The movie The Imitation Game is an imaginative drama about the struggles of a gay man in an unsympathetic world.
It's very touching and left everyone in the cinema we saw it in reaching for the tissues; and me feeling very guilty about my schoolboy homophobia.
Benedict Cumberbatch, who we had previously seen as the modernised Sherlock Holmes, plays Alan Turing in much the same way that he played Sherlock Holmes. And as in that series The Imitation Game differs in many ways from the original story while borrowing many of the same names and places.
Far from detracting from the drama and pathos these 'tweaks' to the actual history are the very grist of the new story. The problem for me in this case is that the original story is not a fiction by Conan Doyle. This 'updated' version misrepresents a man of considerable historical standing while simultaneously failing to accurately represent his considerable achievements.
In addition to being a world class mathematician Turing was a groundbreaking pioneer in the fields of in cryptography, computer science and artificial intelligence - all areas that interest me.
I'd never considered how he might have been as a schoolboy but the adult Turing, played by Cumberbatch, is not the Turing I had imagined.
Doctor Alan Mathison Turing, OBE, FRS
in 1951, three years before his death (Wikipedia Commons)
So on our walk home from the cinema I found myself lecturing Wendy, probably annoyingly, on the real Alan Turing and his importance in the history of computing, mathematics and artificial intelligence, because his achievements prior to, after and even at Bletchley Park are at odds with the Cumberbatch portrayal and did not come across in the film.
Turing was not a misunderstood loner
By the time Turing was twenty-two he was a recognised mathematical genius and an elected fellow of King's College Cambridge. He then studied mathematical theory and cryptography at Princeton in the United States where he made significant contributions and was awarded a PhD.
So before the War Turing was already making a name for himself. In 1936 he published a groundbreaking paper: 'On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem)', that proposes a theoretical machine that can solve any problem. This theoretical machine has become known as the 'Universal Turing Machine' and provided a theoretical basis for the development of modern computers having stored-program architecture.
In the field of artificial intelligence Turing is also famous for proposing the Turing Test to discover if a non-human entity such as a machine can mimic human intelligence. This is where the movie title comes from and is introduced in the movie during an interview in a police station that also serves for Turing to relate his life story. So its actual importance is largely lost, unless the viewer is already familiar with it.
My point is that Turing was not some put-upon non-entity. He was a well known at Cambridge and a friend of others on the original team all of whom studied at Cambridge, three of them at King's. During the period of the film he travelled internationally, was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, that for a scientist outranks any university degree, and after the War was awarded an OBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). The A.M. Turing Award, the computer industry's most prestigious prize, is named after him.
Yet the movie represents him as a strange, wounded outsider, largely unknown, in a largely re-imagined series of events.
An appropriate addition to this final text would have been the more usual statement that the film we had just seen was fictional and 'any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental'.
The following day I sat down to write a review to try to recover some skerrick of the real man's achievements. But before I published that initial reaction I found a better review by Paul Byrnes.
As a review of the movie itself I could scarcely do better than he has done. I commend: Mad scientist clichés undermine portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game
Byrnes makes the obvious point that the real Turing was well liked. When he went to Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park he was already an academic and mathematician of considerable standing and reputation and was certainly not someone to be abused by the military or Bletchley Park administration.
It is true that he was one of 'The Wicked Uncles' (Gordon Welchman, Alan Turing, Hugh Alexander, and Stuart Milner-Barry) who by-passed the official chain of command by delivering a letter directly to Prime Minister Churchill asking for more resources for the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park. If you are interested have a look at this.
Obviously this was unlikely to endear them to higher administration. But in the event Churchill wrote on it: 'Action This Day' and so it came to pass and that one action changed the history of the World.
Throughout his adult life period Turing had a number of gay relationships. He also proposed marriage to the real Joan Clarke. Fictional Joan plays a central role in the movie, played by Keira Knightley who is recruited for the purpose by means of a crossword puzzle.
One intake of recruits to Bletchley Park was indeed initially recruited using a crossword puzzle. The actual puzzle can be seen on line. But this is not how Clarke was recruited and the whole scene in which this takes place is fictional. She was directly recruited by her former academic supervisor at King's, Gordon Welchman, who was well aware of her exceptional abilities and she was not the only woman in her team.
She accepted Turing's proposal of marriage but Turing did not realise that she knew he was gay. He eventually confessed and then discovered she already knew at which point the marriage plans were terminated.
