History Declassified: Screenwriter Arash Amel Enlists the Daring Misfits of THE MINISTRY OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Now in theaters from Lionsgate, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare tells the true story of the very first special forces organization. Formed during World War II by UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and a group of military officials‚ including future James Bond author Ian Fleming—the top-secret combat unit assembled a motley crew of mavericks, rogues, and anti-heroes to go toe to toe against the Nazis using an array of unexpected rough-and-tumble tactics to win the day. Tasked with changing the course of the war, their efforts ultimately set the stage for the foundation for the British Special Air Service (SAS) and modern black ops warfare. 

Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the action-comedy epic is directed by Guy Ritchie and co-written for the screen with Arash Amel (along with Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, who penned early drafts). The story is based on Damien Lewis’ non-fiction historical book of the same name, which recounts declassified British War Department files. Secretly formed in July of 1940, the small commando unit, known as the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF), was led by Major Gus March-Phillipps (played here by Henry Cavill). The film depicts SSRF’s first mission, Operation Postmaster, which unfolds on the Spanish island of Fernando Po.

Screenwriter Arash Amel is no stranger to bringing true stories to the screen. His work includes the critically acclaimed A Private War, about celebrated war correspondent Marie Colvin, and he previously scripted 2014’s Grace of Monaco and 2022’s Rise. With the release of The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Boxoffice Pro spoke with screenwriter Arash Amel about penning the brash action-adventure with a spirit of heroism and humor.

Take us back to the beginning of this project. How did you discover this true story?

Jerry Bruckheimer picked up the book around 2016 and I was sent the book about a year after that. Jerry sent me the book with the thought, “Is there a movie? What is the movie?” Especially at that time, it was difficult to mount World War II movies. There was this sense that they don’t matter anymore. We’re between 75 and 80 years away and soon we’ll be commemorating a century since its start. The project was at Paramount at the time and it was kind of a bold move for them to pick the book up.

It was such a wonderful piece of secret history about these misfits who turned the tide of World War II for Britain and the world. It was a coalition of the world coming together. When I read it, I was immediately transported back to the great World War II movies and cinema that I grew up with: The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, also John Sturges’ western The Magnificent Seven. You have a group of mavericks who set out on an impossible quest and somehow pull through and change the shape of history. It’s what became the first-ever special operations mission. My job in this whole puzzle was to take that concept and adapt it into what the movie could be.

How did you condense down so much history while also introducing these larger-than-life characters and succinctly sharing the mission’s technical details?

There’s two hours to tell the story of what ended up being several years [of history.] The mission the movie covers is what ended up being their first mission. The research and the planning took place over the course of a year, and there were a lot more people involved. The No. 62 Commando unit or Small Scale Raiding Force, which this band of misfits came to be known as, grew to become 55 people, even though in the beginning it wasn’t as big. I always begin with the old William Goldman phrase, “The book is the book and the movie is the movie.” In this regard, the history is the history. This movie was never going to be a history lesson, but whenever I adapt true life stories, and I’ve done a few now, I always have this paradoxical phrase that I tell myself: the truth can be the enemy of good drama, but if you stray too far from the historical truth, you can also lose the meaning of why you’re telling the story. There’s this natural tension.

Where I typically begin, and where I began on this project, was identifying what were the key points or facts that I felt were crucial, that were exciting, and really needed to be told. Always making sure the story is rooted in that. That involved the characters, the plot, and the basic sequencing of what happened. Also like you said, the technical details, because the milieu of how they pulled off the operation was part of the beauty of it, in terms of the pure primitive mechanics of using combat techniques that were drawn from around the world. Using very simple weaponry like knives and bows and arrows; things you wouldn’t typically think of as a part of World War II. To us, it’s the great first-ever mechanized war, with rockets and tanks and so on.

With that natural tension, as long as you adhere to basic principles of certain aspects of the truth, everything grows from that. All of the wonderful creativity that Guy embellished and puts on the top, if you drill down, I can point to everything in the movie and say there is a piece of truth in that, that comes from this fact. That’s also the same with the characters; there are a few characters that are very true to life and there are few characters that are a composite creations for the purpose of efficiently telling the story.   

Guy Ritchie mentioned that, because the characters are such vibrant individuals, they almost began to talk for themselves. Given the wealth of historical material you were pulling from, did you find that to be the case?

