In his very first pitch for The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, screenwriter Arash Amel described his vision for the World War II-set action film as "The Dirty Dozen meets Ocean's Eleven, in the tone of Guy Ritchie." But even he wasn't expecting that Guy Ritchie would actually sign on to direct it.

Based on Damien Lewis' 2014 non-fiction book Churchill's Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare tracks the origins of a covert organization commissioned by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to carry out secret missions in Nazi-occupied Europe. Ritchie recruited a number of his regular collaborators to headline the colorful crew — including The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'s Henry Cavill, Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre's Cary Elwes, and The Gentlemen's Henry Golding — but don't let there be any confusion.

"That's The Gentlemen — we are ungentlemen," Amel says with a laugh. "Everyone on this unit wasn't let into gentlemen circles; it's everybody who was booted out of the Army."

The writer is no stranger to bringing true stories to the big screen, having previously scripted such biopics as Grace of Monaco (2014) and A Private War (2018). But he knew that The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare couldn't be a traditional World War II retelling, which proved to be a perfect match for Ritchie's signature swagger.

"I knew that it couldn't ever be too self-serious," Amel tells A.frame. "Rather than trying to constrain myself to a genre, we have a war movie that's a Western in its DNA, but, at the same time, it's recognizing the absurdity of World War II and the ridiculousness of these extremes that our forefathers found themselves in and the extremes that they had to go to. And then obviously Guy takes that and elevates it to something that is very embellished and very action-comedy. For me, it was about letting the audience have a fun time and be in the shoes of these misfits and rebels.”

A.frame: What is your Ungentlemanly Warfare origin story? I believe Paramount acquired the rights to Damien's book all the way back in 2015, so when did you get in the mix?

Jerry Bruckheimer was saying the other day that he'd been on it for 10 years, and I joined not that long after. He sent it to me in 2017, and it was about six months before the option expired. If you've just seen what's come out of CinemaCon at Paramount, it's all existing IP and sequels and reboots, and so we show up with a historical nonfiction book about World War II and this secret piece of history, and there were so many questions. "Why should we make this movie? Why now? Who cares?" I read it and immediately was transported back to the high-adventure war movies that I grew up with: The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly's Heroes. There's a lot of fun there. There are high stakes. It's life or death. We're dealing with Nazis, but there's a lot of fun there. There was this era in the '60s and '70s where we seemed to have somehow gotten over the rightful severity of World War II and the really dry serious historical retelling, and it started to go through this pop culture deconstruction of, well, it really was a time of great adventure! My wife is English and her father was 18 during the war, and he didn't go fight but they brought all the young men out and taught them how to kill a Nazi should a Nazi step on British soil. I always thought it was wild that you had this whole generation that were taught to kill with really primitive means.

And Nazism has not gone away, it's still with us, and I think we're at the peril of forgetting the lessons of World War II and the threat that it posed and continues to pose to a new generation. So, how do we do it so that it's not a history lesson? And here was this story of these absolute lunatics — and so much of it was true.

Jerry Bruckheimer and screenwriter Arash Amel at the premiere of 'The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.'

How did you balance sticking to the core truths of the real story with taking some liberties to make it the big, fun and entertaining action movie that it is?

I've adapted a few true stories now, and part of the reason Jerry sent it to me was that I was just finishing up on a movie called A Private War — which was a very, very different movie. When you approach these adaptations, I always go back to Aaron Sorkin, who has this great quote that "truth can be the enemy of good drama." I have a slightly paradoxical view of that, which is that I believe it is true but I also feel that, if you move away from the historical components, you're at risk of jeopardizing the meaning of the story, so you can't go too fictionalized. And so I exist in this sort of nervous natural tension right in the middle, which is, how do we have a lot of fun while making sure everything has to have a root in the truth?

Even the most far-fetched components of the movie, in some capacity, do go back to a rooted element in the truth. I'll give you an example: In the opening sequence, where they go into the Nazi camp and they're rescuing Apple [Alex Pettyfer], that was actually an amalgamation of a couple of subsequent missions. There was an operation called Operation Dryden, and it wasn't a big Nazi sort of massacre. In fact, some of the Nazis fainted when they saw them. [Laughs.] So, the ridiculousness was there, but there were subsequent missions where they did massacre a lot of Nazis. So, a lot of it was actually like, "This stuff happened, it's really cool, how do we get it into the movie?"

