Cinematically speaking, “The Imitation Game” is a great movie. It contains great acting and an amazing soundtrack. “The Imitation Game” follows mathematician Alan Turing and his work during World War II on a machine that would “break” Enigma, the German encoding machine through which the Germans sent their war communications.
When I walked out of the movie, my first thought was that it was well done. However, after some Google research, I learned that there are more than a few historical inaccuracies in the film. The movie has conflict where there was actually none. There are characters that are totally invented, events that are rearranged, and the very nature of Turing’s work is misrepresented. Let’s take a look at a couple of the historical inaccuracies in the film.
The main premise of the film, that Turing invented and built a machine that “broke” Enigma, is not true. Before Turing even began working on his machine, there was already a Polish invention, known as The Bombe, designed for a similar purpose. The movie portrays Turing racing against the clock to build a machine designed to break Enigma. In real life, he had already outlined the concept of a machine in a 1936 paper, according to Hodges. He had also already built a cipher machine in the late 1930’s while he was still at Princeton.
Alan Turing’s personality is also inaccurately portrayed in the movie. The movie makes Turing seem more unlikeable than he actually was. In the movie, his character does not understand any jokes that are told, takes everything that is said in a very literal sense, and does not seem to acknowledge or even notice the emotional reactions that he causes in other people. However, in Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing, it is said that he had a sense of humor and close friends. He was shy, eccentric, and impatient with irrationality. There is one characterization in the movie of Turing that is true in real life: he was a homosexual, though more openly than the film implies; he told both friends and colleagues about his homosexuality.
Shockingly, one person who is not even mentioned in the film is Gordon Welchman, a mathematician who collaborated with Turing at Bletchley Park and was central to the work done there. There are also many inaccurate portrayals of supporting characters in the movie. Indeed, Hugh Alexander was a chess champion, and he was much better at managing people than Turing. But contrary to what the movie portrays, the two did not initially work together at Bletchley Park. Also, Joan Clarke did not get to Bletchley Park through doing well at a crossword game, as the movie would have people believe; she was brought in by Gordon Welchman .
At the end of the movie, Clarke visits Turing in an emotional scene – one that was invented purely for cinematic effect and did not actually happen. Stewart Menzies and John Cairncross, two other characters in the movie, did not actually work closely with Turing. In fact, Cairncross worked in an entirely different unit than Turing, and it is likely the two did not interact at all, since security at Bletchley Park was very tight. Facts about Peter Hilton and Jack Good, background characters in the movie, are also inaccurate. In the movie, Hilton has a brother aboard an army vessel that the team realized targeted by the Germans. None of this was actually true; it was written into the movie with the intention of creating drama.
Two other characters central to the film’s plot are Christopher, Turing’s friend when he was a young boy, and Commander Denniston. It is implied in the movie that Christopher shares Turing’s romantic feelings. In reality this was not the case. Another dramatic flourish invented by screenwriter Graham Moore was that Turing named a computer he worked on at Bletchley Park “Christopher.” In the film, Commander Denniston is portrayed negatively; he has many confrontations with Turing that are completely fictional. However, the tension between the two in the movie does represent the power struggle that often occurred between military and cryptology. In the movie, Turing and others go over Denniston’s head and write a letter to Churchill asking for money. In real life, they did actually write a letter, but they did not go over Denniston’s head.
The end of the movie contains even more fallacies. Detective Nock, a fictional character who investigates the burglary of Turing’s house in the movie, is portrayed to be unaware of Turing’s circumstances at that time. In reality, the detectives who investigated Turing for indecency were under no illusions about Turing’s circumstances. Moreover, the estrogen treatment that supposedly put Turing into emotional turmoil near the end of his life did no such thing. He actually kept most of his normal relationships. The movie also implies that the estrogen treatment had caused Turing’s suicide. Details of his death are still unclear, although it appears that he died from suicide by cyanide.
Although “The Imitation Game” is cinematically well done, the movie contains a lot of historical inaccuracies, from characters and scenes that didn’t exist to how Turing actually broke Enigma. While the movie reflects people and events that happened in real life, it does not stay true to history for very long.