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 , The Spy Who Loved Me , and Moonraker ), 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.