Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Carve Her Name With Pride may be the pinnacle of the self-congratulatory British "we won the war" film, the mostly 1950s-era picture that sought to remind a public still faced with 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' 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. She recently opened a museum dedicated to the woman she plays in Carve Her Name with Pride.
In 1940 Violette Szabo (Virginia McKenna) is a London shopgirl. Her French mother (Denise Gray) suggests that she bring a French soldier home for dinner on Bastille Day, and Violette finds foreign legionnaire Etienne Szabo (Alain Saury). The two are soon married and Etienne goes back into combat. Two years later Violette is celebrating her baby daughter's first birthday. News comes that Etienne has been killed at El Alamein. When approached by an agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to become a secret agent in France, Violette agrees. She wants to 'do her bit' to fight the Germans, as her husband did. Violette takes to training and has 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 tells Violette about another more dangerous mission. She volunteers 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. British agents were undeniably daring, and many came from the ranks of refugees willing to go back to their 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 destroy her enemy, but some level she 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 as when she later faces the Machiavellian Nazi interrogator (Noel Willman of Kiss of the Vampire).
The film enhances Violette's fight to avoid capture. As if unable to face the fact that she was picked up after a brief gun battle, the movie presents a longer pursuit where Szabo 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 has contacted carry out highly successful sabotage actions, making it seem as if the French underground 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 Violette looks in fairly bad shape by the end, but the 1958 movie doesn't begin to cover what the real Violette had to endure 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 agent. The music score tells us that the plucky secret agent is never really alone. She's an undeniable heroine and certainly someone to be admired. 1
In the film, 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 was used to such chilling effect in the movie. Not knowing where the poem came from, the writers of Carve Her Name With Pride attributed it 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.
Carve Her Name With Pride was very popular, but it became a good example of the kind of film that would be shoved aside when the British New Wave took over. The Angry Young Men of the Kitchen Sink movies could be defined by their rejection of the solemn "we won the war" values epitomized by Lewis Gilbert's movie, which hasn't a single cynical attitude.
Good acting is had from an impressive supporting cast: Jack Warner, Maurice Ronet, Alain Saury, Billie Whitelaw. Michael Caine is supposed to be visible somewhere in a bit part, but I didn't catch him.
MGM /Fox's DVD of Carve Her Name With Pride breaks with MGM's recent trend of presenting B&W widescreen films properly matted and enhanced. The transfer is flat letterboxed at 1:66, looking much less sharp than the simultaneously-released The One That Got Away. The reason why is simple: the show was transferred just before MGM decided to present B&W non-Scope movies anamorphic-enhanced. It is not from an old analog laserdisc transfer.
Otherwise, the picture survives enlargement to 1:78 on a widescreen monitor, although many shots are made too tight on the top when seen that way. The clean image jumps a bit at dissolves but otherwise is clean, with clear audio giving William Alwyn's score a good workout. MGM's presentation has no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Carve Her Name With Pride rates:
Video: Fair: Looks Very Good, but it's the wrong aspect ratio
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 28, 2008
1. Part of the maturity of Carve Her Name With Pride is the fact that it doesn't act shocked 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 a Jewish resistance agent captured by the Nazis would not be granted clemency, and 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, but we can't help but think that it's a stupid move.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
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