Turing a gay icon
The movie seems to be part of a campaign. A poor pun. At the time Turing confessed to gross indecency, legally known as 'buggery', this was still a crime in Britain and in Australia and Canada and New Zealand as well as in the USA and most of the World.
Over the final scenes text on the screen tells us that Turing is the only gay man ever to have been posthumously awarded a Royal Pardon for committing this crime. There is now a strong gay lobby in England, led by Stephen Fry, attempting to gain a similar posthumous Royal Pardon for nearly fifty thousand gay men convicted under these laws in Britain; and perhaps the Dominions?
For the time being, the British Government is steadfastly standing on the principle that the Law is that which prevails at a particular time and a criminal is one who is convicted of breaking the 'law of the day', no matter how unreasonable we might consider that law subsequently. For example, if a speed limit is increased or a licence abolished, should I be able to get an earlier conviction, for speeding or doing something without said licence, reversed? I would have thought that such a precedent would lead to legal chaos. But then I'm not Stephen Fry.
The official line is that Turing was an exceptional case who was posthumously pardoned (forgiven) for his buggery by the Queen, although he is still considered to have been guilty. This is because there is a good argument that he was one of a handful of men who can be said to have contributed the most to winning the Second World War.
What good is a posthumous pardon anyway? As Woody Allen said when asked if he made his films for posterity: "What good is posterity to me? I'll be dead."
Gay men before 1975
My children have grown up in a time of Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and may be amazed to know that just before they were born people were still being thrown in jail if they admitted to a homosexual act.
Close friendships between men, in preference to women, or between women in preference to men, have never been illegal. Military and sporting institutions would be decimated. But actual sexual relations between men, the physical act known as sodomy or buggery, was illegal in most countries in the world until very recently and in some countries oral sex carried a similar prohibition that could result in penalties to Lesbians. Try explaining male homosexuality to your nine year old daughter, when she provides explicit details another child has provided then asks if her interpretation is true. Thanks Emily.
Emily did go to Paddington Primary School, surrounded by much of Sydney's Gay community and knew several gay men among our friends and acquaintances.
She had some early experiences drawing gay men to her attention. When she was just five or six, she and I were doing some local food shopping around Taylor Square, oblivious to anything unusual going on, when a large parade of Christian fundamentalists, led by a well known politician, Fred Nile of the Christian Democratic Party, emerged from a rally in Sydney's Hyde Park and came marching up the hill towards us along Oxford Street. They had a great big golden cross and many held smaller crosses aloft. Singing Onward Christian Soldiers they threatened fire and brimstone (and salt?) on sodomites via megaphones. It was quite a show, mainly because the parade attracted thousands of gay antagonists and their supporters who lined the pavements on both sides six deep, mocking the cross-bearers with hoots of derision. No crucifixions followed. But it was an early education.
In England and Wales buggery ceased to be illegal for consenting adults in private in 1967. This was amongst the earliest decriminalisations in the world. It was not decriminalised in Scotland until 1990. All Australian states and territories, except Tasmania, also repealed their laws against buggery between 1975 and 1990. In the USA sodomy was still illegal in 14 states until a Supreme Court decision in 2003. When I lived in New York in the 1970's gays were still being murdered at pick-up places in Central Park, with little or no protection from local law enforcement.
But despite being suspected of 'gross indecency' and occasional entrapment by police in public toilets, there was a very obvious gay community in all major cities. In the 1950's and early 60's the Boys' High School I attended had one openly gay teacher, and a couple of suspects. Several boys were also known or thought to engage in homosexual acts with each other, one of whom became a performer at an infamous transvestite cabaret 'Les Girls' and hormonally grew breasts while still at school. Some did this in the face of active discrimination against 'poofters' and 'homos' including discriminatory jokes, name calling and occasional pushing and shoving or worse. I'm sure that there were several other homosexually inclined boys, in a school of eleven hundred, who were not as brave or foolhardy.
The word 'gay' had not yet been adopted by homosexuals in Australia and still meant 'happy'. My father never used the usual terms of abuse but described stereotypically effeminate men, like a friend he played chess with, as being 'very nice', with a little wrist-bend and a change of voice.
The net result of all this was to make me quite homophobic. I progressively got over this in adulthood as I accumulated a few gay friends and acquaintances. But my progress was not helped by finding that my accidentally unlocked car had been used for sex on Mardi Gras night or having my bum grabbed when trying to buy wine in our local bottle shop, so that thereafter I needed to cross the road to a non-gay pub.
