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Carve Her Name With Pride may be the pinnacle of the self-congratulatory "we won the war" film, the mostly 1950s-era picture that sought to remind a British public still dogged by shortages and a sagging economy, that something great had been accomplished. The rather downbeat story deals with the true experience of Violette Szabo, a young Englishwoman who became a resistance liaison in occupied France in 1944. Certain details of the story weren't divulged until just a few years ago, with the publication of Leo Marks' fascinating book Between Silk and Cyanide.
The film cemented the career of actress Virginia McKenna, best known to Americans as the star of Born Free. With her actor husband Bill Travers, McKenna helped popularize the nature conservation movement. A few years ago she opened a museum dedicated to the woman she plays in Carve Her Name with Pride.
The story remains low-key and realistic; the heroism is all in the attitudes of the protagonists. In 1940 Violette Szabo (Virginia McKenna) is a London shop girl. Her French mother (Denise Gray) suggests that she bring a French soldier home for dinner on Bastille Day, which leads to Violette meeting foreign legionnaire Etienne Szabo (Alain Saury). The two are soon married and Etienne goes back into combat. A couple of years later Violette is celebrating her baby daughter's first birthday when news comes that Etienne has been killed at El Alamein. Approached by an agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Violette agrees to become a secret agent in France. She wants to fight in her husband's place. Violette takes well to training and experiences a successful first mission in France. She grows closer to her superior Tony Fraser (Paul Scofield), a seasoned agent. As the Normandy invasion approaches, SOE needs a volunteer for another more dangerous mission. Violette prepares to go back again.
Carve Her Name With Pride is effective patriotic filmmaking. Although a fighter and an athlete, Violette Szabo still reads as vulnerable to most audiences and her repeated decisions to place herself in harm's way are disturbing. Many undeniably daring British agents were refugees willing to go back to their occupied countries as fighting patriots. No matter how brightly Virginia McKenna plays the role -- she's the model of motivated positive thinking -- the film comes off as the sentimental story of someone with a death wish. Violette wants to help the war effort, but at some level she also wants to follow her husband into darkness.
Serious movies in which a country's will to battle becomes personal usually resemble propaganda, intentional or not. Self-righteous propaganda can be government-instigated (Soviet filmmaking) or blatantly commercial (Rambo). Carve Her Name With Pride avoids that categorization because its Nazi threat is so matter-of-fact. Violette Szabo is an agent on a suicide mission, and she knows it. Director Lewis Gilbert (Alfie, You Only Live Twice) organizes his scenes with clean camera moves that reveal new dramatic elements, like the messenger with bad news alighting outside Violette's London row house. Gilbert's in-close character work is particularly good. Instead of the expected innocent, Violette is presented as headstrong and stubborn, particularly when it comes to not being shown up by men. She's sometimes harsh with her father. During her parachute and martial arts training, she wears the same scowl that she shows her Machiavellian Nazi interrogator (Noel Willman of Kiss of the Vampire).
The film embellishes Violette's fight to avoid capture. As if uncomfortable with the fact that Szabo was picked up after a brief gun battle, the movie presents a longer pursuit in which she personally shoots a number of enemy soldiers. Frankly, if it were that easy everyone would do it. Also going against the norm, the Frenchmen Violette have contacted carry out highly successful sabotage actions, making it seem as if the resistance racked up victories on a daily basis. The movie doesn't say that on the same day that Violette was captured, an entire town (Ouradour) was massacred in retaliation for resistance efforts. Our heroine is in fairly bad shape by the end, but the 1958 movie doesn't begin to cover what the real Violette suffered as a "guest" of one of the Gestapo's torture houses in Paris.
The film is honest, but it does soften the tragedy. Every new scene brings images of Violette's supportive family back home, or her hopeful new relationship with Paul Scofield's handsome colleague. The music score tells us that the plucky secret agent is never really alone; she has posterity - us - to cheer her onward. Violette is an undeniable heroine and certainly someone to be admired. 1
Michael Goodliffe plays the Head of the Coding Section of the SOE, who briefs Violette in communications and codes. In real life this character was a young mathematical genius named Leo Marks. We see Violette training with one of Marks' silk code scarves. Marks became very disturbed by his job, which forced men like himself to 'learn from their errors', when each error usually meant that an agent of agents would meet horrible deaths. Until he published his book not long before his death, Marks kept quiet the fact that he authored Violette's code poem, The Life That I Have, which is used to such chilling effect in the movie. Unaware of its true source, the makers of Carve Her Name With Pride attributed the poem to Violette's husband Etienne. Leo Marks' exploits as a code breaker were dramatized in his movie Sebastian starring Dirk Bogarde and Susannah York. Film students best know Marks through his most notorious screenplay, Peeping Tom. A documentary on Criterion's Peeping Tom disc features Marks explaining his role as a code master. He recites the poem he gave to Violette, and speaks of his doomed operative as if she were a ghost presence. Leo Marks also wrote an almost autobiographical crime thriller for Hammer films, Cloudburst, re-interpreting himself as a code-breaker and spymaster truly warped by his wartime experience.
Carve Her Name With Pride was very popular, but it became a good example of the kind of film that was shoved aside when the British New Wave took over. The Angry Young Men of the Kitchen Sink movies bluntly rejected the solemn "we won the war" values epitomized by Lewis Gilbert's earnest movie.
Good acting is had from an impressive supporting cast: Jack Warner, Maurice Ronet, Alain Saury, Billie Whitelaw. Reader Gerry Healy reports that Michael Caine is visible in a bit part, as a prisoner on a train.
VCI's DVD of Carve Her Name With Pride would be flawless if the transfer were widescreen enhanced, but it's simply flat-letterboxed at about 1:66. This makes me think that it's the same basic encoding as was used in an earlier MGM disc. The picture is solid, undamaged and with very good contrast. The audio is also robust. So only viewers with large monitors or projection systems are going to be aware of these limitations. The show's subject matter and sincerity compensate mightily.
The kind of patriotism and commitment shown here is something well worth honoring, although it seems unnecessary to make Ms. Szabo come off as an action hero at the end, no matter how briefly. The pressure of doing that kind of work requires a person with a refined ability to not think about the bad things that might happen -- or should we say, probably will happen to them. Comprehending such fortitude makes one tremble.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Carve Her Name With Pride rates:
1. Part of the maturity of Carve Her Name With Pride is the fact that it is not outraged that Violette should come to a sorry end. At Cannon films we had to laugh at the utter idiocy of their movie Hanna's War, which doesn't seem to understand why the Nazis would not grant clemency a captured Jewish resistance agent, or why the entire war effort wasn't redirected to effect her release. The only point in Carve Her Name With Pride where we question Violette's priorities is when, given a chance to escape on a train, she takes water to some prisoners instead. The incident is likely invented to emphasize her sterling character, yet we can't help but think that it's a stupid move.
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