Review: Carve Her Name With Pride (1958)

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After an unexpected hiatus, I’m pleased to announce the next classic to grace the Girl On Film blog is Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) starring Virginia McKenna, directed by Lewis Gilbert and based on the book of the same name by R.J. Minney.

Acting as a precursor to films such as Female Agents (2008) and Charlotte Grey (2000), Carve Her Name With Pride tells the true story of Violette Szabo and her heroic achievements as a Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) in occupied France during World War Two. Having lost her French husband in battle, Violette uses her resourceful, natural aptitude for espionage and unsurpassable bravery to become the one of the first women to be awarded the George Cross.

The film is surprisingly gritty for its time, shedding the sometimes predictable and jingoistic tendencies of many post-war films. For Violette it seems, it is as much about fighting for honour of her husband’s sacrifice and memory as it is for the good of her country. Virginia McKenna is superb in the role, and has highlighted Carve Her Name With Pride as one of her most challenging performances as an actress. By the time we reach Violette’s torturous days as a prisoner, we cannot doubt McKenna’s dedication and commitment to the role. McKenna is the all-round star of the piece, shooting, parachuting and out-smarting her way through many difficult situations with both sophistication and absolute realism. The film is a testament to her acting talent and certainly surpasses A Town Like Alice (a film which always felt half-finished when matched with its original source) for her portrayal alone.

With a number of gripping set pieces, ranging from a violent machine gun shootout across the French countryside to a burning train wreck, Carve Her Name With Pride illuminates the scope of Violette’s journey in David Lean-style proportions. Away from the action, the scenes within the family home of her parents and young daughter are remarkably convincing and never appear to simply serve as an emotional trigger for the audience. Her provincial home is the setting for one of the most effective scenes: as Violette receives the telegram announcing her husband’s death, the door simply closes and the camera pans back down the hallway, leaving the heartbreaking sentiment unheard but understood.

A romance blossoms between Violette and fellow secret agent Captain Tony Fraser played by the charming Paul Scofield (whom I imagine to be a cross between Dominic West and Dougray Scott). An interesting relationship develops between the two, both encouraging the other to fight on and face their fears. Some amusing scenes which trace Violette’s development at the S.O.E. training camp provide the obligatory sexism for her to rise above and exceed all expectation. Captain Fraser however, refreshingly sees Violette as an absolute equal and soon falls in love with both the woman and the spy.

Carve Her Name With Pride has absolutely stood the test of time, owing to its true story roots and a pitch-perfect recount of the events helmed by a solid performance (which also won McKenna a BAFTA award). Its appeal lies with the compelling stories of those asked to go beyond the call of duty and forge their names among the list of extraordinary people we ought never to forget.

Finally, the poem ‘The Life That I Have’ by Leo Marks which serves as both a plot point and a motif throughout the film is especially touching:

The life that I have

Is all that I have

And the life that I have

Is yours.

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.

Carve Her Name With Pride is available for a limited time to those living in the UK on BBC iPlayer.

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