The ideological monoliths of the Cold War are gone. Can a film about a secret service traitor have any resonance for the modern audience, beyond the historical?by Jay Elwes / September 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Leonid Brezhnev’s visit to Washington in 1973, the year before le Carré’s novel was published, began a period of improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union
The film adaptation of the 1974 John le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, from a technical perspective, a supreme exercise of compression. Its Byzantine plot is expertly crammed into two and a half hours of celluloid, in an effort of distillation described recently by Gary Oldman as like “fitting an elephant into a phone box.”
Oldman takes the lead role in this new adaptation and, in doing so, he takes on one of the iconic characters of British spy fiction: that of George Smiley. He does so brilliantly. Smiley, a spy-master, is that very British phenomenon, the interior man. Nothing is displayed. All is kept under wraps: secret. This makes him a very tricky proposition for an actor. Added to which, the shadow of Alec Guinness, who took on the role of Smiley in the 1979 television adaptation, is inevitably cast across this production. The TV series, which consisted of seven hour-long episodes, fixed Guinness in the popular imagination as Smiley and is widely regarded as one of the best television series ever made. For these reasons, this new film adaptation is a brave project indeed.
It is also a refreshingly unfashionable film, perhaps not surprising given that the core idea—that of a grand betrayal—is a dated one. We are not often confronted with the notion of belief—ideological, moral or religious—in modern popular culture—and even less so with the idea of betraying one’s country, if at all. So can a film about a secret service traitor, operating during the height of the Cold War, have any resonance for the modern audience, beyond the historical?
The bare bones of the story are these: Smiley has been sacked from the Secret Service, but is summoned from retirement by worried civil servants. There are rumours that a mole is at work somewhere near the top of MI6, or “the Circus” as it is nicknamed—would he investigate? As an outsider, he is especially suitable: any internal investigation would alert the mole. Smiley accepts the job, agreeing to clean the Augean stables and unearth the traitor.
The film follows Smiley through stuffy 1970s London, with its grey rooms, lino floors and shabby, unhealthy-looking men in cheap, ill-fitting suits. All the while, the mole remains silent, unnamed, but hidden in plain view. It is the uncertainty and paranoia of this concealed identity, so excellently evoked by Thomas Alfredson, the film’s director, which dominates. The camera suggests the mole’s presence in every character’s face.
John le Carré was himself a spy and, like Smiley, his career was overshadowed by the workings of a traitor. In Smiley’s case the traitor was code-named “Gerald.” In Le Carré’s case, the traitor was code-named Homer. His real name was Kim Philby, and he was the most damaging double agent in history.
Philby was one of the Cambridge five, the Soviet spy ring recruited by the NKVD—forerunner of the KGB—at Cambridge University during the 1930s. He eventually fled to Moscow in 1963. In 1968, a trio of Times journalists published a book on his life, entitled The spy who betrayed a generation, for which le Carré provided the introduction. “Like a great novel,” he wrote, “…the story of Kim Philby lives on in us: it conveys not merely a sense of participation but of authorship… We can discern in ourselves the social attitudes and opinions which account as much for Philby’s survival as for his determination to destroy us.”
This is to the point. For Philby betrayed absolutely. He had enjoyed all the advantages of British upper-middle class life: public school, Cambridge, influential friends and a solid, establishment career path. But he rejected all of this for communism. In doing so, he betrayed his peers, his class, his colleagues, the service for which he worked, his friends and his country—everything. The KGB approached Philby because he was young, left-leaning, ideological, and likely to go far. But they could never have predicted that five or so years after recruiting him, Philby would be taken on by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). This was a colossal victory for the KGB. From that moment on, Philby provided a fountain of information for the Soviets; and as he rose through the ranks of the British service, he rose in importance for the Russians.
It is hard to imagine a more damaging career path. In 1944 Philby was appointed to head Section IX, a freshly-created unit designed specifically to work against the Soviet Union. After a stint at the Turkish embassy, Philby was appointed to be SIS representative in Washington, where he worked in liaison with the CIA and FBI. At this point, the most sensitive secrets of the United States were being funneled directly back to the Soviet Union.
Cold War stories of this kind may perhaps seem out of date. Even though Russia is still concerned with getting the better of the west, its efforts seem much less sinister than in the past. In 2010, for example, a network of SVR (the Russian foreign secret service) agents was rolled up in the US, among them a glamorous spy by the name of Anna Chapman. There was something almost ironical about the way the story was reported in the British press, as if Russian espionage was an anachronism: an amusing game, that exists in novels and films. Chapman is now a celebrity in Russia. She stole no secrets. She represented no alternate ideology. The Russian services—the SVR and also the domestic service the FSB—are now dubiously intertwined with commercial and criminal organisations. The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB spy, in London in 2006 was a product of these murky relations. None of this bears much resemblance to the ideologically-charged KGB that lured Philby and the rest of the Cambridge five into clandestine service.
