‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ Is the Nazi-Killing Heist Film America Needs Right Now

The movie poster for 'The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.'
The movie poster for 'The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.' (Lionsgate)

If ever there were such a thing as an impossible mission, it’s the daring heist housed within “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”

Directed by British filmmaker Guy Ritchie (“The Covenant”), the action-packed popcorn movie tells the story of the epic heroism of the British government’s Special Operations Executive, Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s covert band of rogues secretly called upon to do what proper military officers could and would not do. The official goal is to blow up a cargo ship that supplies German U-boats, rendering them useless and thereby clearing Atlantic shipping lanes, but unforeseen complications turn the planned sabotage into a high-stakes maritime heist.

Led by devil-may-care leader Gus March-Phillipps (Henry Cavill, “Man of Steel”) and supported by a colorful ensemble of scoundrels, the film is two hours of humor, hijinks and (of course) enough Nazi-killing to make even the cast of ‘Inglourious Basterds’ blush.

Although a fun, fictionalized version of the 1942 mission known as “Operation Postmaster,” Damien Lewis -- the author of “Churchill's Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII,” upon which the film is based -- said Ritchie’s vision of the SOE does a perfect job portraying the essence of the real-life special operations forces involved in it.

“The great thing about the movie is that it captures their spirit,” Lewis, who spent years as a war correspondent, recently told Military.com. “Outwardly, Churchill’s Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare was set up to do all the things you're not allowed to do in war.”

The group was instructed to carry out its early missions by any means possible, and that’s exactly what they did.

“That's assassinations, blackmail, money laundering, bribery, corruption, terrorism, raising guerrilla armies behind enemy lines,” Lewis said. “It was set up to do all the things which are illegal under the rules of war.”

Henry Cavill in 'The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.'
Henry Cavill in 'The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.' (Lionsgate)

Ritchie’s depiction of Operation Postmaster feels like “Inglourious Basterds” in its subject matter and “Kingsman” in its charm. It’s also wickedly funny, which Lewis said played a key role in getting the story right, even if the cinematic mission portrayed on screen isn’t 100% historically accurate.

In the film, the crew is tasked with infiltrating a Spanish-held port in West Africa that Nazis occupy to take out that U-boat supply ship. The SOE conspires to host a party to distract the assembled German troops while their leader is seduced by a Jewish operative masquerading as a bombshell diamond entrepreneur.

The first action sequence involves the crew pretending to be Swedish vacationers on a drunken sailing trip but quickly turns violent when Nazis board their vessel. In true Ritchie form, the dialogue is quippy, the fight scene is choppy and the explosions are as bombastic as the characters.

'The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare' is a fictionalized account of the 1942 British government mission known as 'Operation Postmaster.'
'The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare' is a fictionalized account of the 1942 British government mission known as 'Operation Postmaster.' (Photo courtesy of Dan Smith/Lionsgate)

The historical version, of course, was in fact intended as a heist, but the mission they embarked on was billed essentially as a suicide mission nonetheless. In the real-world Operation Postmaster, March-Phillipps and his band of merry misfits sailed to the Spanish-held island of Fernando Po to cripple the Axis forces by stealing Italian and German ships and sailing them to Lagos by tugboat. The odds of success were so insurmountable, it’s almost as though it was written explicitly for a future heist comedy.

“You can imagine the kinds of situations faced in those missions; humor and keeping that stiff, British upper lip is absolutely key,” Lewis said. “If the humor dies, the esprit de corps, the spirit of the mission, is finished.”

These operators were special agents, all code-numbered “double-oh,” which SOE liaison Ian Fleming would later use when inspired to write about everyone’s favorite spy: James Bond, 007. This only added to the lore of special operations forces, Lewis noted.

While “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” can fit neatly into the categories of action and comedy, there are some more serious truths found within it. The underlying message is one of heroism: Making it home from the mission would be unlikely, if not miraculous, and death was viewed as a certainty. Despite these odds, the SOE crew was willing to risk it to stand up against the evil that Nazism represented at any cost.

The resulting heist film also unexpectedly prompts a look at the dangers of extremism through a comical lens -- something worth considering as the United States grapples with its own mounting domestic turmoil. A growing number of Americans are convinced that civil war looms on the horizon amid a revitalization of neo-fascist movements at home, “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” offers a reminder (albeit a violent one) about exactly how to deal with Nazis -- a comforting historical fairy tale for uncertain times.

Luckily, the SOE did somehow survive Operation Postmaster and continued to perform daring missions long after, laying the foundations for modern special operations forces as we know them now. A motley crew likened to a banditi evolved into what we know today as some of the most elite warriors around the world.

“From that kind of wonderful, Maverick spirit -- that absolutely inspired, right and justifiable beginning -- came this pedigree that we still see playing out today in all our special operations and elite forces wherever they may be serving in the world,” Lewis added. “Long may that legend and that pedigree continue.”

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” premieres April 19, 2024.

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