Director: Lewis Gilbert
Script: Vernon Harris & Lewis Gilbert
Cast: Virginia McKenna, Paul Scofield, Jack Warner, Denise Crey, Maurice Ronet, Alain Savrey, Bill Owen
Running time: 114 minutes
Carve Her Name With Pride is the true story of one of the Second World War’s most revered heroines, Violette Szabo, who served as a secret agent for the British.
Violette (Virginia McKenna) begins the film as a fun-loving young woman who ends up inviting a lonely French soldier, who she meets in the park, for dinner when her friend suggests that she should talk to him because she can speak French. Violette’s mother is French and her father, played by Jack (Dixon of Dock Green) Warner, is English. One thing leads to another and they’re soon in love and quickly married thereafter. Sadly, however, just weeks after their honeymoon, her new husband, Etienne (Savrey) is called back to military service and is killed in action, missing out on the birth of their first baby; a girl, Tania.
Three years later Violette is approached by the British Secret Service to help out with the war effort; probably due to her ability to speak fluent French and some German. It also probably didn’t harm that she was also a good athlete and a crack shot with a rifle! She reluctantly agrees, after realising that she wants to do something to honour the memory of her dead husband, and is brought in to do her basic training. Since she can’t tell anyone ‘the truth’ about what she’s actually up to – it’s the secret service after all – she pretends to work in an office at the Ministry of Pensions, although her canny dad susses out that she’s up to more than just shuffling paper around when he finds a badge signifying that she’s now qualified in parachute jumping!
Not long after the training is finished Violette is asked to undertake a dangerous mission, which sees her sent to France to gain intelligence in preparation for the blowing up of a strategic bridge. She gets taken in by the Germans, but manages to get herself out because the commanding officer takes a fancy to her. She makes it back to the UK, but is soon sent back behind enemy lines, a second time, to assist her mentor, Tony (played well by Paul Scofield), who’s got to keep a low profile, himself, since he becoming too well known in France.
As with many secret operations during the war, the mission goes south and Violette is compromised by the hasty actions of a French resistance fighter. She manages to save the life of another fighter, during a fierce fire-fight with German troops, but she, herself, is wounded and captured, and quickly ends up in the hands of the Gestapo.
I won’t write any more about the story that continues to unfold past this point as I don’t want to ‘spoil’ it for those who have never heard of Violette Szabo or seen the film before, but I heartily recommend that you do check it out. Violette was a truly brave young woman who knew only too well that the life expectancy of an undercover agent during the war was likely to be measured in only weeks or months, and yet, she still took part in dangerous operations to assist the allies.
The film is nicely directed by Oscar-nominated Lewis Gilbert (Alfie), in an understated way, although, don’t get me wrong, the action sequences are still very thrilling and the espionage sections are edge-of-your-seat stuff. The photography looks crisp, although the sound is a little soft, probably due to the age of the film itself. Editor John Shirley does a great job in maintaining the correct pacing for the story unfolding. And, although the story is mainly very serious, there are some lighter moments, particularly earlier on in the film when Violette is falling in love and, later, when she’s doing her basic training. In fact the drill sergeant is often comedy gold with his quick turn of phrase and bemused expressions as he watches his new recruits cocking up during their training exercises.
One of the central plot points throughout the film is Violette’s use of a poem that her husband recites to her, and I’m going to end this review by typing it out for you since it’s such a beautiful, beguiling poem. The poem was actually written by Leo Marks who wrote it about a girlfriend, Ruth, who had recently died in an air crash in Canada.
The life that I have
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have;
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
Network Distributing are distributing Carve Her Name With Pride on Blu-ray and DVD. Extras on the disc include:
An audio commentary with actress Virginia McKenna and the film’s editor John Shirley. I haven’t listened to much of this, but it does seem to be quite engaging;
An original theatrical trailer (3.44 mins) – a long one, which reminds us that the film is based on a book by R. J. Minney, and also refers to Violette’s ‘gay, high spirits’!
Image gallery – 86 photos from the film, including posters and lobby cards.