Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)

Director: Lewis Gilbert

By Marilyn Ferdinand

On the eve of the 2011 American Independence Day celebrations, I shake my head in disgust at the infighting and class warfare that has paralyzed our state and federal governments and caused at least one state government—Minnesota—to shut down this week. Our country seems to be tearing itself apart, and I wonder not only about our future, but also about how we came to this pass only 60-some years after working to end the most devastating conflagration and genocide in history. What has turned our people into stubborn, petty, self-entitled jerks who can’t even come up with a fair budget, when once we were willing to sacrifice our very lives to defeat the idea of an Übermensch? It would be my prescription to every last idiot in every government in this land, from the smallest village to Capitol Hill, to watch Carve Her Name with Pride to remember what human honor, dignity, and sacrifice look like and what they can accomplish.

I didn’t know anything about Carve Her Name with Pride, let alone the true story it tells, before I chose to watch it. I knew it was on a cable station that had commercials (a big minus) and that it would take 2-1/2 hours of my evening from start to finish. But I was attracted to the fact that it was a British film from the ’50s, I am currently reading a book that reproduces first-person accounts of the Blitz from the diaries of the “mass observers” in Britain during WWII, and that the chance to see this film ever again might be very slim. I was floored by the sad, moving, and genuinely inspiring tale that unfolded before my eyes.

Violette Bushell (Virginia McKenna), a pretty 19-year-old, takes her friend Vera (Avice Landone) with her to Hyde Park in London as she looks for a French soldier to invite home for dinner to celebrate Bastille Day, 1940. This rather odd mission is an assignment from her mother, a French woman married to an Englishman she met in Paris during the First World War. The women hook up with a legionnaire, Etienne Szabó (Alain Saury), and it is virtually love at first sight for him and Violette. After an amusing montage of their brief courtship, with Vera the constant chaperone, the lovers marry and spend a few idyllic days in the country before Etienne is to report for duty in North Africa. During this trip, Etienne gives Violette a poem he was inspired to write on the eve of their parting.

The film fast-forwards to 1942. Violette and several neighbor women are gathered at her parents’ home. Violette is tending to Tania (Pauline Challoner), the daughter Etienne has never seen, when a messenger arrives with a telegram announcing that Etienne has been killed in action. Another fast-forward shows Violette going to the government pension bureau six months later, presumably to handle some details regarding her widow’s pension. Instead, she is met by a Mr. Potter (Sydney Tafler), who offers her a job as a secret agent in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). After weighing the sacrifices, particularly with regard to Tania, Violette determines that it’s her turn to do her part for the war effort. The rest of the film details her training and deployment to France on two separate missions to help shattered cells of the French resistance reorganize and carry out sabotage missions, and her capture shortly after D-Day.

Lewis Gilbert is a distinguished director with a very successful track record, including helming three James Bond films (You Only Live Twice [1967], The Spy Who Loved Me [1977], and Moonraker [1979]), and such popular female-centered films as Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989). While the fanciful 007 stories are worlds away from the workaday depiction of SOE training in Carve Her Name, his confidence in handling female characters who come into their own certainly was presaged by his approach to Violette Szabó’s story. It is Gilbert’s strong focus on Violette, and Virginia McKenna’s brilliant performance, that make this film so compelling.

The film economically and effectively builds Violette’s life and character, centering them around her love and generosity, so that we are quickly drawn into caring about her. There is never a doubt that the love between Etienne and Violette is real. Gilbert frames Etienne as a fine figure of a man in a full-length shot of him in his uniform when Vera first points him out to Violette, a worthy figure of adoration. Their easy, fluent introductions in French cement the perfect fit. Violette’s determination to marry Etienne in the face of her father’s (Jack Warner) initial opposition at their short acquaintance, and then cheerful assent, telegraphs not only her strong personality and depth of feeling, but also the deep bonds of love and mutual support in the Bushell family. While the poem Etienne gives Violette is a bit of dramatic license—in fact, it was a code poem given to the real Violette by SOE cryptographer Leo Marks—its inclusion early on effectively sets the tone of the entire film, creating an indelible impression of eternal love that foreshadows not only the tragedies to befall the Szabós, but also their love of humanity that led to their sacrifices. In a scene where Violette is tortured by her Nazi captors, their attempt to extract the poem from her shows the perversion of humanity that such fascist movements truly are.

Another bit of dramatic license that is superfluous and undercuts somewhat the power of Violette’s love for Etienne is providing Violette with a romantic interest in the form of another SOE agent, Tony Fraser (Paul Scofield). The two agents meet during some wonderfully realistic training sessions, when Violette shores up Tony’s courage during paratrooper practice (he’s afraid of heights) and Tony helps Violette when she hurts her ankle after a hard landing. Tony and Violette are sent together on the two missions the film chronicles, with Violette narrowly evading the Nazis who suspect her of passing secrets to a contact in the underground in Rouen during the first one. She manages to keep her rendezvous with Tony in Paris, where, in a very touching scene, she buys a dress for her daughter as Etienne imagined they would do together after the war. On the second mission, when both are in Nazi hands and being transported to concentration camps in Germany, a gallows declaration of love between the pair seems melodramatic and unreal.

