U-571: Hollywood’s Rewrite of History Give Historical Films a Bad Name
Hollywood is famous for rewriting history. However, when producers took the plunge on a World War II submarine drama called U-571, they caused an international incident…
How did this go down overseas? Not well, as you’ll discover. Before we take a deep dive into the controversy, let’s look at how U-571 was made. Even an inaccurate war move requires a lot of effort to get it floating…
- Matthew McConaughey on a submarine
- Bon Jovi on deck
- The true story
- Lt Commander David Balme
- Enigma and the Americans
- The movie caused offence
- A Prime Minister and a President
Matthew McConaughey on a Submarine
Released in 2000, U-571 tells the story of an American sub crew on a mission to board the stricken vessel of the title. Their aim is to retrieve the Enigma machine, which had been encrypting German communications and helping inflict carnage on Allied forces.
In a further dramatic development, the US commander is taken out in a German attack and Lt Andrew Tyler, played by Matthew McConaughey, has to take his place. Not a bad deal for Tyler, who just so happened to be hankering after his own submarine command before fate intervened!
Unfortunately, he and his crew are on board U-571 when the attack happens, meaning they need to take control of the German craft and try to reach safety. Not easy when you’re an Allied crew on a Nazi boat, and a potential sitting duck for all sides.
This nail-biting tale ends with U-571 being sunk and the Americans adrift in a lifeboat, where they get rescued. The Enigma machine is in their possession and ready to be analysed by… who? The USA? Not exactly.
While this sounds like a credible chapter in wartime history, it was in fact a work of fiction. Director Jonathan Mostow and screenwriters David Ayer and Sam Montgomery were certainly inspired by history. Yet ultimately they decided to spin things in a pro-American direction.
Bon Jovi on Deck
“I wanted to do this film because of the character whom I liked a lot,” Matthew McConaughey said, during a 2000 interview with Dark Horizons. “I wanted to play a leader of men, that heroic character.”
Starring alongside McConaughey were the late Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel and Jon Bon Jovi. Yes, the rocker turned actor was a key part of the action, something that raised some eyebrows at the time. Not that this criticism was entirely warranted, as he’d developed an acting career long before U-571.
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Director Jonathan Mostow was keen that his players understood the realities of life aboard a submarine. He and the production team also ensured they had expert advice from veterans, though the nature of the movie ruffled more than a few feathers amongst experts on its release.
It may surprise you to learn that the Enigma machine featured in the movie was the genuine article. The filmmakers loaned it from a collector, as mentioned on IMDB.
Furthermore, the specially-constructed submarine was mistaken for a possible threat by the Americans whilst shooting in the Mediterranean. The majority of the filming took place in massive water tanks based in Malta.
The production designer was Götz Weidner, who also worked on the submarine classic Das Boot (1981). U-571 won an Oscar for Best Sound Editing and received some positive reviews from critics. Empire wrote that Mostow had “fashioned something with an admirable level of purity about it”, whilst drawing attention to its status as an Americanized product.
The True Story
What were the true events that inspired the screenplay for U-571? An Enigma machine was most certainly captured from a German submarine in 1941. However, the crew that did this were British.
Men from the B-class destroyer HMS Bulldog ventured down into the depths of the North Atlantic to explore U-110, a Nazi sub which had fallen into Allied hands. David Balme, then a 19 year old sub-lieutenant aboard the ship, was in charge of the team.
Brave though he was, he dreaded the experience. He described it as the “most frightening moment of my life”, as covered by Forces.net in 2016. The group braced themselves for any Germans who might be on board. Everything seemed abandoned, yet Balme and company had to keep their wits about them.
As he revealed to the BBC in 2000, these enemy vessels were typically rammed to send them to a watery grave. Not the plan here! Instead, he faced the prospect of his own demise, via a booby trap or similar peril.
In total, only 3 U-boats were boarded over the course of the conflict, so this was a rare and risky assignment. Thankfully, the sub had been ditched, after commanding officer Fritz-Julius Lemp made the hasty decision to flee without considering the all important precious cargo of the Enigma.
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Their mission, dubbed Operation Primrose, was dictated by the classified material on board. Alongside the typewriter-like Enigma machine, they retrieved documentation relating to coded messages.
It was the first machine ever captured and, as Forces.net states, shaved at least a couple of years off the war in Europe as the Allies took maximum advantage. Balme spent what must have been an agonizing 6 hours with the sub, stuck inside a pressurized and unstable environment.
The site mentions that mathematicians from Poland played a key role in cracking German codes. Things were made exceptionally tough when Hitler’s fiendish minds switched their ciphers on a daily basis. It was a war fought in people’s head space, as well as the battlefield.
The impact of the HMS Bulldog operation was huge. Forces.net writes that when Enigma “became operational in June 1941, Allied shipping losses were around 432,000 tons. By August, this had dropped to less than 80,000 tons.”
Lt Commander David Balme
Bletchley Park and its codebreakers – notably Alan Turing – turned the tide of the Second World War. Yet the men and women who smashed apart the Reich’s tactical powerhouse would go unrecognized for decades.