Certainly there are efforts by foreign agencies to steal industrial and technological secrets from the west, but stealing and selling plans falls a long way short of spending decades betraying one’s country on a point of principle. To sell secrets to an adversary—like Aldrich Ames, the CIA employee who in 1985 walked into the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC with the urge to talk and who walked out with a bag-full of cash—is a betrayal of a much lower order.
The strongest challenge to western dominance is now found in China—and perhaps the Chinese secret services will one day succeed in placing a penetration agent at the core of a western power. But would a chief functionary of British intelligence ever look at China and see in it an alternate path forward for all human kind? That is what Philby saw in the Soviet Union, which he supported, as he wrote in his 1968 memoir My Silent War, “in the confident faith that the principles of the revolution would outlive the aberration of individuals, however enormous.” It is hard to see in China’s policy of all-out growth and market progress any remaining “principles of the revolution” to attract a contemporary Philby, or “Gerald.”
Le Carré’s literary status, much like many of his characters, is ambiguous. He does not have the literary status of his fellow MI6 officer Graham Greene, who was a close friend of Philby. Neither is he seen as a straight, airport thriller writer, like his colleague in naval intelligence, Ian Fleming. His novels, in particular Tinker Tailor and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, are somewhere in between. But, more than any other writer, Le Carré—real name David Cornwell—captured the fear and uncertainty of the Cold War and the moral ambiguity of those who fought in it. Even if the geopolitical ends of the states involved in the Cold War offered clear ideological certainty, the means employed by both sides were often drawn in shades of grey.
Le Carré grew up with an intimate understanding of moral ambiguity. In an interview for Channel 4 in 2010, he described his father as having been “a fraudster.” In his novel A Perfect Spy, he portrayed a fictional version of his father, Ronnie Cornwell, a man who, in le Carré’s own words “was a Jack of all trades. He would have called himself a broker… but [he was] actually with a capital ‘S’—spiv.” The effect on Le Carré was to drive him inwards, into his personal interior. “I was born into an extraordinarily dysfunctional family,” he said in the Channel 4 interview, “so I really had to invent my own world from early on. And also, because we were being launched, my brother and I, into an upper middle class society of public school and all that stuff, by a very ambitious lower class father, we were in a sense secret agents entering smart society.”
Philby, too, was the product of a dysfunctional family, and a pariah father. St John Philby, Kim’s father, was a product of the English establishment, but he spent his life in India, growing ever more estranged from Britain, eventually becoming actively hostile towards it. He renounced his Christianity, converted to Islam, moved to Mecca in a house where he kept four large baboons, married a Saudi slave girl, but still kept up his membership of the Athenaeum. He was a linguist by training and became a respected Arabist. But after the first world war, St John was appalled at how the British treated the Arabs in the postwar settlement. He became an adviser to the House of Saud; in 1940, when he returned to Britain, he was interned as a possible enemy sympathiser for having advised the Saudi King to sell his sterling investments—this was seen as treasonous at the time.
St John was said to have bullied Kim, which in turn contributed to his son’s stammer. Did the overbearing and outcast father turn the son into a man in search of refuge; one who would be especially susceptible to an approach from a friendly father figure, offering comradeship, understanding and a secret bond? In My Silent War, Philby addresses this point directly. “It is possible,” he wrote, “that [my father’s] eccentricities enabled me in early life to resist some of the more outrageous prejudices of the English public school system… But very little research would show that at the decisive turning points in my life he was thousands of miles out of reach. If he had lived a little longer to learn the truth he would have been thunder struck, but by no means disapproving.”
Philby is silent on what his father would have thought of the tens, possibly hundreds of agents that he betrayed. For, despite the smooth public school bonhomie, the collars pulled up high against the cheek, the tilted hats and the secret assignations, his betrayal brought death. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, teams of agents parachuted by MI6 and CIA into Hoxha’s communist Albania were wiped out—some of them were even met on the beach by armed reception parties. Agents who landed on the Baltic coast vanished. A rough ride back to Moscow, the basement of the Lubyanka, torture, interrogation and bullet in the head awaited.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy puts across the menace and sense of threat that Philby’s activities brought about. It is a violent film, much more so than the Alec Guinness television series, and in that respect it is more faithful to the book—as well as the consequences of Philby’s actions.
In 1965, the Soviet Union awarded Philby the Red Banner Order, one of the highest Soviet honours of state, for his service to the motherland. He died in Moscow in 1988, a convinced Communist to the end. But he could not exist now—a traitor of “Gerald” or Philby’s magnitude would be impossible. The ideological monoliths of the Cold War are gone. There are no blocs. Is Britain therefore now beyond betrayal, at least on such a scale? Perhaps so. But it is not certain whether that is cause for comfort, or concern.