Brits fume over inaccurate portrayal in Oscar-pic 'Argo'

Britons are calling foul over Hollywood’s treatment of the infamous takeover of the American embassy in Iran by Islamic revolutionaries in 1979 and the subsequent rescue of six American diplomats. British diplomats called Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’ movie a “slur” for having depicted the desperate Americans being turned away by British colleagues as revolutionaries rampaged. Affleck won the Best Picture Oscar for his portrayal of an intrepid CIA operative who manages to get the six diplomats out of Iran being using a fictitious movie production as a ruse. In various interviews, Affleck was unapologetic for what the Brits are calling false portrayals.

In director Affleck’s telling, it was the Canadian government and the CIA that managed the rescue during the occupation of the American embassy in 1979. British media complained about the regularly negative portrayal of Britain by Hollywood. In ‘Argo’,  the six Americans were refused refuge by British diplomats. ‘Brits turned them away,’ says a senior CIA character in the film. Similarly, movies such as Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’ and ‘The Patriot’ portrayed Britons as sinister and murderous.

The Daily Mail, a UK-based newspaper, visualized “the outraged comments over industrial buckets of popcorn in movie theaters from Alabama to Alaska. ‘Goddamn Limeys! So that’s what we get for bailing them out during World War II’”, as a typical reaction on the part of Americans.

Britons point out that instead of villains, British diplomats in Iran were heroes and saviours during the Islamic revolution in Iran. Many of the Britons who witnessed the revolution, and rescue, are still alive. According to the Daily Mail, retired diplomat Sir John Graham (86) fumed “When I first heard about this film, I was really quite annoyed,” while expressing concern that Hollywood’s version of events might become the definitive history in the minds of viewers. 

According to the record, on November 4, 1979 (just before the U.S. presidential election that toppled President Jimmy Carter), the American embassy was occupied by armed Iranian revolutionaries in Tehran. Five American diplomats were able to escape through a side exit and, reasoning that they would be safe there, went to the British embassy. The other 55 embassy personnel, including U.S. Marines, were held captive for more than a year.

The terrified five Americans escaped through the violent streets of Tehran, where summary executions were taking place, only to find that the British embassy was also harangued by an angry armed mob. They then retreated to the apartment of Robert Anders, employed in the visa unit of the embassy, where they contacted anyone who they thought could help. On the next day, British personnel called from the embassy and gave them refuge at its residential compound. The movie does not mention the peril that this caused to British security. At that moment, Muslim revolutionaries referred to the UK as “Little Satan” and the U.S. as “Great Satan” while British diplomats feared for their lives.

A car was sent from the British embassy to rescue the Americans, only to become lost in the thronging streets of the Iranian capital. When help didn’t arrive, the Americans called the British embassy, only to be told that revolutionaries were “coming over the walls.” The embassy was seized.

Eventually, two British diplomats arrived at Anders’ apartment and took the Americans away. One of the two Britons recalled that the Americans were understandably nervous and kept ducking down in the small Austin Maxi car, which was feared would signal the Iranian revolutionaries. They were able to reach the British compound, finally. According to Antonio Mendez, the CIA officer who assisted in the rescue, “‘The British were kind hosts, and offered them a house of their own, fed them a warm meal, even prepared cocktails.” Adding in his memoir, which was the basis for Affleck’s movie, Mendez wrote “The British did give their American colleagues sanctuary. Far from being cowards, the Brits were heroes. Many of the British diplomats then stationed in Iran are still alive — and they’re fuming.”

At the embassy compound, an army of revolutionaries came over the walls, smashing windows and doors. There, the home of a British diplomat was assaulted by Iranian revolutionary students. The wife of a British diplomat who was there for the rampage expressed outrage that fellow Britons were given such poor treatment by Affleck’s movie. Lady Imelda Miers, who had taken shelter with her 7-year-old son confronted students wielding Kalashnikov automatic weapons, said in an interview with the Daily Mail, “Argo plays fast and loose with the facts. And unsurprisingly, the Brits are given a real pasting.” It is now believed that the revolutionaries were searching for the missing Americans.  Her husband, Sir David Miers said with aplomb of the movie, “It is not a true story.”

Standing at the gate was Iskander Khan, a Pakistani guard in his 50s, who bravely told the students that the residential compound was empty, convincing them to turn away. Both the British and American diplomats therefore had another narrow escape.  The following morning it was decided the Americans would have to move on for their own safety. Anders and his group were told that they would have to go, as Gulhak was clearly not secure.

According to Mendez’ account,  the Americans felt they were “being kicked out” by the British, but British diplomat Martin Williams says this is not the case, as the reasons for leaving the residential compound at Gulhak were “self-evident.”

The Americans were taken to an empty house belonging to a U.S. official, where the sixth member of their party joined them. The six were eventually rescue by the joint Canadian/US operation that was kept classified for decades.

The record shows that the United States was aware at the time of the contributions made by Britain to the rescue. For example, a recently-released State Department Briefing Memorandum from February 6, 1980, shows that the British was involved in the Americans’ rescue.

Director Affleck , while acknowledging that his film conveys a jaundiced view of Britain, explained that dramatic license took precedence over historical accuracy. He explained, “But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone.”

Affleck's explanation left retired British diplomat Sir John Graham unmollified. ‘I can’t see why the film-makers couldn’t have acknowledged that we and others did actually help the diplomats," he says. "It wouldn’t have ruined the drama at all."

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