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Movie Spies

Updated on January 19, 2017

U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya

Benghazi Be Damned

The 2012 attack on the American Embassy is at the back of my mind. The fact that the event never came clean or made clear is a source of frustration to all Americans, who, quite understandably, want to know. I cannot solve the mystery myself. Thus, it is much more satisfying to watch a couple of movies such as the Tamarind Seed (1974) and Spies of Warsaw (2013). The former was released against the backdrop of a stalemated Cold War, heated up in Vietnam. The latter was a proxy war, to be sure. Everybody was in on it. In retrospect, it indirectly affected Russia and China, at the very least, and directly, Cambodia and Laos. After a million and a half killed, it could be said the war had turned out much harder than anticipated. Peace talks took place in Paris in 1973.

I am really only using intuition, but it would be my best guess that spies are a fact of life. In the Tamarind Seed there is constant talk of recruiting. I learned that a double agent was subject to fatal threats on both sides, whereas I had originally thought, again intuitively, that such an operative would have been especially vital to both sides -- if more so to one than the other. After all, a spy's loyalty is essential, but the acquisition of information is even more crucial. Anyway, the second movie, or miniseries, Spies of Warsaw, released in two parts by the BBC, tells the somewhat quaint methods of obtaining information of great help to Poland, though it could not stop the carnage it foresaw.

As to our embassy in Libya, it cannot be other than that our secret agents were watching and reporting developments. 2011 and 2012 were hectic years of civil war fought for and against Colonel Gaddafi. The surprise attack is hard to believe. The subsequent intervention of NATO following the death of Gaddafi only serves to underscore how much more inscrutable the so-called New World Order was shaping up. Movies are not reality, and vice versa, but sometimes they indirectly hit on thought-provoking issues. There is, for instance, that section of Apocalypse Now (1979) in which a protracted battle rages without a commanding officer. In fact, reality itself is the ultimate movie-maker's dream, a "movie' that writes itself, replete with unscripted dialogue and spontaneous drama. It exists as some kind of eerie goal or ambition, where art is no longer invented, arranged, and re-arranged, but replicated exactly as seen, heard, or in some way extrapolated.

Real Tamarind Seeds

The title, The Tamarind Seed, is derived from a myth and how certain seeds are shaped.
The title, The Tamarind Seed, is derived from a myth and how certain seeds are shaped. | Source

Books into Film

I suppose it could be said that one factor affecting the Benghazi disaster was that there was no book written in advance. Hence, "the manual" could not be consulted. If you are the kind who like things in writing, however, definitely check out movies. Both Tamarind Seed and Spies of Warsaw are based on novels. Whether in words on the page or pictures on screen, they play to audience expectations. They have to; they are commercial. It seems standard in films and books, for example, to interweave romantic encounters with the shadowy world of espionage. Only in the movies, I suppose, would spies risk everything in order to insure the survival of what begins in the form of casual dalliances as much as preserve the integrity of their undercover work.

Since I am, as it were, an unpublished novelist, I can only remark, without authority, that Evelyn Anthony, the author of The Tamarind Seed (1971) is not only talented, but must have conducted a fair amount of research. The same could probably be said of Alan Furst, author of Spies of Warsaw (2008). His forté is the historical novel. They are both smart novels. In The Tamarind Seed, Russians talk repeatedly of co-existence, as if it were a brand new concept. Later, other reforms were activated, either to placate the West, or lower international tension. It would be hard for us to perceive magnanimity as such in these concessions, which the U.S.S.R. could easily afford. After all, it controlled half the world. What I find interesting is what people think and believe at every level. Both Judith Farrow and Feodor Sverdlov actually conduct a form of unofficial negotiations. After all, it might be a little like the butterfly effect, but it is impossible to gauge how far up vocalized, passing thoughts travel.

French Op in Warsaw

As usual, I never heard of the actor before.
As usual, I never heard of the actor before. | Source

KGB vs. MI5

English intelligence is known to us mostly by way of James Bond movies. In any event, the lead, Judith Farrow, is played by Julie Andrews. The story is essentially a romance co-starring Omar Sharif as Feodor Sverdlov. But the complications are interesting. It seems that either MI5 or the English spy agency by whatever name, has a leak. The source is referred to as Blue, known only to the head of the KGB, yet another complication. The meta-language employed befuddles the ear. Farrow works for somebody extremely confidential in NYC. He persuades her to take a needed vacation in Barbados. She is met, "not really by chance", as the Oscar Hammerstein lyrics go, by a high-up Russian operative, who wants to get acquainted. As to Sverdlov's motives, one can only guess. He might only want to recruit her, as he tells his superiors in Moscow. They are excited at the prospect. But to review the film is not precisely my own motive. It is, rather, to get at how espionage actually functions, using film as a lens, which is -- no argument -- kinda dicey.

