The year is 1944 and the planned D-Day Landings are mere weeks away, but how can British Intelligence convince the Nazis there is nothing going to happen? That problem has fallen to Colonel Logan (Cecil Parker) who receives a coded telephone call from one of his agents, Major Harvey (John Mills), that he is being followed now he has just this minute returned from an overseas mission, but the Colonel reassures him this is one of his own men who is keeping tabs on him, and Harvey makes for the offices immediately after. He is dismayed to see the secretary who had caught his eye is no longer there, and that evening after trying to work out a new scheme he decides to visit the theatre for a break to see if he can meet her...
And while he's there, he notices a middle-aged actor on the stage who the audience think is General Montgomery, the British war hero and leader of men, which gets the cogs in his mind turning. Naturally, it didn't happen exactly like that in reality, but the spirit of I Was Monty's Double is more or less accurate, and the man in the title role who saved so many lives by dint of his impersonation was M.E. Clifton James (not to be mistaken for the American character star Clifton James - he didn't look or sound anything like Monty). He was not allowed to discuss the weeks he spent under an famous alias until around ten years later, when he penned a memoir which belatedly made him very well known, as it was a bestseller. Naturally a movie version was ordered, but who could they get to play him?
Well, it was nearly fifteen years later, but M.E. Clifton James was still available, so in a touching twist of fate he got to act out his heroism on the big screen, letting even more people know of his crucial role in D-Day. This at least made up for the treatment he was given by the British military who more or less dropped him once the subterfuge was over; Monty himself saw to it James received some financial recompense, but as the horror author Dennis Wheatley, who worked in Intelligence, said, this man was "treated shabbily" by the powers that be. Now, many years later, the film is a staple of British afternoon television since the tale it tells is so irresistable; although a low budget production, the cheek of the enterprise remained easy to admire and get lost in for ninety minutes.
In real life it was genuine British movie star David Niven who recruited James, but for reasons which remain secret to this day he asked not to be included in the film version (or perhaps he was merely being modest and felt his presence would overwhelm the story of James). The plot continues in breezy fashion which tends to present the account as a romp, almost lighthearted with jokey asides though every so often director John Guillermin working to the script by Bryan Forbes (who also appeared in a small role) would pull us up short and remind the audience there was very much at stake, so enjoy the derring-do but remember thousands of lives were on the line. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the last act, where Forbes invented a kidnapping plot to round things off.
That may not have happened, but James was in danger, there was no doubt about it, and had to fool not only those who had never met him but those who had as well. This has interesting things to say about heroism: assuredly Monty was a man to be admired, but in his way the lowly James was as well, the difference being the old cliché that some men are born great while others have greatness thrust upon them, which was doubtless the case for the rep actor who by chance happened to resemble one of the most important figures in the Second World War. There are some neat scenes where jeopardy raises its head, though the standout was the dinner engagement on Gibraltar with Marius Goring's shady Nielson, both an authority and an agent the British are all too aware will hand over any information he can glean about the Allies' plans to the Nazis; it's bits such as that where the drama comes alive. But what was most inspiring about I Was Monty's Double was that its central player got his time in the limelight when everyone could appreciate him. Music by John Addison.
[This has been restored by Studio Canal and released on Blu-ray and DVD as part of the Vintage Classics Collection. The special features are as follows:
NEW! interview with historian Terry Crowdy, author of Deceiving Hitler
John Mills Home Movie footage
Monty's Double (1947)
Behind the Scenes stills gallery.]