood has to offer, so I guess if you wanna work there, you should at least just pick the most interesting directors,

  7. Hey, I read the book! It was a fairly big deal a few years back here in the UK, where a lot of people are still pretty obsessed with WW2 (though no news when this will show here, or if it will even hit the big screen before going to streaming, dammit.)

    There are a few interviews going around with the author and he seems fairly happy with the material. Might be him being diplomatic since he’s already taken their money, but Lassen at least was a larger-than-life figure – I remember him sounding maybe not like a berserker, but his savagery absolutely came through. Definitely a tactical monster.
    I don’t know if I mind them taking liberties so much if the tone is light and so obviously over the top. I mean, worst case scenario is most people are going to assume it’s all bullshit, some may read up afterwards and find out stuff they’d never have looked up otherwise.
    Definitely prefer it to the prestige biopic treatment – that Alan Turing one from a few years back can go fuck itself.

  8. Just saw this and really enjoyed it. Of the action set pieces I liked the rescue of Apple better than the big one at the end. Overall I agree with Vern that it felt kind of insubstantial but was still fun. But I’m one of the only people on the planet that liked OPERATION FORTUNE so my opinions on Ritchie’s movies does not fall in line with the popular ones.

    I have to wonder if Ritchie would’ve used Armie Hammer in the Lassen role if he wasn’t persona non grata now. Although if his career trajectory hadn’t gone off the rails I’m not sure he would’ve taken a “one of the guys” role so maybe it would’ve been finessed to be more equal to Cavill’s role. But I really liked Ritchson so I’m fine with how it’s turned out. The whole cast was good. I had to chuckle at Henry Golding being labeled the *less* handsome one. Now that’s a stacked cast I can enjoy.

  9. You really gotta hand it to Ritchie. He gets movies made at a rate that’s unheard of nowadays, even for established directors, and they all get big stars, major releases, and to varying degrees all seem to bear his authorial stamp. In an age when some filmmakers are lucky to put out two films a decade, he’s cranking ’em out at a pace that would make a 50s B-movie director jealous.

  10. “He gets movies made at a rate that’s unheard of nowadays”

    Same could be said of Sir Ridley Scott. He gave us BOTH THE LAST DUEL & HOUSE OF GUCCI in the same year. And there’s barely a year’s gap between NAPOLEAN and the upcoming GLADIATOR 2. And they’re all epic, 9-figure Productions. Man’s a machine.

  11. Dread – on Lassen, he was definitely an enthusiastic soldier/killer. That said, he also suffered from what we now called PTSD and spoke openly about the effect combat had on him. Specifically, he told new members of the unit to avoid killing with a knife whenever possible as it was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do and traumatized him. I haven’t seen the film yet, but making him a carefree, blood lusting maniac is a bit disappointing. His complexity and struggles dealing with the war he fought so vigorously is a big part of what made him such a fascinating figure.

  12. Dreadguacamole

    May 1st, 2024 at 1:11 pm

    Thanks, @Bob – yeah, that makes sense.

  13. I didn’t think I would ever see a pseudo-World War II film more subhumanly idiotic than that remake of Castellari’s “Inglorious Bastards” a few years ago, but this was it…

    I did turn it off during that imbecilic scene in which four mumbling tossers leisurely prance into a giant camp full of hundreds of top German troops and, in 30 seconds of further prancing, they proceed to kill all of those top troops, who are all deaf, blind, crippled, and brainless, so I don’t know if it got any worse than that later on… but I did go to my MacLean book shelf, took off “Where Eagles Dare”, opened its top parts, played the main titles of its film version, and then followed it with a combination of Brian Callison and “Dirty Dozen”, to wash off the vile stench of desperate idiocy that this “Ministry” was. It does help, and it should be legally required to replace Ritchie everywhere and anywhere with any one of those books and films.

    I think – I hope – that Ritchie now lives in USA. If he does not, we should extradite him there forever, and destroy any evidence that he has ever been associated with our once-noble, once-sceptred island. Better yet, we should extradite him and all his “films” into the Mariana Trench.

  14. Offer accepted. He’s ours now. No takebacks.

  15. Are you ‘avin’ a bleedin’ laff? Last I ‘eard Ritchie was livin’ it up in Wiltshire at some big country gaff ‘e got from Madge in the divorce; brews ‘is own beer ‘an all. Yer can’t ‘ave ‘im. It’s septic isle or nowt!

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