Again the movie takes liberties with the truth, claiming that Turing was blackmailed by a colleague. This certainly happened to some gay men. Others, particularly Australian politicians, felt the need to marry a woman to dispel career injuring gossip. Perhaps that was Turing's motive in asking Joan to marry him.
While Turing was vulnerable if caught actually engaged in illegal sexual activity, he would have been difficult to blackmail because, like Stephen Fry, his sexual orientation was well known among his colleagues, particularly after his aborted marriage proposal, and it had little or no impact on his working environment, professional reputation or his top level security clearance. His OBE was awarded after his sexual orientation was public knowledge.
His prompt and open confession when reporting a break-in to police was at once naive, thinking that it was of no matter and peripheral to the real crime, and the direct cause of his conviction in that if he had made any attempt to deny it it was very likely to have been swept under the carpet.
As the movie implies, being gay and Cambridge educated became an issue after what became known as 'The Cambridge Five' ring of traitors, came to public attention after Burgess and Maclean defected to Russia in the summer of 1951. But they were at Trinity, not King's, were classicists who became top and medium level bureaucrats and had nothing to do with Turing. They were not blackmailed into spying. They did it out of contempt for British institutions and society. Perhaps they were under a misapprehension that homosexuality was still legal in Russia, as it had been after the Revolution. But Stalin put an end to that around the same time that he signed a secret pact with Hitler to invade Poland. Russia has serious human rights issues in this area to this day.
Perhaps most distressing thing for Turing, who was the antithesis of a traitor, was that his conviction prevented him from travelling to the United States. A coronial enquiry found that Turing's death was due to suicide by ingesting cyanide. It was said by one biographer that Turing was obsessed with Walt Disney's Snow White and poisoned an apple.
But at least one biographer believes it to have been accidental, because he was working on an unfinished paper, left no suicide note and was not obviously unhappy. He had been gold plating in his room using an electrolyte solution containing the cyanide that killed him. Other speculations have included espionage related murder.
As most people know cyanide is extraordinarily poisonous and fast acting. It was used by spies and agents as a death pill in the event of capture during the War. Hydrogen cyanide has been used in the US in gas chambers since the 1920's to carry out legal executions. More notoriously, it was used by the Nazis at Auschwitz and elsewhere for genocide and is now generally regarded as inhumane, even in those few countries that still practice 'legal' executions. So although the gas chamber remains an optional method of execution in three of the thirty six states in the US where Capital Punishment is still legal, other methods of execution are generally preferred.
Turing's cyanide poisoning was certainly unrelated to his choice of chemical castration, to remove his libido, in preference to jail, as implied in the film. He died several years after this treatment ceased and there is no evidence for the implication in the film that his intelligence or ability was affected by these hormones or that they contributed to his death.
Breaking the code
But the movie's most disturbing distortions are the technical ones. The movie implies that Turing singlehandedly invented and built a digital computer called 'Christopher' the name of his first love. He is shown working on one of the famous later generation Bombes in a shed and his dedication to the task is depicted as being controversial.
None of this is true.
The moviegoer is given to understand that the machine is an early electronic digital computer. If this were true then the German 'Enigma' machine is the first portable computer, as it obviously preceded the Bombe. But it's nonsense.
As anyone who has taken the slightest interest in dozens of book documentaries and television programmes about Bletchley Park knows, the world's first semi-programmable electronic digital computer was 'Colossus'. Colossus was separately developed at Bletchley Park by a team headed by Post Office electronics engineer Tommy Flowers. It was Colossus that was controversial and considered to be dubious waste of resources by some, including Gordon Welchman.
Colossus was programmed using the work that Turing and others had done on code-breaking algorithms but Turing did not work on it directly.
The first such radio valve based computer I saw as a schoolboy was SILLIAC at Sydney University, built in 1956. Like Colossus, it was still partly programmed using jack plugs and jumper wires. At its first demonstration a mathematician in the audience beat it to one complex solution using pen and paper. Today, even your phone has many thousands of times SILLIAC's computing power and many of its programs execute hundreds of times faster than you could pick up a pencil. But fundamentally, its processor works in much the same way.
Turing did indeed assist in the development of such early digital stored-program computers but this was in the 1950's after the War was over.
The machine depicted in The Imitation Game is a Bombe and a Bombe is not a computer in the modern sense. A Bombe was an electro-mechanical device specifically designed to determine the daily settings applied to German and other Enigma style encryption machines.
