Writing about films is not something I often do, but as an old Cold Warrior who has covered intelligence matters for decades, the subject matter of the thrilling book “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is right up my dark alley.

John Le Carré’s Cold War espionage trilogy, which also includes, “The Honorable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People,” is the finest work on the world of intelligence ever written. Le Carré served in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, and knows of what he writes. He masterfully captures all the bureaucratic tedium and moments of terror of spy work, its lies, double-dealing, and betrayals.

The 1976 BBC TV version of `Tinker, Tailor’ and the sequel, ‘Smiley’s People,’ was the best thing I have ever seen on TV. It was perfect. Full stop.

John Le Carré stated the BBC version was “complete” and should not be remade. I felt the same way, fearing that a remake would inevitably disappoint.

A remake should at least bring new depth or contemporary sensibility. Alas, the 2011 Anglo-French film version by director Tomas Alfredson detracts rather than adds to this epic tale.

Don’t get me wrong. The film is well made and interesting. But it has tried to compress Le Carré’s large cast of fascinating characters and murky, jig-saw puzzle of patient detection into an all-too-brief two hours.

Inevitably, the film produces only one finely-etched character, Smiley, very well played by a somber Gary Oldman. But trying to follow the genius of Alec Guinness, who played Smiley for the BBC, is an impossible act to follow.

Sadly, the other wonderful characters in the BBC series that Le Carré brought to vivid life become mere cardboard cutouts in the film. The slippery Hungarian chief of the Lamplighters, Toby Esterhase; Bill Hayden, the charming seducer of one and all; insufferably pompous Sir Percy Alliline; gruff, chain-smoking Roy Bland; and Jim Prideaux, betrayed on a mission behind the Iron Curtain by the man he loved.

Having grown up in New York’s theater world, I’ve seen many moments of memorable drama, but none more so than the wonderful scene in the “Smiley’s People” where Toby Esterhase kidnaps a Soviet diplomat played with consummate skill by the Anglo-French actor Michael Lonsdale. Watching Smiley slowly, relentlessly deconstruct the blustering Soviet official into a blubbering mess is one of cinema’s supreme scenes.

Sadly, it’s not in the film. Nor is the shadowy Karla, grand spymaster of Moscow Center. Maybe a sequel to the new film?

Viewers of the new film won’t understand the great underlying drama of the Philby treason. The fictitious Philby-like character, Bill Hayden, weakly played by Colin Firth, only hints at the monster treachery that lies beneath.

The real Philby, a gifted son of Britain’s elite who grew to hate the West, became a senior figure at British intelligence and its liaison with CIA in Washington. Philby betrayed scores of Western operations and hundreds of agents behind the Iron Curtain, all of whom were executed, including a relative of mine.

Equally damaging, Philby convinced CIA’s powerful chief of counter-espionage, James Jesus Angleton, that the Agency was riddled with KGB moles. As a result, both MI6 and CIA were, to use Le Carré’s term, “turned inside out” and crippled by frantic witch hunts and galloping paranoia.

Philby and his fellow spies in Britain’s establishment, known as the “Cambridge Five,” are generally considered the most destructive Soviet agents of the era.

But when I was invited into the KGB’s top secret museum in Moscow, the curator assured me that George Blake, who was not part of Philby’s coterie, had been, in fact, the most effective Soviet spy in Britain. Reading Blake’s notebooks made me feel ice cold.

In “Smiley’s People,” Smiley and his old team hunt and then trap Karla through his one human weakness, his daughter. In reality, I saw something eerily similar happen to one of the very top Soviet leaders in the 1970’s.

As an old Cold Warrior, I do miss the thrill and drama of the conflict each and every day. The Soviets were redoubtable, worthy foes. As Japanese samurai used to say, honor in battle is commensurate to the might of your enemy.

Thank you, Le Carré for keeping these exciting memories alive.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2012

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  1. Levantine says:

    “The real Philby, a gifted son of Britain’s elite who grew to hate the West” … Jack Philby, Kim’s father, got the US into Saudi back in the 30’s thru his deep friendship with Ibn Saud, the father of modern Saudi Arabia. And for that, Jack (who converted to Islam), earned the wrath of the British establishment.

  2. Mike Smith says:

    I wonder if this disaster will end up helping defuse tensions in this area


    ” A Pakistani general says more than 100 troops have been buried by an avalanche in the disputed Kashmir region. ”


    ” Shaukat Qadir, a former Brigadier in the Pakistani army, who has been to Siachen on numerous occasions, told Al Jazeera: “This is the biggest casualty that has ever happened.”

    ” “I can just hope [President Asif Ali] Zardari talks about this with [Indian Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh [on his visit to India on April 8] and settles this issue for both, us and Indians. “

  3. Mike Smith says:

    Here is an example of what I was talking about earlier…


    Merchant of Death’ Viktor Bout sentenced to 25 years
    Arms dealer Viktor Bout, dubbed the “merchant of death”, has been sentenced to 25 years in jail by a US judge.