Such was the nature of their work. This also applied to David Balme, who later became a Lieutenant Commander but whose efforts weren’t publicly acknowledged until the middle of the 1970s.
He received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) that same year from King George VI. Of course this historic meeting needed to be kept under wraps. According to the Royal Navy, he also received an apology from the King over this apparently underwhelming honor. Protocol dictated that this was the best they could award him at the time!
Balme passed away in January, 2016. In their tribute, the Royal Navy describes him as “a quiet hero whose actions helped change the course of the Battle of the Atlantic – and World War 2.”
Reportedly going on to work in the family’s Hampshire wool business, he may have thought his involvement in wartime matters was at an end. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
To what was no doubt his surprise, he took a call from the producers of U-571, who wanted him to join them for their shoot and provide advice for the production. How did this go, and what was Balme’s response to being amongst the great and good of Hollywood? You’ll find out shortly.
Enigma and the Americans
Before we get into what happened when the man who captured the Enigma machine met the stars of U-571, let’s look at the role the US Navy played with regards to German code breaking. You see, the Americans did actually capture a Nazi sub in a similar situation.
In 1944, the U-505 was attacked in African waters and taken to port. This was part of a US effort to track down and capture Enigma machines, led by Captain Daniel Gallery and a task force of destroyers. When the sub entered their sights, it was targeted with depth charges. The crew jumped ship and Gallery’s men managed to secure not just one but two Enigmas.
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The U-505 was then towed to Port Royal, Bermuda. Interestingly, the HMS Bulldog tried to tow the U-110 but unfortunately the vessel filled with water and sank en route to Iceland. Captain Gallery faced a possible court martial over keeping hold of the U-505 and not wrecking it. The thinking was that the news might get back to the Germans and they might change their codes accordingly. Instead, Gallery received a promotion.
The Movie Caused Offence
So, the Americans made a big contribution to the war effort with regards the Enigma. Thing was, U-571 seemed to suggest it was the US and not the UK who struck the first blow against Hitler in this regard.
Historians such as Alex von Tunzelmann made her feelings known. Writing in The Guardian in 2009, she highlights how the director had “the audacity to end on a title card dedicating his film to the memory of the real sailors who captured Enigma machines.”
She adds that this is the “most tasteless gesture”. Also, it only appears to have happened thanks to Lt Commander David Balme’s involvement with the production. According to the BBC, he suggested a caption at the beginning of U-571 telling audiences that it was a fictional story. A caption was added at the end instead.
When David Balme first heard about the film, he wasn’t impressed. Speaking to the BBC, he said he was a “bit surprised” and thought it was “a pity”, though when he was invited by Jonathan Mostow to advise the filmmakers, he enjoyed the experience.
Balme believes the producers ultimately helped inform people about a key event in wartime history. He added: “I don’t know why anyone complains because no-one had heard of this before the Americans made the film.”
You might not expect U-571 to have gotten the thumbs up from surviving U-boat commanders. That said, it was slammed for inaccuracies by one on the History Channel – scenes where Germans kill Allied survivors weren’t welcomed by commentators. IMDB mentions his comment: “They got one thing right in the movie. There were U-Boats in the North Atlantic during the Second World War.”
A Prime Minister and a President
The film even drew a rebuke at the highest level, with the then-British Prime Minister wading into the debate. Sir Tony Blair aimed his torpedoes at the production from the UK Parliament, albeit political missiles. MP (Member of Parliament) Paul Truswell sent a letter to then-US President Bill Clinton. He received a response that sought to reassure Truswell and his constituents, yet the anger remained.
U-571 director Jonathan Mostow hung this letter on the wall of his office, as mentioned during a 2021 interview with Vulture. Trouble brewed in the UK press when they discovered an American-oriented Enigma movie was in the works.
It was at this point he contacted David Balme, in an attempt to acknowledge the British contribution. “Thank God that social media hadn’t kicked in at that point, because I would’ve been canceled five times or more” Mostow quipped.
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Other creative personnel arguably feel less philosophical. Talking to The Film Programme on Radio 4 in 2006, co-writer David Ayer mentioned his regret. Of Lt Commander Balme he said that he “seemed OK with it… but I understand how important that event is to the UK, and I won’t do it again.”
Prime Minister Blair
Was it right for Hollywood to take pieces of history and assemble them into a whole other narrative? Many say not. Prime Minister Blair concurred with the assessment that the film was an “affront” to British servicemen.
Others understood the idea of filtering events through an American lens as part of a worldwide blockbuster release. Even the man who originally rescued the first Enigma machine saw where Mostow was coming from. Whatever the view, U-571 was a box office hit and proceeded to descend into movie history.
In case you’re wondering, there was actually a real U-571 sub. It was sunk by depth charges off the Irish coast in January 1944. Those who managed to escape reportedly perished from hypothermia. It wasn’t involved in the kind of circumstances presented by the movie.