This process from interception to decryption is much more accurately and realistically depicted in the 2001 movie Enigma. Anyone interested should download this movie or if you still know of a DVD rental that hasn't closed, get it out. Turing, who was a theoretician, doesn't even appear in the day-to-day process of code breaking.
At the end of World War I the Germans had developed the first electro-mechanical encryption machine. Its design became public knowledge and in the inter-war period a range of similar technologies were developed by various companies and governments. In the late 1930's the French successfully stole the designs for the latest German Enigma machine and shared it with the Poles.
Polish mathematicians and engineers developed a matching electro-mechanical machine that given a 'crib', some text known to be in an encrypted message, could quickly run through tens of thousands of possible setting variations until the 'crib' appeared. Today it would be like someone trying every possible password to break into your bank account, now known as a 'Brute Force' attack. They will know they are successful when they get in. The Poles called their device a 'bomba kryptologiczna'.
It had motors and gears and contacts like an early telephone exchange and was more like a mechanical calculator than an electronic computer. Once they had found an encrypted message that contained something they knew would be in it they could set the 'bomba' going and eventually it would find the combination of Enigma machine settings used to encrypt the message. After that they could decrypt every message encrypted with those settings. Sometimes it would find the combination quite quickly but other times it might take weeks.
But as the War began the Germans started changing the settings everyday, instead of once a month, and added additional features, vastly increasing the number of combinations that had to be tried. So the 'bomba' became useless. When Poland was threatened with invasion the Polish crypto-analytical team shared their technology with the British and French. All this was before the invasion of Poland by Germany and Russia and the Declaration of War with Germany on 1st September 1939.
As war approached Turing began working part time with the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), Bletchley Park with Gordon Welchman as a code breaker. He had built his own cryptographic machine in America and when he saw the Polish device he realised that it could be improved. As depicted in the movie, Gordon Welchman, also made a significant technical improvement that became a feature of the British machines, now called Bombes.
The British Bombes were built to their designs by the British Tabulating Machine Company, not by Turing or Welchman personally. The first Turing-Welchman designed Bombe was called 'Victory' not 'Christopher'.
The efficiency of a Brut Force Attack can be vastly improved by trying the most obvious settings first and this was how Joan Clarke was employed. Turing had devised various methods to guess the most likely rotor settings and dozens of cryptanalysts were engaged using Turing's probability analysis, that is now part of game theory, to shorten the time taken to find the solution.
The movie completely fails to indicate the huge scale involved in the utilisation and development of Bombes. These are credited by several authorities with winning the War. The movie also fails to mention Turing's time in America or his US connections that were critically important.
After the Americans joined the war in December 1941 the secret of the Bombes was shared with them. As a result of his own memorandum suggesting it, Turing was seconded to the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington in December 1942 to assist the American effort to develop and manufacture their own. The US Navy had contracted National Cash Register (NCR) to manufacture these.
Initially, to discover the Enigma daily rotor and plug sequence, 336 Bombes rotors had been proposed per unit, one for each possible Enigma rotor sequence. Using a simplifying mathematical algorithm Turing made technical changes to the design that meant that it was necessary to have only 96 Bombe rotors per installation. There were a lot of other technical improvements made to the US Bombes including higher speeds and electronic switching that made them an order of magnitude faster. These improved machines were manufactured in America and supplied to Bletchley Park in the latter years of the war. Each US Navy Bombe was now 10 feet (3.0 m) wide, 7 feet (2.1 m) high, 2 feet (0.61 m) deep and weighed 2.5 tons.
In addition to Bletchley Park there were several back-up sites across the UK in the event of German bombing. By the end of the war there were thousands of Bombes in Britain and the US where they were also used to break the Japanese codes. At the peak of the British activity nine thousand people, mostly women, worked at Bletchley Park, housed in 23 huts and eight blocks build around the grounds.
As I have said the movie is generally entertaining and worth seeing but is marred by the issues that Paul Byrnes and I have enumerated. In particular there are a couple of really dumb scenes like when they find 'Heil Hitler' as a 'crib' in a German naval message!
The supposed 'Heil Hitler crib' is so ridiculous on so many grounds that I can't be bothered enumerating them. Worse, it diminishes the contribution, and thus insults, the dozens of linguists and cryptanalysts in the Crib Teams at Bletchley Park who were an important element in identifying the 'cribs', often just a few letters, essential for the Bombes to work.