Where the film is most gripping is in its action sequences. Violette’s first mission seems to be a cakewalk until the shadow of danger falls over her as she goes to meet her contact in the underground. Two Gestapo agents follow her to the bicycle shop where her contact informs her that only three of 96 in the maquis cell are still alive or at liberty; when she is picked up and brought to the commander (Harold Lang) in Rouen, he is the same German who invited her to dinner the night before. He lets her go, but informs his agents that he wasn’t fooled by her deceptions. This scene accurately conveys how dangerous her work is and how the outcome of the war was never assured.

Her second mission is even more compelling. From the moment she launches herself from the airplane to be picked up by the French maquis, to her volunteering to serve as a courier among the maquis cells, the tension is almost unbearable. She and her comrade Jacques (Maurice Ronet) are intercepted in a small town by a small battalion of Germans, and dart among the buildings trying to escape. Violette reinjures her ankle as they flee through the woods and holds off the Germans with Sten gun fire while Jacques tries to escape across a river to warn the maquis of the German approach. As the bullets fly toward Violette and Jacques, and Germans drop under Violette’s assault, the inextricable emotions of desperation and courage rise from the remarkable Virginia McKenna.

I can’t even begin to express how full-bodied McKenna’s performance is. Check, for example, a scene where Violette has a chance to escape the train taking her to Germany when it is bombed. Other prisoners beg for water as she crawls through the smoke to an exit. She stops, looks back, and the camera closes in on her face as a dance of hope, indecision, anger, and finally surrender crosses it; she goes to fetch water for the prisoners. It would be easy to criticize Violette for leaving her toddler to go fight a war, but McKenna’s demeanor in this and other scenes refuses such naysaying as her love goes beyond herself. Her concerns about Tania and careful consideration are well rendered, her farewell before her second mission more tormented, but also more practical, as she draws up her will as her personal act of love. I imagined how this scene must have played out thousands, even millions of times in all the warring countries of the world, how tragic that the madness of those in power forces people to make such difficult choices. At the same time, one senses the pride with which Violette goes to the aid of her mother’s countrymen and women, and how her own experiences preparing for German bombing, only hinted at in this film through the use of blackout curtains and her father’s civil defense uniform, steeled her resolve.

The supporting cast are wonderful, from the training sergeant (Bill Owen) through to the other female SOE agents (Anne Leon and Billie Whitelaw) who suffered Violette’s fate with her. Location shooting in London and the surrounding countryside, of course, gives a sense of veracity to the proceedings and serves to fill out the details of Violette’s life and actions. The Germans are almost completely free of the mustache-twisting villainy that often accompanies them in other films, though her interrogator (Noel Willman) dips into the stereotype a bit. Gilbert chose to cut immediately away from tragedy, preferring a more discreet approach, for example, showing Violette look up at her mother through a doorway when Mrs. Bushell comes to inform her about Etienne’s death, or simply showing Violette’s head resting on a desk after she has been tortured by sleep deprivation. Sometimes this cutting away feels a little abrupt, but it offers Szabó’s story an unmitigated dignity that creates the effect Gilbert wished to achieve.

For her part, Virginia McKenna was honored to play Violette and has supported efforts to keep the memory of her service alive. Here is a clip of McKenna reciting the poem that has justly lived on as a tribute to love and sacrifice.

You can watch Carve Her Name with Pride on YouTube starting here.

  • Jacqueline T Lynch spoke:
    2nd/07/2011 to 3:29 pm

    Excellent post. I saw only part of this film some time ago and never learned the title. Now, I can go find it, thanks. Agree that McKenna was a marvel in this, and other films.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/07/2011 to 4:41 pm

    Jacqueline – I recently saw McKenna in The Smallest Show on Earth, which shows she has no facility for comedy. In this, however, the level of accomplishment is hard to even fathom.

  • Doug Bonner spoke:
    2nd/07/2011 to 4:41 pm

    The emotions engendered by the movie really came through in your prose. I found a DVD of this film in New Zealand earlier this year but haven’t watched it yet. I’m appropriately psyched for the experience now. Thanks for getting me into the right frame of mind for taking it in.

