American Histories - How The War Wasn't Won

"U-571" is an undoubtedly exciting movie. Classic submarine action sequences and for the ladies, Matthew McConaughey with a crewcut. But as fun as the film is, it's still built on one fundamental conceit. It tells the story of a crew of American mariners who steal the Enigma encryption machine in 1942 from the Germans.

In reality, the pilfering of the Enigma device was a turning point in the war. Only it didn't happen in 1942 - it was done a year earlier and by a British crew. This doctoring of the truth, albeit for what writer/director Jonathan Mostow calls a fictional movie, has angered many veterans and served to exacerbate the feeling that Americans are far too ready to change history to make them look better.

But should the blame be dumped at Mostow's door? In truth the film maker did try to make sure the film was as accurate as possible in every other way. He even enlisted the services of Lt. Commander David Balme, the English seaman who was actually the first into the offending Nazi sub. "I think Jonathan is now one of the world's experts on the Enigma," says Balme. "He has done a marvellous job. His goal was to make a compelling film and he succeeded. It's a magnificent film."

Mostow also recruited David Kahn, the world's leading authority on Enigma encryption, to ensure the script was correct. "I reviewed the screenplay with David in tremendous detail," says Mostow, "and asked him to make sure that within the context of a fictional narrative, all the details were as authentic as possible."

So he did his best. And there is a tribute to the real heroes in the end credits. And he did ask the experts. But is this enough? Or is this just another example of America taking all the credit? Mostow is convinced that US audiences were fully aware that it was a fictional film. But then we've all seen Jerry Springer. We know they do not necessarily have all the torpedoes in the tube.