In the same scene Cumberbatch, as Turing, suggests that 'Heil Hitler' is the only German he knows. Then what about: the Entscheidungsproblem?
The need for secrecy
Another is the distress of a fictional member of the team who has a relative on a ship that they are obliged to sacrifice to protect their secret.
The plight of the theoretical sailor is intended to represent an entire convoy that was indeed sacrificed in order to get a reliable crib. This is much better represented in the earlier film: Enigma. In The Imitation Game the whole scene was so transparently fictional and maudlin that it failed to work for me. It too trivialised the actual scale of death and destruction involved in the real events.
Sacrificing a few to save many is a very well known ethical dilemma. It's a version of the 'trolley car dilemma' that I have discussed at length in my review of the action thriller: The Bancroft Strategy.
The need not to reveal that an opponent's code had been broken has been covered at length elsewhere and is a frequent theme in spy fiction. Indeed one of the first results of breaking of Enigma was to reveal that the Germans had broken the British codes, providing an opportunity for misinformation to be leaked to them. Had they won, future generations would no doubt be going to movies about brilliant German code breaking.
Obviously the allied soldiers, sailors and airmen involved had no idea that they were being guided by information gathered from deciphered German messages. The usual way of covering the source of information was to have a spotter plane or ship 'accidentally' spot a submarine or warship that their commanders knew the location of already. Sometimes this was done in extremely perilous circumstances resulting in the deaths of those sent to find out something already known.
On at least one occasion British forces were so successful in 'finding' and destroying enemy assets that the Germans suspected a leak and launched an investigation. One of the famous ploys the British used to avoid the German's becoming suspicious that their codes had been broken was to create a fictional deep cover MI6 spy, codenamed Boniface, with a network of imaginary agents inside Germany.
One of the most successful U-Boat captains was so certain that his messages were going straight to the enemy that he consistently sent erroneous location information and thus survived until the end of the war. Fortunately the German High Command was so absolutely certain that Shark/Enigma was unbreakable, even if machines were captured, that they continued to think that Allied successes were due to security leaks. This no doubt resulted in increased security paranoia and 'witch hunts' that degraded their efficiency.
There are a lot of stories and a couple of films around the capture of the latest Enigma machines. Again the allies had to pretend that the machine was of no interest to them and had simply been collateral damage in any action to obtain one. Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books, famously planned one such mission at a time when getting a late model Enigma had become critical. It involved a Trojan Horse attack on a German ship in which British agents dressed as Germans and flying a German plane would crash into the sea; get rescued; take over the ship; disable its communications; steal the Enigma; then sink the ship with all its, by then dead, crew on board. When bad weather caused the mission to be cancelled Turing was reportedly apoplectic with fury. Ian Fleming's 1957 book: 'From Russia with Love' involves the theft of a similar 'Spektor' encryption machine from the Russians.
Modern Encryption we all use everyday
After the war many other governments were equally certain that German Enigma machines were totally secure and they were snapped-up for secret communications. The British and American electronic eavesdropping agencies did nothing to disabuse them and had an intelligence field day, reading every 'secure' message they sent. Bombes continued to be top secret until the last Enigma was finally retired.
To prevent a more secure alternative becoming available, to these governments, the British kept asymmetric public-private key encryption, invented at GCHQ in England, secret for over 20 years. This secret was 'blown' in an academic paper published in 1977 by Rivest, Shamir and Adleman. This was then developed as RSA encryption, their initials, a version of which most of us now use everyday for secure Internet communications. Next time you buy something on line or visit you bank check the URL - if it begins: 'https://' your browser is communicating using RSA encryption.
Encryption was largely an academic and government security agency interest until Internet Commerce was made possible in the 1990's by advances in computing; the Internet and the World Wide Web. Now even your phone can do the complex encryption and decryption calculations required 'in the background' when you communicate securely.
A good movie?
The trouble is that well made movies tend to be what people remember. The writers of The Imitation Game might have been better to change all the names and set it in a fictional chateau during a fictional war because on that level, as a fiction, it works.
It's just that almost no scene in the movie actually happened, as depicted, and many never happened at all.
I can understand why the movie writers took their dumbed-down approach to the technology, because other attempts to explain any of the technical aspects to the general public, like the earlier film 'Enigma', have usually 'bombed out'.
As to Turing's true legacy, it seems to be just too hard for a commercial movie to explain.