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Friday, 2 June, 2000, 01:16 GMT 02:16 UK
Storm over U-boat film
Submarine film
Has Hollywood hijacked history?
By the BBC's Virginia Eastman

There is a storm brewing over the Atlantic - or rather the battle of the Atlantic.

The American action film U-571 tells the story of how the Enigma code machine used by the Germans in World War II was rescued with its even more important code books from a German submarine.

"It's our turn!" shouts the American officer in the film's trailer.


You can't rewrite history

Ron Hartley
But that is just the point - according to history it was the Brits' turn and in this movie they are very thin on the ground.

The swashbuckling film - about to be released in Britain - is loosely based on the HMS Aubretia's bombing of the U-110 from which an Enigma and codes were rescued.

Sub Lt David Balme led the original mission - he climbed down into the real U-110 which had been deserted, not knowing what lay in wait below.

"It was just about the most frightening thing I've ever done in my life.

"You had no hands for your pistol as you climbed down the ladder and it seemed very unlikely they'd abandon a perfectly good U-boat."

Enigma machine
Enigma machine: Its capture helped the Allies
Many miles away from Tinseltown the retelling of this epic has offended the locals of Horsforth in Leeds.

They raised the 241,000 needed to build the Aubretia at a time when the average weekly wage was 3.

The local MP for Pudsey, Paul Trusswell, felt strongly enough about the film's rewrite of history that he wrote a letter to President Clinton in protest.

It received a reply, in which the President acknowledged the role played by the people of Horsforth and tried to assure them that the movie was a work of fiction.

But the director of Horsforth Museum Ron Hartley was not placated.

Proud contribution

He said: "The people of Horsforth were very proud of their contribution and it's very important that the youth of tomorrow understand what they did.

"You can't rewrite history and we have to pass on the facts to the younger generation through the schools."

Writer Hugh Sebag-Montefiore has joined the groundswell of opinion that's pitted history against Hollywood.

His book: "Enigma: The Battle for the Code" makes the point that although the finding of the enigma machine and code books on the U-110 was important - it was one of many such finds.

The struggle to keep cracking the naval codes used by the Germans during those crucial years of the Battle of the Atlantic was relentless.

Debate to continue

The debate over whether the movie has made free with history will continue as it hits cinemas across the country. Ironically the real hero of the piece - David Balme thinks the movie is a great film.

He makes the point that the 50m that it cost to make the film would never have been recouped by the movie's makers if they had not "Americanised" the event.

At first glance this is an action story about bravery and honour but it is also a story about money - American money, American stars and a "seemingly" American story is just what it takes to make an American box office success.

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25 Feb 99 | Entertainment
Hollywood hijacks history
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