Benedict Cumberbatch has been enlisted for the World War II drama The War Magician. Based on the book of the same title by David Fisher, the film follows the real-life exploits of Jasper Maskelyne, an illusionist who worked with the Allied Forces during World War II to defeat the Nazis. Cumberbatch will play the titular character in the film based off a screenplay by Gary Whitta, who most recently penned the script for Star Wars: Rogue One. No director is attached yet.
The story of Jasper Maskelyne has attracted attention from Hollywood for some time now, with Variety noting that Tom Cruise and director Peter Weir (Master and Commander) were attached as far back as 2003. Such high profile attention makes sense once you learn of Maskelyne’s exploits.
Working with the British military, Maskelyne organized a group of twelve other magicians, known as The Magic Gang, and used illusions to conceal equipment and troops, as well as creating fake targets to fool the enemy. As Variety notes, The Magic Gang “managed to conceal the Alexandria harbor and the Suez Canal, where there were 150,000 men with 1,000 guns and tanks, turning the tide of the war against General Rommel and the Germans in North Africa.” They amazingly accomplished this task by creating a fake harbor to attract the bombing raids, and concealed troops using anti-aircraft searchlights and mirrors in order to blind the Nazis. For his efforts, Maskelyne earned a spot on Hitler’s personal blacklist.
It’s quite an amazing story, one that many people may not be aware of. It is somewhat familiar territory for Cumberbatch, though, who is no stranger to period pieces, and is coming off of an Oscar nomination for the World War II drama The Imitation Game, in which he portrayed codebreaker Alan Turing. While this story has taken a while to make it to this point, now that it has a name like Cumberbatch attached, it’ll be interesting to see which director jumps on board. But, the tone of the film is also a question mark. It’s being referred to it as a drama, but with such a larger-than-life premise, one that can lend itself to perhaps some lighter set ups, it’ll be interesting to see how they balance the drama of the war with the exploits of the characters (for example, the approach to The Monuments Men). Especially since Whitta is the writer for the heist-infused Rogue One, where such tendencies are perhaps translatable to this story. Again, it’ll be interesting to see which director takes on the material, then what direction that material takes.