- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2014

It was said to be unbreakable. The German code machine Enigma had 150 “million million” possible combinations, and the primer key changed at midnight, further scuttling England’s hopes of cracking the Nazi’s secret communication lines.

And yet Alan Turing, a math professor and puzzle enthusiast, assembled a ragtag group of British wonks to decipher the undecipherable. So classified was his work that he was never recognized in his lifetime — the project remaining secret for decades after Turing’s death in 1954.

“The real trick to keeping a secret is not letting anyone know that there’s even a secret to be kept,” said Graham Moore, screenwriter of the new film “The Imitation Game,” which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the mercurial mathematician. “It’s almost unimaginable for Americans. We would never have kept that secret for 50 years; someone would have leaked it.”

Turing’s machine, which he called “Christopher,” cracked the Nazi code early in the war, but it was paramount to keep that fact from getting out: If Berlin high command caught wind that their code had been deciphered, the Allies’ advantage might well have disappeared. This meant Turing and his overseers in MI6 were faced with an incredible Hobson’s choice of granting the Germans some victories while scuttling others. In fact, despite knowing the Blitz of London was coming, it was “allowed” to happen by British intelligence.

“These were mathematicians — they were trained for literal calculus,” adds Mr. Moore, “but they had not been trained for this sort of moral calculus” of weighing who among the war effort’s soldiers would live and who would die. Such a weight seems unfathomable at any age, but for Turning, who was only 27 when he arrived at the secret facility at Bletchley Park northwest of London, this required a silent assent, knowing they were in effect playing God.

A week of shooting “The Imitation Game” was done at the Bletchley Park location where Turning and his codebreakers worked. Mr. Moore, a Chicago native, on the surface might seem an odd choice to pen a uniquely British story, but his screenplay is both true to history and features a healthy dollop of British witticism and understatement.

“There was a moment on set where [Norwegian director] Morten [Tyldum] suggested to Keira [Knightley] that she hug Benedict for this sort of emotional moment between them, and she was like, ‘No, no, no, we’re English, we don’t hug,’” Mr. Moore relates with a laugh.

Miss Knightley costars as Joan Clarke, a woman who joins the codebreaker collective at Bletchley at a time when few women worked outside the home, let alone in spycraft.

“She was a very smart women at a time when women weren’t valued for their intelligence,” Mr. Moore says. “She could’ve been a professor at Cambridge, but women weren’t allowed to be at the time.”

One of the film’s pivotal elements is the relationship that develops between Turing and Clarke, a fondness that might even have been called love. The two became engaged, and despite Turing’s confession that he’d had experiences with men, she didn’t necessarily see this as a problem, claiming that she in fact loved his mind.

“I felt it was such a modern relationship for people to have had in the 1940s,” says Mr. Moore. “I think they were both very ahead of their time in certain ways. I saw them as two people who were outsiders for very different reasons.”

With the war won, the codebreaker team disbanded, instructed by MI6 to never again speak of their work to anyone, even their spouses. Turing went back to teaching at the University of Manchester until an “indecency” conviction ruined his career in 1952.

“I think Alan Turing was written out a lot of popular narratives of computer science and of the Second World War because of his persecution at the hands of the government,” says Mr. Moore. “No one knew he was a war hero. During his trial and conviction, he remained faithful to the government even when the government wasn’t faithful to him.

He kept their secret” even as his own personal life as a homosexual was splayed across the tabloids at a time when such a thing remained illegal under British laws. Furthermore, the Cold War had London paranoid that gay men could be easily blackmailed by the Soviets into spying for Moscow.

“He was quite matter of fact about his homosexuality,” Mr. Moore says. “He had such a logical mind, and to him it was just like any other preference. While he personally felt no shame, he knew obviously that it was illegal, and especially during the war it sort of couldn’t be risked. He knew he’d be thrown in jail, and he had to keep it a secret.”

With his secret out, the court gave Turing a choice: go to jail or undergo chemical castration via estrogen therapy. He opted for the latter and committed suicide in 1954.

The ensuing six decades would see not only a revolution in “Turing machines” — which we now know as “computers” — but also in gay rights and the dismissal of such laws as those that condemned Turing. His other secret, that of his spyhood and cracking Enigma, was declassified by MI6 decades after his death.

While it was far too late for Turing to get the recognition he deserved to both the war effort and computer science, he was posthumously pardoned for his indecency conviction by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013.

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide