Asked his reaction to The Theory of Everything, its subject, Stephen Hawking, replied, “Broadly true.” That may be the highest praise for biopics, which attempt to capture something of the life and experiences of notable personalities—preferably in three hours or less and usually released during awards season, where voters smile upon inspired impersonation. Following Hawking’s story into theaters is The Imitation Game, where TV’s Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, plays a real-life sleuth of sorts, British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing.
All the elements are in place for a riveting “broadly true” story. Turing’s code-breaking expertise helped Allied forces turn the tide against the Nazis in World War II. This heroic dimension is however shadowed by tragedy. For his homosexuality, which was illegal at the time, Turing was subsequently hounded by a government he worked to preserve, and in 1954 committed suicide at age 41. His life was previously explored in the 1986 play and 1996 TV film Breaking the Code, which starred Derek Jacobi. Cumberbatch (who played WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange in last year’s The Fifth Estate and Stephen Hawking in a 2004 TV movie), said of Turing in an interview with the Daily Mirror, “He never wanted to be a martyr, he never showed his suffering and I don’t think he stood for a cause. He was just true to himself, which is all anyone should ever have to be. And that’s why he is in my mind, a true hero.”
There were many facets to Turing’s life. For one thing, he was not altogether an egghead. After the war years and his tenure at Bletchley Park, Britain’s code-breaking center, Turing—an avid bicyclist who, at 14, once rode 60 miles to attend his first day of classes when the trains were on strike—nearly qualified for the 1948 Olympics as a marathon runner. This would not have surprised his wartime colleagues, who knew that he sometimes ran the 40 miles from his home when he was needed for meetings.
But Turing, renowned as the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, was best known for his mental gymnastics. The Cambridge- and Princeton-educated Turing, who had been working part time at Britain’s code-breaking organization, the Government Code and Cypher School, reported for duty at Bletchley Park immediately after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. He quickly became one of the government’s greatest assets, with the cracking of Germany’s Enigma code shortening the war by two to four years and saving an estimated 14 million to 21 million lives, historians claim. Prime Minister Winston Churchill said Turing’s work was the single greatest contribution to Allied triumph.
Known as “Prof” at Bletchley Park, Turing had a few quirks, which fellow cryptanalyst Jack Good (later an adviser to Stanley Kubrick for his film 2001: A Space Odyssey) shared with Ronald Lewin, author of Ultra Goes to War: The Secret Story. “In the first week of June each year he would get a bad attack of hay fever, and he would cycle to the office wearing a service gas mask to keep the pollen off. His bicycle had a fault: the chain would come off at regular intervals. Instead of having it mended he would count the number of times the pedals went round and would get off the bicycle in time to adjust the chain by hand. Another of his eccentricities is that he chained his mug to the radiator pipes to prevent it being stolen.”
When not engaged in such mundane battles, Turing achieved victory with Victory—his anti-Enigma machine, which by 1943 could crack 84,000 Enigma messages per month, messages that the Germans relayed to their U-boats to sink the North Atlantic merchant convoys that were bringing much-needed supplies to Britain. Subsequent breakthroughs that led to the Colossus computer transformed Bletchley Park, described as “a maudlin and monstrous pile” by the American architect Landis Gores, into the world’s first electronic computing center.
Speaking of which: There is no truth to the rumor that Apple Computer’s logo references Turing and his suicide, which was apparently caused by a cyanide-laced apple. The bite in the multicolored apple (whose colors mirror those of the gay pride flag) was actually to distinguish it from a cherry, though Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is said to have wished that it were some sort of commemoration.
Turing’s work will always resonate. Colleges including Stanford University, the University of Puerto Rico, and Istanbul’s Bilgi University honor him with lecture rooms, statues, and conference events. In 1999, Time magazine named him one of the most important figures of the 20th century. In the 21st, he’s name-dropped in TV shows like Archer and The Simpsons and was earlier this year the subject of a musical work, A Man from the Future, written and performed by the Pet Shop Boys.
On June 23, 2012, the centenary of Turing’s birth, the London Olympic Torch flame was passed in front of his statue in Sackville Gardens, Manchester. And, on December 24, 2013, a measure of redemption—Queen Elizabeth II signed a pardon for Turing’s conviction, in 1952, for gross indecency. It went into effect in August, and is only the fourth royal pardon granted since World War II ended.
“He’s not as much in the front of history textbooks as he should be,” Cumberbatch told the Daily Mirror. With such a compelling biography to draw on, The Imitation Game should secure more prominent placement for Alan Turing when it opens November 28.