Still, crazily enough, often films get a few items right. It only makes sense that two countries at odds with one another would use one of the oldest tricks in the book. The element of attraction is much more dependable than a so-called road map. It also dovetails well with the popular subject matter of mainstream literature. Thus, in Spies, the French Colonel, risking his life, will not leave Poland on the eve of invasion without his true love. Interestingly, I have heard greater stories from the unwritten annals of real life. It seems that few knew in advance that their greatest calling in life would be a knack to uncannily outsmart Nazis. Getting back to The Tamarind Seed, the outcome is an obvious win for the capitalist world, as well as the triumph of love, which never runs out of energy in works of fiction.

Modern Warsaw

Poland Lives!
Poland Lives! | Source

The Situation in 1937

The invasion of Poland is two years away. France falls shortly thereafter. It is intriguing to find that the Germans were expected. It has always been a matter of speculation how the Third Reich proceeded virtually unimpeded at the outset of WWII. Perhaps some of the hitches can be found in the very complexities themselves. In Spies of Warsaw one comes across any number of operatives, including two aging Bolsheviks. It is the French Colonel who is the lead. His job comes first, of course, though he is smitten by a woman co-habiting with a Russian writer. The latter, it is assumed, cannot safely return to Moscow. Along the way we encounter a German in love with a countess, only posing as such for Colonel Mercier (David Tennant). It is amazing just how critical pillow talk is. It is, as stated above, 1937. The Poles are entranced by the sight of Germans preparing a tank attack in a forested area. There are no nifty gadgets other than binoculars and a hand-held camera to assist them. They have to actually use their own eyesight, which means legwork that is exactly that. They ride in cars that probably do not reach high speeds and use guns that just as likely lack accuracy.

Naturally, it is to a large extent every man, or woman, for himself, or herself. Nationals are also self-enclosed. Spying is not a nice business, despite its polite chit-chat and societal facades, or, for that matter, occasional coincidences being on the same side. Already they know of Nazis aligned against Hitler. Stalin is another subject. He is purging the country -- later denounced by Krushchev. The Munich Pact (1938) is likened to a walnut crusher. The walnut is, of course, Poland, and Warsaw its main city. Not only are the names somewhat hard to keep track of, but the organizations to which they belong are also difficult. For instance, IN6 is not well-known. Neither is Les Deuxième de Beauville. There are other movements, too, not always translated into English. It seems the information age began earlier than we think. For the modern mind, it is difficult to understand how movers and shakers could not reconcile pieces of information with the rather obvious actions they required.

The U.N. Building

Not always taken seriously.  But a better solution has never been found.
Not always taken seriously. But a better solution has never been found. | Source


It might seem that the spy game in The Tamarind Seed is between Russia and both England and the United States. But since Judith Farrow works for the UNO, or United Nations Organization, there is the presence of a third party. As the story moves along, it becomes clear that Sverdlov is going to defect, leaving behind an entire life, consisting basically of party loyalty. Somehow or other former Comrade Sverdlov has vital information to exchange. Judith, for her part, has already rejected the advances of Richard Paterson, an unhappily married military attaché. The mixture of private life and espionage is a constant source of interest to the reader and/or viewer. It is not too different in Spies, where information is skewed by personal loyalties, privileged positions, and lovers. Mercier finally wrests Anna away from her long-term roommate, whose identity is carefully concealed. Moreover, indications correctly anticipate Hitler's invasion of France by way of Belgium. But Mercier cannot convince his superior officer to alter an ineffective French strategy already in place. It would be nice to draw lessons learned from the European conflagration about to ensue, but it is a phenomenon never likely to occur again. However, the rulings and concerns of the UN, all too often ridiculed to death, remain today a constant factor.

Naturally, there are no grandiose conclusions to be ascertained on the basis of two spy movies. But I believe I have demonstrated that writers and moviemakers can produce riveting products without veering too far from the genuine article. Lately, a vote appertaining to the Middle East was greeted with the usual disdain. This is a good sign; at least it makes itself felt, the UN having few means at its disposal to enforce its judgments. Nevertheless, the world at large has a forum with which to voice opinions. No one is saying they are always right. But in the years ahead, the global community will have to work hard to save Planet Earth. It is beset by many problems. The Middle East is already very much at war. War, however, is only a single problem among many, albeit an exceptionally dangerous one. Spies work on behalf of self-absorbed governments. Nevertheless, each government wants to survive. So much the better to share a common goal which might someday lead to peace.


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