It is July 1940 in London, and accompanied by her friend Winnie (Billie Whitelaw), Violette Bushnell (Virginia McKenna) invites a soldier named Etienne Szabo (Alain Saury) to her family’s home for dinner. Violette was born to a French mother (Denise Grey) and English father (Jack Warner), and what started out as a tribute to a French national holiday (the dinner invite) morphs into a whirlwind courtship between Etienne and herself. They marry after knowing one another only three days, and Violette gives birth to a daughter, Tania (Pauline Challoner). Sadly, Etienne will never meet his daughter—he is killed in North Africa in the Battle of El Alamein.
Asked by a government official named Potter (Sydney Taffer) to discuss what she believes to be her husband’s pension, Potter soon reveals his true intention—because of her linguistic skills, athleticism and sharp shooting prowess, Violette could be of valuable use to the British as a Special Operations Executive, the country’s wartime overseas espionage unit. She agrees to join (though her friends and family are led to believe that she’s actually joined the F.A.N.Y.S. [First Aid Nursing Yeomanry], or “Fannies”). After undergoing rigorous training, she is assigned to be the assistant of Captain Tony Frasier (Paul Scofield), an agent who was instrumental in setting up a resistance movement in the town of Rouen in France. (Both agents, it would seem, know each other socially as well as professionally.) The Germans have smashed the unit and Fraser and Szabo’s assignment is to reassemble the team (Violette will have to locate the remaining members who have not been arrested) and destroy a nearby viaduct as an added bonus. Despite some momentary suspense after being picked up by the Gestapo during her quest to find the remaining resistance members, the mission is a big success.
Violette returns home, with presents for her daughter and family. She’s been told by Tony that she need not volunteer for any more missions…but a later meeting with Potter reveals that due to a shortage of agents, the government needs her to do some work in the Limoges region. She can refuse the mission, of course…but she doesn’t—a decision that leads to heartbreakingly tragic circumstances.
Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) is a filmed adaptation of a book written by R.J. Minney…based on the wartime exploits of the real Violette Szabo. The part of Violette is played by actress Virginia McKenna, who’s perhaps best-known for her starring role in the 1966 feature film Born Free, in which she played activist Joy Adamson who, with her husband George (played by McKenna’s real-life hub Bill Travers—whom she married during the filming of Pride), raised an abandoned lion cub to adulthood and then released “Elsa” into the wilds of Kenya. The role was a life-changing experience for both McKenna and Travers, as they, too—in addition to their film and stage work—became wild animal rights supporters and devotees to the cause of protecting their natural habitat. McKenna, honored by her peers with a BAFTA Award for Best Actress for her performance in A Town Like Alice (1956), also received a nomination for her work in Pride.
McKenna’s portrayal of the real-life is Szabo is truly first-rate; managing to successfully depict Szabo’s heroic exploits while resisting the temptation to make Violette simply a stereotypical stiff-upper-lip caricature. She makes a remarkable woman seem unremarkable, infusing her with charm, a sense of humor and a naturalness that makes the denouement of the film all the more painful. I came away from the film with a curiosity to know more about Szabo, a woman whose sacrifice was truly astonishing; whether it was out of national pride, or a willingness to fight the good fight as did her husband…or simply concern for the future of her daughter—the choices she made in defense of liberty are astonishing.
There are light, humorous moments in the film (most of them provided by Bill Owen as Szabo’s N.C.O. instructor) and some lovely romantic ones…but these all give way to gripping suspense, reminding us all that war is indeed hell. Scofield, who won an Oscar for his turn as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1966), is primarily known for his stage work (though he did have some wonderful cinematic showcases—my favorite is his dead-on portrayal of Mark van Doren in 1994’s Quiz Show) so it was a pleasant treat to see him here as a man who reveals his true feelings to Szabo at their darkest hour. Jack Warner, a veteran thesp who was best known to British TV audiences at this time as the star of TV’s Dixon of Dock Green, is also splendid as Violette’s dad—I loved his reaction to hearing that his daughter and Etienne are planning to wed after three days of courtship, and the scene where he learns of his daughter’s true wartime occupation is also achingly poignant.
I have to confess that most of the performers in Pride I’m familiar with from their roles in Britcoms—instructor Owen, of course, was Compo Simmonite on the venerable Last of the Summer Wine, and William Franklyn (who plays Colonel Buckmaster, though his voice was dubbed by actor Geoffrey Keen) played the Bishop on All Gas and Gaiters. I recognized Billie Whitelaw right off (who provides a few giggles as Violette and Etienne’s “chaperone”—always managing to be in the vicinity when they want to be alone), as I did Andre Maranne (as resistance leader Garnier, the mechanic) from the Pink Panther films. Pride has achieved a little trivial cachet in that a young Maurice Micklewhite—er, I mean Michael Caine has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit as a prisoner on a train who cries out for water. (This allowed The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ to show Pride in March on Caine’s birthday despite the severe brevity of his appearance. It would also mark the beginning of Caine’s association with director Lewis Gilbert, who guided Caine in two of the actor’s best-known feature films, Alfie and Educating Rita.)
So if you missed Carve Her Name with Pride the first time around, TCM will show it again on June 7 (8:30am EDT) as part of the birthday tribute to McKenna (she’ll turn 81); I was afforded the opportunity to see it thanks to the generosity of VCI Entertainment, who released the film on disc as part of their Rank Collection this past February (which is a godsend, as the 2008 DVD of the film, released by MGM-UA is now OOP). It’s a gripping wartime suspenser with the added benefit of heart and humor…and how McKenna managed to be overlooked when Academy Award nominations came around is a question left to those wiser than I.