When does Guy come into play, and how did his arrival on the project impact you and your writing? Guy is one of those directors that has become a genre unto himself in a way. You know what a Guy Ritchie movie is and what it sounds like.

Well, believe it or not, my first pitch to Paramount was, "This has to be The Dirty Dozen meets Ocean's Eleven, in the tone of Guy Ritchie." Way back in the beginning, those were my exact words. I had to then go and write the script and figure all of that out, but I always knew that there aren't that many directors who can capture that swagger. It was interesting, in the first pass of the script, I didn't have Churchill, because I felt like Churchill was going to be very overpowering, and Gary Oldman had just done The Darkest Hour. And Jerry and I had a meeting with Ridley Scott, just to talk about it. He read it, he was wanting to give some thoughts, and one of the key inputs was, "Put Churchill in there." We went through a few years of getting it right, and then Jerry gave it to Guy and I immediately got a call saying, "Guy's read it, and he loves it, and he wants to do it." And so everything was in place for Guy to come in and do what he does amazingly well.

A really fun Easter Egg is the presence of Ian Fleming, the British military man-turned-author who penned the James Bond novels. How exciting a realization was it for you when you discovered his role in Operation Postmaster and that you would be able to make him a character (played by Freddie Fox ) in the film?

I mean, this is the genesis of James Bond! You can draw the line back to Fleming's experiences as the right-hand man to M and this unit they were running. He was an extremely young and very bright Naval intelligence officer who M brought on board for strategic planning, and so he was intricately involved in all of their mission planning over the years. And the sum of the spirit of Gus March-Phillips and Anders Lassen and all of these different operatives did become the genesis of James Bond and would subsequently go on to be the archetypal secret agents. He was there throughout the whole thing, and, once again, truth is stranger than fiction.


Guy loves to return to his same guys, and here, he brings back past collaborators like Henry Cavill, Henry Golding and Cary Elwes. Then there's first timers like Alan Ritchson and Eiza González. How did you react when you saw the cast that Guy was putting together, and then what was it like watching them step into these characters that you'd created?

Often, you find that casting starts to influence the characterization and the actors open up things that you didn't even think about. As written, the two Henrys, Cary, Freddie [Fox] as Fleming, Babs [Olusanmokun] as Richard Heron were all very much as you would expect. But what I loved were the surprises. You're writing something, you hand it over, and then suddenly Alan Ritchson shows up. The way it was originally written was that the character that Hero [Fiennes Tiffin] plays, Hazy, was a big Irish Republican Guard guy, and Lassen, he did everything that Alan does, but if you see him in real-life, he wasn’t 300 pounds. [Laughs] He was a lot more lean. When Alan showed up, they swapped, so Lassen became this larger-than-life sort of Hulk that runs a bowling ball through the Nazis, and Hazy became the more soft-spoken sailor who is a protégé to Gus. It's those surprises where you go, "You know what? It works even better." And Alan embodies the spirit and ferocity of Anders Lassen in a way that I don't think having him the other way would've done. 

Without spoiling the end of the film, it ends in a way that allows you to envision a bunch of sequels featuring these guys on various missions for Churchill. But I looked at the real story and realized that Henry Cavill's Gus, the team leader, died shortly after the events of this movie. Does that fact eliminate the possibility of more?

If I had my way, I would certainly want to do more, and I know Jerry has said that he would too. This unit operated throughout the war, and after Gus was subsequently killed in the second or third mission, Lassen became the leader. For me, that level of commitment to history is not necessary. I love Henry and I want Henry to come back, so we'll give him a noble death in a couple of movies if we get that far. But I would certainly love to do another one, and the thought was always just let's see how this one's received and there’s plenty of stories still to come if we get an opportunity.

I will say, just when I thought we'd seen all the possible versions of a World War II film, this was a welcomed addition to the canon.

You can end up in a situation where audiences get fatigued, and you have these instincts that fans just want something to go to and have a good time. Cinema is so capable of doing that and often we forget it. And it's always so satisfying and makes it worth going through all the tribulations over the years, the ups and downs and every time someone said, "No one wants to see that." It’s really fulfilling.

By Derek Lawrence


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