10:30 am EST, January 5, 2015

Nine facts ‘The Imitation Game’ got wrong about Alan Turing

The Imitation Game depicts the life of Alan Turing, but what we saw was more fiction than history.

Alan Turing was one of the key figures of the 20th century, but until recently his story has not been widely known. The Imitation Game tries to rectify that, by depicting Turing as both a war hero and gay martyr; someone who single-handedly ended World War II at least two years early, and who suffered tragic injustice at the hands of his own government due to his sexuality.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance has already been recognised with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, amongst many others. Alex Lawther also puts in a fantastic turn as the young Alan. But, as good as their performances are, some aspects were not accurate of the real Alan Turing. The Imitation Game spoilers ahead.

He was no traitor

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The biggest liberty taken by The Imitation Game is to accuse Turing of being a traitor to Britain, by not reporting spy John Cairncross (Allen Leech) after Cairncross threatened to expose Turing as a homosexual. In reality, while Cairncross was one of the members of the British spy ring, he and Turing worked on separate projects and would never have met each other. There is also no evidence that Turing knew Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), or that Menzies intentionally leaked information through Cairncross.

He was never suspected of espionage

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A common thread throughout The Imitation Game is the hint that Turing could be a Soviet spy. This carries on not just through his Bletchley Park years, but is given as the reason police pursue him at the end of the film. While there were spies active at Bletchley, Turing was never under suspicion. Additionally, this was never a consideration during the robbery investigation. Rather, the police were told of Turing’s homosexuality while interrogating the burglar, and this is what they went after him for. When confronted with this, Turing made no attempt to hide his sexuality, unlike in the film.

He didn’t invent the machine alone — and it wasn’t called Christopher

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Turing is shown in the film to have been profoundly affected by the death of his childhood crush, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon). This is accurate, but Turing’s devotion didn’t run so deep that — as the film would have us believe — he created computers in an attempt to fill the void Christopher left in his life. Rather, the machine that broke the Enigma code was called the Bombe and Turing built it (based on an earlier machine previously built by Polish cryptology experts) with fellow mathematician Gordon Welchman – not alone. Welchman was not depicted in the film.

He wasn’t the outsider

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Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of Turing puts the mathematician somewhere on the Autism spectrum — he fails to understand basic social cues and to interact with others, and as the film constantly reminds us, he doesn’t know what a joke is. The real Turing was undeniably eccentric and preferred to work alone, but with his friends he could also be funny, warm, and charming, and he was particularly popular with children. The Imitation Game isolates Turing from other people, but in reality he had less in common with Cumberbatch’s other famous genius — Sherlock Holmes — than the filmmakers would have us believe.

He didn’t have to fight with his commanding officer

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In The Imitation Game, Turing, and Turing alone, is depicted as being responsible for cracking the Enigma code. As previously stated, Turing did not work on the machine alone. Further to that, rather than constantly threatening to fire him — as is depicted in the film — his commanding officer Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) was himself a cryptanalyst and he actively encouraged and supported Turing and his colleagues.

His sexuality wasn’t so closely guarded

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Turing’s sexuality is certainly a key aspect of The Imitation Game, but the film depicts him as a gay man who keeps his sexuality as a closely guarded secret, on a par with the secrecy surrounding his employment at Bletchley. Although homosexuality was at the time illegal in Britain, Turing was open with his friends and colleagues, and was known to frequently make advances to other men. He was briefly engaged to Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who he told about his sexuality. Their engagement ended amicably when Turing decided he couldn’t go through with it, and they remained lifelong friends.

He may not have committed suicide

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At the end of The Imitation Game, filmmakers state that Turing committed suicide at age 41, apparently attributing the cause to the chemical castration he underwent. But the reality is not so clear cut. While it had been widely accepted that Turing died by cyanide poising ingested via a poisoned apple, in recent years, a key Turing expert has claimed that the apple was never tested for the presence of cyanide, and that such a death would — if it occurred today — be deemed accidental. At the time, Turing was experimenting with cyanide and could have accidentally ingested fatal vapours. Additionally, the expert contends that as the investigation into Turing’s death was conducted so poorly, even murder can’t be ruled out.

His death can’t be attributed solely to the hormone treatment

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The text at the end of The Imitation Game draws an oblique parallel between Turing’s arrest and subsequent hormone treatment, and his apparent suicide. However, Turing was arrested in 1952 (not 1951, as occurs in the film), and his hormone treatment ended 14 months before his death. The treatment was certainly horrific and tragic, but Turing continued to work on his projects and experiments enthusiastically following its conclusion. While the chemical castration Turing underwent certainly may have contributed to his suicide — if indeed it was suicide — it was not the simple cause and effect scenario the filmmakers constructed.

He wasn’t a crossword puzzle genius

imitation game historical accuracy

Finally, The Imitation Game would have us believe that Turing created the famous Bletchley Park crossword puzzle used to recruit code-breakers, and through it found sort-of love interest Joan Clarke. It’s a great story. However, Clarke was not recruited by the puzzle — she was already working at Bletchley by then — and Turing had nothing to do with its creation. And the deception goes even further — Turing probably couldn’t have solved the puzzle anyway. He was, in his own words, “not much use at them [crossword puzzles].”

‘The Imitation Game’ is in cinemas now

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