Thursday, February 16, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)

                “Carve Her With Pride” is a biopic about Violette Szabo.  Szabo was a British espionage agent in WWII.  The movie is based on the book by R.J. Minney.  It was directed by Lewis Gilbert (“Damn the Defiant” and “Sink the Bismarck”).  It is your typical British black and white 1950s war flick.  The movie stars Virginia McKenna, who is apparently well known in England and still a working actress.  She was very motivated for this movie.  She only took two days off during the 92 day shoot and that was for her wedding and brief honeymoon.  She insisted on doing her own stunts including parachuting from a parachute tower.  After going through all the hardships of the training scenes with aplomb, she freaked out over a cockroach in some vegetables. 

                Violette Bushell (McKenna) is working at a Woolworth's in London in 1940 when she brings home a French soldier named Etienne for supper.  A whirlwind romance results in their marriage and the birth of a daughter named Tania.  After Etienne is killed at El Alamein, Violette is recruited as a liaison to the French Resistance.  She goes through training with two other plucky British lasses.  Her mentor is a Capt. Frazer (Paul Scofield).  He is also her wooer.  They are parachuted into France to make connections with a Resistance cell.  On a train she meets a suave German officer who befriends her.  Later she is picked up by the Gestapo and guess who the interrogator is.  He is on to her but for some inexplicable reason he lets her go and she and Fraser return to England.  Although she had promised not to risk her life again, she is talked into going back into France with Fraser.  It’s vital to the war effort.   She is given a coded poem entitled “The Life That I Have”.  The poem does not keep her from being captured by a German patrol after a shootout.  It’s torture time.

                I had never heard of Szabo before viewing this movie, although she is famous in Great Britain.  A good thing about movies is they expose you to heroes from other countries.  She certainly was a heroine and deserved a film about her life.  Her portrayal by McKenna could not have been better.  She is outstanding and obviously put her heart and soul into it.  McKenna insisted on deglamorizing her.  However, this being an old school British war movie, her Szabo never loses her composure and all the British characters keep their upper lips stiff.  All the Nazis are sinister.  While the characters are unpredictable, the plot is not.  At least if you are not British.  However, the movie is predictably nongraphic in its handling of her torture and her concentration camp stint is completely skipped over.  It is, after all, a 1950s British war movie, so what do you expect?  You expect a romance between spies and a reunion between female spies.  And you expect to leave the theater inspired, but not conflicted.

                There is nothing to dislike about “Carve Her Name With Pride”.  It is competently made and has a bravura performance by the lead.  It does its job of lionizing Szabo and is educational for those who are not familiar with George Cross winner.  The problem is it is just an average biopic.  It is very much of its time and although I like Old School war movies, I prefer my Resistance movies with a little more pizzazz.  Give me “The Black Book” or “Flame and Citron”.



            For those of you who are not British and over 80 years old, here is the accuracy of the movie.  She was working at a Woolworth's when the war began, but she was actually working in an armaments factory when she met Etienne.  She picked him up at a Bastille Day parade.   The romance was quick and he was off to war.  He was killed leading an attack during the Second Battle of El Alamein.  At the time, she was serving in an anti-aircraft battery.  His death caused her to accept an invitation to join the Special Operations Executive.  She did go through intensive training (which she did not do particularly well at).  She badly sprained her ankle in a parachute drop.  This injury would come back to haunt her.  Her first mission was led by Capt. Phillippe Liewer.  He is the person that Fraser was based on.  There is no evidence that they were romantically involved.  The mission was to Rouen to assess the damage done to the exposure of a cell there.  It was before this mission that she was given the poem.  There was no contact with a German on a train, but the Germans were on to her and instead of arresting her they decided to tail her.  She managed to elude them and returned to England.  The second mission was in coordination with D-Day.  She and Liewer were dropped to aid the Resistance in sabotage efforts.  She was captured while traveling  in a car with a Maquis, even though travel by automobile was forbidden.  They encountered a road block and fled.  The movie accurately depicts the recurrence of her ankle injury and her use of a Sten to hold off the Germans as the Frenchman escaped.  She was tortured much worse than the movie implies.  She was transferred by train to Ravensbruck concentration camp.   The movie has her tritely reunited with her two female agent friends, but surprisingly this is fairly close to reality.  She did train with Lilian Rolfe and Denise Bloch.  Both were brave operatives.  Szabo was cuffed to Bloch.  Liewer was not on the train with them.  The incident involving the strafing (actually bombing) of the train is handled acceptably.  Szabo and Bloch did fetch water for the other prisoners, although it is doubtful this was at the expense of escaping.  The train journey was an excruciating 14 days.  She spent about 6 months in concentration camps where she endured hard labor and malnutrition.  Treatment got even worse after she led a mutiny against making munitions.  She continued to be inspirational until the three women were put in solitary confinement and physically abused.  This ended with their execution by way of bullets to the backs of their heads in February, 1945.   She was 23 at the time.  The movie closes with Tania receiving the George Cross from King George VI. 

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