Actors: Michael Burn M.C.
Synopsis: The astonishing true life story of British Commando Michael Burn M.C.
Michael “Mickey” Burns has lived an extraordinary life as a writer and a poet. His story reads like a novel and to see it on the screen is a real treat. He was born in Mayfair in 1912; his father worked for the Royal family. He became the lover of the communist spy Guy Burgess, and would initially be taken in by Nazism, expressing an admiration for Hitler. In 1942, he took part in a daring commando assault on the fortified French port of St Nazaire, where he was captured, and he ended the war as a prisoner in Colditz. He later became a committed Marxist and be credited with saving the life of Audrey Hepburn.
American director Greg Olliver, started making this film in 2008, revisiting significant events and places in Burn’s life. Burn is presented here as a candid and witty raconteur who had a sharp mind and wonderful memories. He died in 2010 and this film can serve as the elegy to a man who was quite remarkable. When director Olliver met him through a chance encounter he was taken in by the charm, intelligence and humor of this fine storyteller who was resilient and compassionate. He was an old man living life quietly on the coast of Wales, but one with an incredible personal history that included the defining moments of the twentieth century. With surprising candor and zeal, Burn opened himself to the camera and shared a glimpse of his life. remembered from what would become its twilight. He was an extraordinary man who lived through extraordinary times. In his story, we see our history and ourselves.
The story of Micky Burn would make an unbelievable fiction film and as a character study many would claim that it is ridiculous. The fact that everything in it actually happened makes it, at first hard to believe, then captivating. Some of the amazing things that Micky Burn did in his life include meeting Hitler in an Italian restaurant in Germany whilst hanging out with Unity Mitford; traveling to America with the King and Queen whilst writing for The Times; saving the life of a young Audrey Hepburn whilst possibly having an affair with her mother; being part of the Queen’s Commandos that destroyed a German dry-dock in the French port of St. Nazaire; being captured and locked up in Colditz Castle for three years during which time he ran a pirate radio room from the attic; and a homosexual affair with Guy Burgess (British Intelligence Officer, radio producer and Cambridge spy); and this is just a part of it.
When the film opens, we see Burn being fitted with a new hearing aid, a scene in which we are introduced to Burn’s humorous character, and from then we follow the planning of a trip to St. Nazaire and then on to Colditz Castle. This planning and the subsequent plane trip there form the framing of our introduction to this most remarkable character. He was then in his mid-90s but he was lucid, funny and charming.
The centerpiece of the film, is the trip to St.Nazaire and Colditz Castle, taking in televised interviews with a few of the other surviving commandos, who don’t seem half as old as Mickey. We see just what tremendous recall Mickey has of his life, and what a crucial critical distance he has from it, especially the moment he met Hitler and told him, embarrassingly in retrospect, just how much the British youth thought of him. It very touching to watching Burn walk through the halls and up the stairs of Colditz, reliving the three years he spent there as a guest of the Third Reich. There is the obvious tension between his public profile and his private politics (he attended the Nuremburg Rally for Hitler).
Burn talked about his wife, about the women (and men) he loved and the people he knew (and he knew a lot of them. Outside of the two central moments, there doesn’t seem to be too much structure to the film— it jumps jumping back and forth through Burn’s life but because of the nature of his life, it did not really bother me.
People like Burn just don’t really exist anymore these days. Born two years before the start of the First World War he is part of a generation of men and women, many of whom are sadly no longer with us, who lived through some of the most challenging periods in modern British history, and did it with a stiff upper lip.
Yet from the outset of the film it is clear that Micky is an exceptional individual, full of charisma and charm, wonderfully prim and proper, yet far from antiquated. His life story is so full of joy, excitement and extraordinary events that it is almost hard to take it as the truth, but it is.
Micky is particularly unique coming from an upper-class family with strong links to British Royal family. Because of this he received a first-class public school education and studied at Oxford where he met some remarkable characters. One of them would go on to become the notorious double agent Guy Burgess, and rumor has it that Micky even had a brief affair with him.
Micky’s connections with the aristocratic British families also led him to a chance meeting with Adolf Hitler through his friend Unity Mitford in 1936. He attended the Nuremberg Rally, which he describes now as “a terrifying experience” and on reflecting back on it, he saw it as a great embarrassment that he regretted later. However, at the time he was determined to speak to him.
There is little critique of the choices Micky made over his lifetime, or any great analysis of the struggles he faced as a bisexual man growing up in a sexually restricted Britain. This leaves the audience with a fairly one dimensional view of the ageing poet; one which, though very interesting to watch, does not make this film anything more than an interesting contemplation of a man who is certainly more complex than is otherwise stated. Yet he remains fascinating even when we do not understand a thing about him. It is impossible to refute that Micky Burns was a captivating individual whose long life has propelled him into a diverse array of circumstances, covering many of the major historical events of the 20th century.