The smartphones, desktop computers and laptops/notebooks upon which most of us have grown dependent in the 21st century likely would not exist if it wasn’t for the little-known Alan Turing. This brilliant mathematician who was born in London 100 years ago not only laid the foundations for the computer in a 1936 paper, but cracked the Nazis’ secret military codes and helped turn the tide of World War II against them.
Turing was also an openly gay man at a time when the vast majority of us were deep in the closet. A new documentary, Codebreaker, is currently removing the veil that has obscured Turing and his dramatic contributions to history and modern technology. In addition, rising star Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the title detective on BBC’s Sherlock and the central villain in this summer’s Star Trek Into Darkness, has been signed to play Turing in an upcoming dramatized biography.
Apple Computers co-founder Steve Jobs is among the experts interviewed in Codebreaker who attest to Turing’s revolutionary genius. Turing began to develop computers from the theoretical to the actual in 1948, with the intention of “putting something like a human consciousness in an inorganic machine.” In this regard, Turing is considered to be the father of Artificial Intelligence.
Sadly, though, Turing would not live to see his vision realized. He was arrested on charges of gross indecency with a younger man whom Turing had accused of burglary. Homosexuality was still illegal in Great Britain at the time, and Turing was convicted in 1952. As a condition of his sentencing, he was forced to undergo chemical castration through hormone replacement therapy. This was, in a cruel irony, the same abuse that the Nazi doctors Turing helped to defeat had subjected many Jewish men to in the concentration camps. The psychological effects of this combined with his public disgrace drove Turing to take his life in 1954, at the age of 41.
The British government formally apologized for its mistreatment of Turing but not until 2009, 55 years after his death. Today, Turing is increasingly being praised for his mathematical brilliance and advanced technological vision, his heroism in the fight against Nazi Germany, and his pioneering honesty about his homosexuality. If he could be “naïve,” as one commentator describes Turing in Codebreaker, he can also be regarded more positively as optimistic, even if to a fault.
Patrick Sammon, creator and executive producer of Codebreaker, had not heard of Turing before he came across a story about him while visiting the Smithsonian Institute in 2004. “It was a long road,” Sammon said of his film’s development during a recent phone interview. “I’m on my third career now after being a TV reporter and documentary filmmaker for PBS, then I took a detour into leading the Log Cabin Republicans.”
It was while Sammon was researching ideas for possible future movies after he decided to try filmmaking full time that he discovered Turing. “At the time, I stuck it in my file folder,” recalls Sammon, who is now 38 years old. “I came across it again in 2009; it was that September when I said ‘I’m going to get this made’ and started to get the production team together.” Codebreaker is excellent and engrossing due in large part to the work of director Clare Beavan and editor Leigh Brzeski. Actor Ed Stoppard (The Pianist) plays Turing in several dramatic vignettes during the course of the film.
Sammon partnered with Channel 4 in the UK and produced an initial, British version of Codebreaker (titled Britain's Greatest Codebreaker) that was broadcast there in 2011. He and his team have since re-edited the film to make a uniquely American cut. This is the version currently being shown in US theaters via a new approach to exhibition entitled Theatrical on Demand, or TOD for short. When Codebreaker gets enough demand from a particular city or region through the website www.todpics.com, a screening or longer run of the film is scheduled.
“We’ve played in nine cities so far,” Sammon reported. “This builds on the Video on Demand (VOD) model, but it is great to see this film on the big screen and with other people.” TOD has a relationship with AMC theaters and, according to Sammon, “they really market films well to the LGBT community.” Codebreaker has also been screened several times to date as a fundraiser for local LGBT community centers in different parts of the country.
“It’s been seen by more than two million people around the world at this point,” Sammon says of his film, the first he has ever produced. “People’s first response (to Turing’s story) is usually outrage, but they then feel inspired by it. He was someone who thought outside the box and was a really creative, unusual man.”
More personally, Sammon shared about what he has learned as a gay man from Turing and what he hopes audiences will take from his film. “I was really personally inspired by his outsider’s personality, and I hope it helps people to better appreciate our differences whatever they may be: gender, sexual orientation, race, etc.”
The producer and his team were most intent on “doing Turing justice” with Codebreaker. I asked Sammon whether he had heard about the announced biopic in which Cumberbatch will star. He had and stated: “It’s going to be good, it’s all good; the more people that know about Turing, the better.”
It is enormously inspiring to realize that the digital age in which we now live was ushered in by an openly gay man who also played a critical role in vanquishing Hitler and the Nazis, thereby ensuring greater freedom for those persecuted by them including LGBT people. Despite his achievements, Turing suffered greatly and unnecessarily during his life. We all owe him a tremendous debt.
For more information about Codebreaker, visit the film's official website.
OTHER NOTABLE LGBT BIOPICS:
More and more movies are being produced that shine a well-deserved spotlight on the LGBT men and women who helped pave the way for our visibility, acceptance and growing equality today. Here are a few must-sees that have already come out, so to speak:
Milk (2008): Easily the best such film to date, Sean Penn won his second Oscar as Best Actor for his turn as Harvey Milk, the crusading San Francisco supervisor who was tragically assassinated by a disgruntled colleague. It was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director (openly gay Gus Van Sant), and out writer Dustin Lance Black won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
De-Lovely (2004): The life of songwriter Cole Porter had been previously dramatized in 1946’s Night and Day but his bisexuality had been (in)conveniently omitted. Kevin Kline plays Porter in this all-out musical. In one memorable scene, he gives out actor John Barrowman of Torchwood fame a very intimate singing lesson.
A Beautiful Mind (2001): Some accused this Oscar-winning movie about schizophrenic mathematician John Nash of making its bisexual subject straight, à la Night and Day and Cole Porter. I disagree. Director Ron Howard and star Russell Crowe take a subtle approach, but there is a definite homoerotic vibe between Nash and the graduate assistant/figment of his imagination played by Paul Bettany.
The Music Lovers (1970): Gay composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, et al) is given flamboyant big-screen treatment by equally flamboyant director Ken Russell. Richard Chamberlain, who later came out himself, plays Tchaikovsky.
Henry & June (1990): An intelligent, sensual exploration of the real-life love triangle between author Henry Miller, his wife June and erotic writer Anaïs Nin. Uma Thurman and Maria de Medeiros heat things up as, respectively, June and Anais, resulting in the first NC-17 movie rating.
Prick Up Your Ears (1987): Gary Oldman made a big impression on international audiences as playwright Joe Orton in this film focusing on Orton’s 16-year, ill-fated partnership with Kenneth Halliwell (played by Alfred Molina). Both funny and disturbing, it was one of the first warts-and-all explorations of a gay relationship to hit the silver screen.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985): Unusual, highly-stylized examination of the life of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. More speculative than factual, Paul Schrader’s film is nonetheless one of the more unique and truly cinematic biopics ever made about anyone, gay or straight. Handsome Ken Ogata is riveting in the title role.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.