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Not Your Father’s World War II Documentary

Growing up, I had what I thought the dubious honor of a dad who never flipped past anything World War II-related on television without stopping to watch it.  Tales of D-Day were of special interest–how well I remember the June marathons of anniversary years 1984, 1994 and 2004, when he seemed unable to resist any old movie depiction, eyewitness interview, or even the most obscure wreath-laying captured on tape by C-Span.  My whines of “can’t we turn it back to A.L.F.?” were rebuffed with all the force of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, often with that classic parental refrain, guaranteed to kill whatever interest in the subject one may actually have: “Stick around . . . you might learn something.”

Apparently he was right.  Much to my own surprise, as an adult I find myself drawn to the subject, which led me recently to a documentary in the library’s DVD collection called Garbo: The Spy.  Released in 2009, Garbo documents one of the unknown heroes of the war, a Spaniard named Juan Pujol Garcia.  Garcia, born into an upper middle class Barcelona family, bumbled into his war service by volunteering to be a spy for both sides, with no particular training or skills.  He did, however, have an aptitude for deception.  After being assigned by the Germans to gather top secret information in England, he gained their trust by providing them with “intelligence” dug out of newspapers and other information readily available in the public library in Lisbon, Portugal, the city where he lived on the sly and fabricated a network of fictitious subagents.  Eventually, Garcia convinced the British that he wished to serve the Allied cause as a true double agent.  His British handlers assigned him the codename “Garbo”—in honor of his ability to pull off one of the greatest acting jobs they had seen—and used him as a conduit to feed the Germans bogus information throughout the rest of the war.

Garbo’s greatest accomplishment was to lend credibility to an elaborate deception plan carried out on the Germans prior to the D-Day landings at Normandy.  While they could not hide the massive invasion force that landed on June 6, 1944, the Allies hoped to present this attack to the Nazis as a diversionary action leading up to a larger invasion at the Pas de Calais region, where Hitler and other top brass had expected it for years.  To bolster this German assumption, a giant force of phony men and materiel (much of it literally constructed out of balsa wood and cardboard) was sloppily “concealed” in England preparing for a second invasion, and German intelligence had only as far to look for verification than the reports of their star agent on the ground: Garbo.  During the post-war years, Nazi documents revealed that this deception saved countless lives by freezing German forces at Calais, and preventing a major counterattack at Normandy.  One of the film’s most powerful moments is revealed in footage of Garbo himself, as an elderly man, strolling the beaches and memorials at Normandy, pondering his own impact on the fateful Allied invasion as he is thanked by other D-Day veterans.

As unusual as the spy story at its heart is the cinematic style of Garbo: The Spy.  It’s about as different from my dad’s grainy old interview shows as can be, with a moody, modern soundtrack, interspersed archival footage, and referential clips from older, well-known spy and World War II movies.  A frequent reference is the 1959 classic Our Man in Havana, in which Alec Guinness, decades before his Obi Wan years, portrays Graham Greene’s  accidental hero James Wormold, a character with an elaborate fake spy network said to be based loosely on Garbo’s.  I also spotted clips of two of Dad’s old favorites: the scene from George C. Scott’s 1970 Patton  in which Old Blood and Guts, as the Allies’ most high profile general, receives his assignment to head up the dummy invasion force; and The Longest Day, based on Cornelius Ryan’s classic account which, until Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan  was the last word on D-Day in print or on film.  And just to throw it in on principal, no discussion of World War II dramas and documentaries would be complete without reference to Band of Brothers, HBO’s 11-hour epic, and the groundbreaking 1974 British documentary The World at War , godfather to the Ken Burns-style documentary television series so common today.  For any interested in learning more about Garbo specifically, a recent book by Ben MacIntyre, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies chronicles Garcia’s exploits in detail, along with those of several other double agents involved in Allied deception plans.  MacIntyre’s previous book, Operation Mincemeat, is also not to be missed by anyone interested in World War II chicanery, as it details a bizarre stunt in which bogus invasion plans were planted on a dead body by the British in order to divert the Germans from the real Allied plan to invade Sicily in 1943. – Dan Coleman, Collection Development


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