    You really shouldn’t get caught being an arms merchant… unless you limit your selling to people we like


    or you have political influence


    Have a look at who armed rebels in Libya or Sudan … possibly Syria… fighting breaks out, and if the rebels are on the losing end, then an international crisis breaks out and the rebels then continue with more western support ( and control ) even NATO airpower is used to back what would have been an internal matter a decade or two ago.

    But supply arms to people fighting against the bought and paid for tyrant who has US backing….

  4. Mike Smith says:

    In your video, I would say we would also need to discuss the rise of radical Christian groups who hold alot of political and economic capital in the US. In addition, the lady remarks that kids go off to school and come back with a different opinion… don’t they call that education ?
    Two questions of my own

    If the lies and fabrications that led into the Iraq war had happened in Nixons presidency… how would the general population react ? what differences might there be ?

    If Iran / Contra happened today, would there be any difference ?

    • Precisely…thank you for the mention of other good reasons why MAC is raising up…for a season.

      Happy Easter

      • Mike Smith says:

        I think organizations like MAC are becoming more prominent as a result of people pointing the finger at all Muslims for the actions of a few. They try to bring out a moderate message… Which I think is the point you are making. Then the radical groups on the other side, Christians, AIPAC, Klan types, etc push their message harder and lash out at people who do not buy into their views.

        A Buddhist friend of mine once told me Buddhism isn’t a religion, it is more of a personal belief system that gives you something in which to guide you own life… but not anyone else’s. Where as religions are something that compels you to recruit, reform, or retire anyone who doesn’t think the same way as you do.

        I see alot of that in many government policies particularly in the US where they tout their ” freedoms ” and then slag someone for believing in evolution.

        In Canada we I think we do not have the same problems… and I really hope we do not move in that direction despite our ” alignment ” with many US policies as of late.

        But then we are starting to slide off topic.

        • I have always considered Buddhism a good philosophy. If your neighbour is a Buddhist, you probably have a very good neighbour. Ten years ago, I moved to my current residence in a mostly hard working Italian community living in modest homes they prepared to retire in. In the last five years, the whole demographics in the neighbourhood has changed, has become rather rough and noisy, almost overnight, and it’s rather unsettling when the quietest times of the seven day week is when the sun is up in the sunset of my life. I thought life on the family farm was so boring when I was young. I sure miss it now, but we have to focus on [the topic] what’s ahead, and I find it more chilling than exciting, I’ve been round the mountain more than enough times to suit me, and it seems here we go again
          My most memorable marine clip…

  5. Moderator
    If the reply is not in agreement with Eric’s opinion or does not praise the article, it does not show on the main page. True or false.

    • Eric Margolis says:

      False. Dissenting comments are welcome, on topic and without personal attacks on other commentators

      • FAIR! I AM GLAD. HOW ABOUT “LANGUAGE USED”? Oh. “false”comments should have some backing?

        • Some Canadian says:

          I don’t think “those people” from the old blog are coming back, so there’s no real need to be afraid of disagreeing.

          As much as I’d like to comment on this article, I simply can’t since espionage is such an obscure subject for people in the lay public to know enough to talk about.

          One thing I’d like to know, though, is whether or not the CIA and MI6 had successfully inserted their own moles into the KGB. My impression is that, if they were indeed successful, any details of it would not be public knowledge.

  6. DukeNukem says:

    A step backwards ? I think not.
    Reading Eric waxing nostalgic reminds one of the intrigue, romance and elegant ruthlessness of cold war intelligence.
    He’s allowed. Todays dance lacks the panache of two epic adversaries, of good versus evil and will be better served being retold in a Hollywood “B” movie rather than in a gripping Le Carre spy novel.
    I get it Eric.

    • Mike Smith says:

      Todays dance does lack panache, and yesterdays was not so much good vs evil, as it was evil vs a different sort of evil.

      Yesterday it was more a battle of equals where some order of rules had to be followed so to not let the conflict get out of hand, today we have one side so outclassed it fights out of spite and desperation and the other who follows no rules but their own and has all the advantage of technology…

      Instead of Philby and Burgess. today we have Bradley Manning and Wikileaks.

      Yesterday has more romanticism simply because much of the goings on were if not secret, not so much in the open. Now we see much of the evil both sides commit and the tarnish is not many seem to care.

      I think George Smiley would probably resign and walk away out of disgust today.

  7. This is, unfortunately, the same old story. The sad part being so many innocent people must suffer in so many ways for the vain glory of a few, and I feel this article is a step backward for a peace advocate. Of course it could be argued this is only my well documented PTSD reaction, but I will look forward to the next article being more in tune with the season. Thank you, Eric

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