Truly. The nature of the personalities that would get involved in an endeavor like this—for example, Gus March-Phillips, Henry Cavill’s character, really was as bonkers as he’s portrayed in the movie. Obviously there’s an embellishment and an enlargement, but one story that I always go back to was during a very disastrous Norway campaign for the British army—way before the start of the movie or any of these events. One of the reasons he was cast out of the British military and seen as a maverick was that there was a retreat over a bridge, and he said, “I want to blow the bridge.” High command said, “You can’t.” And he said, “The Nazis are coming, I want to blow the bridge.” He went ahead and blew the bridge on his own during the campaign, despite the hierarchy telling him not to.

There really was a true grain of going your own way. Even Anders Lassen, who wasn’t [actor] Alan Ritchson, I mean he wasn’t a big muscular brute force, but the spirit that Alan portrays is Anders Lassen, who went on to become the godfather of the modern Special Air Service (SAS). They called him the viking, and he really displayed that. The composite characters we created, like Babs Olusanmokun’s character Richard Heron, was based on a true-life character called Richard Lippett, who was a ground spy. He also had a lot of support from a very sophisticated network of West African and Nigerian spies. This was truly a coming together of a global coalition. It was multicultural, multiethnic. The No. 62 Commando unit did comprise of multiple nationalities. There were multiple Europeans there, there were Canadians, there were Asian and Far Eastern influences, and so it felt important to honor all of that. It begins with a kernel of truth. 

How did you envision this story writ large on the big screen?

This was always going to be a big-screen spectacle adventure. I mean, it’s Jerry Bruckheimer, our producer. I instantly knew that the DNA that you see from Top Gun to Pirates of the Caribbean, to the great men-on-a-mission movies of the 90s, like The Rock and Armageddon, there’s a real sense of transporting you to another place. I think cinema, theaters, and the theatrical experience is still the only way that you can go to some other place, to some other universe, some other era, some other time, in a way that no other form of entertainment can do. This was a transportation to another exotic time with larger-than-life characters, in larger-than-life settings. Fernando Po, which is where a lot of the intrigue and mystery occurs, this Nazi stronghold in the Spanish colonies of West Africa, has echoes of Casablanca and echoes of a great cinematic heritage. I totally envisioned that from the beginning. There was only one way to go. I’m just thankful, as ever, that movies like this can still get made. 

You once mentioned that cinema has to roll the dice. One of the key messages that came out of 2023 was the importance of taking risks to bring original stories and IP to the screen.

It’s the lifeblood of cinema. It’s risk and telling stories that people don’t know and are not necessarily familiar with. That doesn’t follow the same old tropes. That is rooted in a daring sense of adventure. Every time you go to a movie, you want to be surprised, at least I do. You want something different. I want an experience that I’m not predicting, that I’m not expecting. That’s where I feel the most fulfilled. Especially in times like this, we saw last year what happened with the box office, with the big, multiple sequels – the sixths, sevenths, and eighths  – audiences get tired and also stories have to be timely.

One of the questions I got in the early days of this project was, “Why a World War II movie? Why now?” My sort of response to that question was that we have a whole new generation. When I was 15-16 the Second World War was only 40 years away, now it’s 75 years away. Nazism is still with us. We still have Nazis, we still have a threat, and we still have meaning. We just have to interpret it in new ways. Oppenheimer is an original movie about a scientist who invented a bomb almost a hundred years ago. The relevance of that and the ability of a modern filmmaker to reinterpret that and surprise an audience, is truly the essence of cinema. This kind of corporatization of serialized entertainment works really well on tv and maybe in streaming, but really not in the theatrical experience long term. 

What were the moviegoing moments growing up that inspired you to tell stories?

I effectively lived in a cinema for most of the 80s and early 90s. The first time I saw Lawrence of Arabia. I was a little bit older, but I saw it in a cinema. That was an experience, but Back to the Future is my number two. It has that sense of abandonment and fun, but yet it has meaning and you can visit it over and over again. My kids have watched it and they love it, yet it’s 40 years old. It’s quite mind-boggling. Number three is The Godfather, simply because it’s such an incredible piece of cinema. It was very, very varied growing up. What I always say to writers I work with and younger writers coming through is, “Love cinema.” It’s ok to love Lawrence of Arabia and also Back to the Future and also Con Air [Laughs]. They’re all different experiences and they all fulfill something. Each one of these movies is somebody’s favorite movie somewhere in the world. 

Courtesy of Lionsgate

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