    Another film in the same vein (starring one of my favorite British actresses, Anna Neagle) is ODETTE (1950), the story of French-born, English housewife Odette Sansom who sent her 3 children to boarding school in Scotland, worked in the underground and miraculously survived the concentration camp at Ravensbruck.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/07/2011 to 4:43 pm

    Doug – I remember your posts involving Anna Neagle, and will seek Odette out. I guess Ravensbruck was the camp of choice for political prisoners; Violette was sent there as well.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    3rd/07/2011 to 2:31 pm

    I appreciate the glowing outgrowth of this particular film from all the government injustice discussed in the first paragraphs. I am a resident of New Jersey, where Republican Governor Chris Christie has spearheaded a near-decimation of the once proud educational infrastructure, by pushing through harsh legislaion again further pay increases, pension cuts and mandated increases in health benefit allowances. The finantial crackdown has also affected police, fire and virtually all public employees. These hardships have now darkened the beginning of summer, and compromised the operation of school budgets, where layoffs have become routine. What you relate about Minnesota is truly frightening to the core.

    So great that you brightened up the holiday for your readers (I mean, how many times can we talk about Pter Stone’s 1776? Ha!) with this well-kept secret, a film I have not yet seen. Excellent that you have the you tube up here. Sounds like Virginia McKenna delivers an electrifying performance, and the film leaves one with strong emotional resonance. I am eternally fascinated, if nearly always disturbed by this subject of course.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/07/2011 to 2:58 pm

    Sam – I’m like you – fascinated and horrified at the same time by the human capacity for cruelty, endurance and bravery. This film has them all skillfully interwoven. It was a privilege to see it and it helped me keep my courage up about a better tomorrow.

  • Jandy Stone spoke:
    5th/07/2011 to 3:29 pm

    When I started reading this post, the name Violette Szabo struck a memory – there’s a video game based on this story called Velvet Assassin. The video game was pretty bad, but I remember being really intrigued by the real-life-based story. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for the film; you really brought it to life, and I’m looking forward to seeing such a fascinating history actually treated well. Thanks!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/07/2011 to 3:49 pm

    Jandy – Yes, I read about that video game, though I’ve never seen it. Thank you for the kind compliment you paid me. It is always my hope that I can translate my experience of watching so that others will want to do the same as well. And thanks for stopping by.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    5th/07/2011 to 10:00 pm

    McKenna really was perfect for this part, she had an intensity that it required. As you know by now, this story resonated even more with me after I met my future wife and learned of her family history in the Resistance during WWII. They still have the grim, official Nazi papers every conquered family must have that showed there was no hint of Jewish or other undesirable ancestry on either side – with a Reichs’ eagle stamp of approval. They all knew people who’d been killed because they resisted, or sent to the camps. They accepted things as they came, but tried as best they could to gum up the works, no heroics were actively recounted without a lot of prodding, and even then one dared go no further than that. Melville’s “Army of Shadows” is a good companion piece to this one – it really was a merciless time, and ideologies that seemed insane on the face it were routinely followed and worshiped with almost cult-like head nodding. The worst things were the turncoats – the Germans could never have been as successful as they were without people who take silver for lives.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/07/2011 to 10:12 pm

    Yes, Van, my reading on the Resistance showed the deadly effectiveness of turncoats, making all those films about German infiltrators not nearly as silly or unbelievable as some of the filmcraft would lead one to believe.

  • Stephen Gallagher spoke:
    7th/07/2011 to 11:18 am

    I’m sure you’re aware, but probably elected not to mention, that the cryptographer-poet Leo Marks had a postwar screenwriting career and that his screenplays included that for PEEPING TOM, directed by Michael Powell.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/07/2011 to 2:52 pm

    Stephen – I did read about Peeping Tom, and you could have knocked me over with a feather contemplating that notion. It didn’t seem to fit well with my review, but I’m very glad you stopped by and brought it up. Thanks!

  • David Lyle spoke:
    24th/10/2012 to 11:14 am

    Marilyn, thanks for an excellent review of a film I recently saw again here on UK television.
    You may like to read Leo Marks’ terrific (and very long – 600 pages) book called “Between silk and cyanide”. In it he describes who he wrote the poem for, why he gave it to Violette, and other work with SOE agents such as Noor Inyat Khan.
    He also mentions something you described – the incident in the train actually happened, and was not artistic licence, as some might think – one of the soldiers asking for water was known very well to her, and she had not seen him for some time – the soldier survived, and was able to recount the story to Leo Marks some time later.
    He also describes her death, being shot while kneeling, holding the hands of two other female SOE agents – this execution has been confirmed by other historians in several accounts, based on an eye-witness report, and is included in the official history of SOE (which sadly tells only half the SOE story, and obscures many important failures, but that’s another story..)
    A remarkable lady, who was awarded the George Cross (the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross) and the Croix de Guerre.
    David.

  • Ivan S spoke:
    22nd/12/2012 to 5:39 pm

    While surfing through Netflix’s list of films of the 50’s, I came upon this title. Though familiar with many films of this era, I did not know about this superbly directed and acted work. McKenna is brilliant and the rest of the cast excellent as well. She imparts sincerity, tension, and suspense to the role, evoking admiration for the courage of the real Violette and horror, knowing her fate. Among the “war” films of this period—and I have seen many—it is one of the best.

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