Carve Her Name with Pride

Carve Her Name with Pride


Reviewed by: Ben Sillis

Anyone who has ever read a book on British film history will have noticed the authors invariably spend half of it banging on about films in the war and shortly after (Powell and Pressburger, etc) before skipping swiftly on to the 1960s. And sadly, Carve Her Name With Pride explains why this is. British austerity of the 1950s made for boring films despite the subject matter (spies and resistance): it manages to be dull, prim and proper.

The film is pre-Bond espionage, with the nobody plucked out of obscurity to fight the war behind enemy lines. Violette Szabo (Virginia McKenna) is an ordinary girl in wartime London, who has a whirlwind romance with a French Legionnaire who meets her while on R&R.

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Not long after, she’s approached by British covert operations. It turns out her fluent French would be key in aiding the Resistance behind enemy lines. But what can she do, she says, she’s just a girl. It’s a tale of empowerment, but hardly a believable one for many. We see little evidence of it, but we are told she takes like a duck to water to rifle training, skydiving and the like.

But the training scenes sum up everything wrong with British cinema of the time. It all seems like a farce now: the would-be British spies train in knitted vests and shirts, and mutter: “Oh, what I’d give for a nice hot cup of tea” as they stumble over the assault course.

Sadly the action scenes hardly seems any more believable. What should be a taught and tense affair, as Violette tries to stay unnoticed in Rouen, is all rather polite; everyone, Nazis and all wonder around the ruins being very civilized to each other. Even the torture scenes seem quite pleasant, if such a thing is possible. It’s a very different kettle of fish from the realism of Melville’s Army of Shadows.

The film is typical of reservation of the time: her husband is soon killed in action, but everyone maintains a British stuff upper lip, camera included. When her mother comes to break the news to her, the telegram in hand, she closes the door behind her, leaving the camera and us outside in the corridor. No tears on display, by Jove.

Yet attractive women with her talents often played a different role in occupied territory than just passing on messages (massages, maybe). Is this a subtext implied in her flirting with the local Nazi CO? Either way, something so shocking for prudish audiences would never be made explicit. It’s a topic explored much more recently, and perhaps accurately, in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, when the protagonist is asked how far she is prepared to go to help the effort.

Despite its setting, Carve Her Name is like any other British melodrama of the 1950s, like an upper class, bland episode of Coronation Street, only set in Vichy, France. Yes, it was based on a true story, and Violette Szabo should be remembered, but it’s a pity the film honouring her had to be so unmemorable.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2007
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A girl in wartime London is plucked from obscurity to help the French Resistance behind enemy lines.
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Director: Lewis Gilbert

Writer: Lewis Gilbert, Vernon Harris, Leo Marks, R.J. Minney

Starring: Virginia McKenna, Paul Scofield, Jack Warner, Denise Grey, Alain Saury, Maurice Ronet, Anne Leon, Sydney Tafler, Avice Landone, Nicole Stéphane, Noel Willman

Year: 1958

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK


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