Film editing is an underappreciated skill. But the dedication required to craft a compelling narrative from vast amounts of footage, to define the film’s very pulse and rhythm, is mind boggling. There are perhaps none better than Walter Murch, who worked on Apocalypse Now, The Talented Mr Ripley, the three Godfather films, The English Patient, and The Conversation. His book ‘The Blink of an Eye’ is a classic, and ‘The Conversations’ with Michael Ondaatje reveals his keen creative intelligence.
In Coup 53, Murch applies his skills to this exceptional documentary that not only tells a complex story with clarity and insight, but also for the first time presents proof of direct official British involvement in a coup to overthrow the Prime Minister of Iran, something the Government has always denied. The film’s own techniques and innovations in telling this story make for a thrilling two hours.
Most people will be aware of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which led to the overthrow of the Shah and the beginning of fundamentalist Islamic governance. Fewer might be aware of the August 1953 military coup that cemented the Shah’s power and protected UK and US oil interests in the country: an assassination attempt on the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and his subsequent arrest and detention.
Although Iran was never formally part of the Empire, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now renamed BP of course) was Britain’s largest economic foreign interest. When Mosaddegh was elected, he effectively evicted Britain by nationalising the oil industry; Churchill’s Britain wanted its influence reinstated and Eisenhower’s America saw an opportunity to get a share.
This was the story director Taghi Amirani thought he would be telling when he first started work on this documentary in 2009. Iranian by birth but brought up in the UK, it had personal resonance.
However, as he got deeper into the archives and interviews, he learned about a mysterious 29-year-old British MI6 agent called Norman Darbyshire who appeared to have a very significant involvement in these eventful days. Darbyshire had been interviewed for an episode of End of Empire, a 1985 Granada TV series that charted Britain’s reluctant withdrawal from its international interests. But somehow the interview didn’t make the final cut, the transcripts redacted and hidden, and the interview footage is missing. Footage of his CIA counterpart was similarly excised. Darbyshire himself died in 1993.
By an incredible stroke of luck and perseverance, Amirani managed to get hold of a complete transcript of the interview. And it’s explosive stuff. Although the US has been open about its role in the coup, the British Government has always denied any involvement despite strong suspicions to the contrary, but here was direct first-person proof of a very direct role.
Coup 53 tells the story of the coup, it’s context and consequences. It also shows us the filmakers’ own journalistic investigations, sifting the archives to unravel the truth.
It’s a densely layered film, presenting a vast amount of information. Although it demands focus of attention, it never gets confusing despite the complex politics, unfamiliar history and countless protagonists and interviewees. This is testament to Murch’s skill, distilling 532 hours of footage to this two hour documentary; by comparison Apocalypse Now was cut from a ‘mere’ 286 hours of film stock.
But it’s not just the narrative efficiency that makes Coup 53 stand out. It uses a range of techniques to sustain the interest and add realism. Of course, there’s the usual archive footage (including some key reels from the BFI’s archives), voiceover narration and talking-heads interviews, both contemporary and more recent. Some of these interviews are impressive in themselves, not least Ardeshir Zahedi whose father replaced Mossadegh as Prime Minister after the coup.
However, Murch and Amirani go much further. We see the two film makers on screen themselves, exploring archives and making journalistic decisions. In one remarkable sleight of hand, we see a portion of the new documentary that we’ve just watched played back to a researcher from the 1985 documentary to explain the tone of the film, watching their reaction to what we ourselves have just watched. Many of the investigative scenes are filmed in the editing suite, the walls filled with meticulously organised post-it notes that are Murch’s ever-evolving structure for the film. Very meta.
The coup itself is brought to life by animated re-enactments, using the same painterly rotoscoped technique that Richard Linklater used in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. The result is immediate yet stylised, its artistry enhances it like memory unlike many documentary re-enactments that feel both jarring and fake.
Perhaps the crux of the film is the recruitment of Ralph Fiennes to play the role of Darbyshire, recreating the suppressed interview in the Savoy hotel. An elusive character, there’s no recording of the man, just a single black-and-white photo. But in the transcript we have his words. Fiennes, who Murch first met on The English Patient, plays him naturally and in a way that never once feels false or contrived. He brings this mysterious MI6 operative to life. Remarkably, these scenes, read from autocue, were shot in just one hour before would cross the Thames to appear in Anthony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre the same evening.
Coup 53 was so rich with stimulating detail it made me want to learn more. Murch and Amirani boldly compile this range of techniques into a coherent, riveting and very cinematic documentary.
The events it covers are a last gasp of British colonialist power and influence, yet the coup and players seem to have faded from our collective memory. They resonate still in Iran though; Mossadegh’s burial site below the foundations of his own home remains a place of pilgrimage and rememberance and it’s widely thought that the subsequent discontent led to the 1979 revolution. Perhaps the British Government will never own up to its involvement, but it seems this sort of honest admission, this reassessment of colonialism, is exactly what today’s youth demands – another reason why this film is vital and timely viewing.
POST SCRIPT January 2021:
The version of this documentary that I saw in August 2020 was the original release. In September that year, ITV Archive withdrew its license for Coup 53 to use their End of Empire footage on the grounds that it unfairly put “the End of Empire team in disrepute”. Amirani was forced to temporarily withdraw the documentary until he added a ‘right to reply’ segment. The film was released with this additional segment in January 2021.
In short, the End of Empire team insist that the Darbyshire footage was not removed, because there was no such footage in the first place; he refused to go on camera, as a signatory of the Official Secrets Act. The transcripts are from an off-the-reccord audio recording. Also, Amirani used 14 minutes of the End of Empire TV footage without crediting it, but conversely didn’t represent what that TV programme uncovered, and so effectively seemed to take credit for other investigators’ work. The End of Empire team document their frustrations in a press release.
If this is true, it’s a shame. The events described in Iran are sufficiently interesting and dramatic to sustain a documentary, and this misrepresentation seems petty and a cheap attempt to claim cover-up to get publicity for his documentary. The documentary wouldn’t be damaged by being more truthful, and I can only guess egos are at play. In any case, none of this should distract from the bigger story that this documentary (and, it seems, the End of Empire broadcast) describes so effectively.
Coup 53 is released digitally on 21st August in UK, Ireland, USA and Canada. Walter Murch gives some behind-the-scenes insights into making the film here and there’s a Q&A with the filmakers here.