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In the 1950s, more than a decade after the devastation and carnage of World War II, the movie-going public developed a strange, almost nostalgic fascination for the most minute details of those tumultuous years. Suddenly, wartime-themed movies appeared with great rapidity on both sides of the Atlantic. Pictures like Mister Roberts (1955), Kings Go Forth (1958) and The Young Lions (1958) are but a few of the dozens of titles dealing with the war and its immediate aftermath that were produced during this period. As profitable as these movies were in the States, their popularity in England was even greater, particularly after the runaway success of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which guaranteed international distribution for narratives addressing the war in any way, shape or form.
As true-life stories of British heroism became declassified, the public became ravenous for more authentic tales of espionage, intrigue and sabotage. The Man Who Never Was (1956), The One That Got Away (1957) and I Was Monty's Double (1958) are but three of the many successful British war movies based on true events during this period. Perhaps the most memorable of all was Carve Her Name With Pride in 1958, a harrowing yet moving account of English patriot Violette Bushell Szabo.
Based on a best-selling biography by R.J. Minney, the film superbly depicted the saga of Szabo, an English woman widowed when her French husband is killed in North Africa. Approached by the British secret service to work in the resistance, she underwent vigorous training, triumphantly completing several important missions while displaying that legendary British "We Can Take It" pluck. Szabo's eventual capture, torture, incarceration in a prison camp and death practically made her a modern day saint. Carve Her Name With Pride is a realistic re-creation of this extraordinary individual's life, directed in a tense, spine-tingling narrative style by Lewis Gilbert (who also co-wrote the screenplay).
Gilbert, who began as a child actor in such famed English comedies as The Divorce of Lady X (1938), served in the R.A.F. himself during the war as a documentary filmmaker. After a stint as an A.D. (assistant director), Gilbert graduated to director status with the charming The Little Ballerina (1951). While adept at comedies and romances, Gilbert found his forte with dramatic thrillers like The Good Die Young (1954) and action films with a war or military theme like the docu-drama The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954), Reach For the Sky (1956), and Sink the Bismarck! (1960). Carve Her Name With Pride demonstrated the director's affinity for the spy genre, which he would return to in 1967 when he helmed his first James Bond film, You Only Live Twice (1967), followed by The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979).
Of course, the marvelous cast of Carve Her Name With Pride has much to do with the movie's continuing appeal more than forty years after its acclaimed debut. Paul Scofield, justifiably revered for his Oscar-winning tour de force in A Man For All Seasons (1966), is featured as Szabo's confidante; in addition, the wonderful French actor Maurice Ronet makes one of his earliest appearances while true movie buffs can rejoice in spotting Billie Whitelawand Michael Caine at the dawn of their celebrated careers. But it is the hands down brilliant performance of Virginia McKenna as the concurrently tragic/victorious heroine that makes Carve Her Name With Pride linger in one's memory long after the film is over.
Best known for her role opposite Elsa the Lioness in the much-beloved classic Born Free (1966), McKenna has enjoyed a lengthy, distinguished career in British film, stage and television - occasionally co-starring with her late husband, Bill Travers (The Barretts of Wimpole Street, The Smallest Show on Earth - both released in 1957 - and the aforementioned Born Free). McKenna had already displayed her talent for portraying brave, strong yet vulnerable women in the graphic A Town Like Alice (1956) - the story of brutality in a Japanese-run female internment camp during WWII - thus making her a natural for the real life Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride. The subsequent accolades and kudos she received for her bravura performance is one reason the film remains the actress's favorite film: "There are some roles you can put out of your mind the moment you get home. But not this one. It's the part of a lifetime." McKenna's continuing connection and dedication to the movie and to Szabo's memory recently resulted in her opening a Violette Szabo Museum in Hereford, which interested TCM viewers can access via www.violette-szabo-museum.com.uk
Producer: Daniel M. Angel
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay: Lewis Gilbert, Vernon Harris, based on the book by R.J. Minney
Cinematography: John Wilcox
Costume Design: Phyllis Dalton
Film Editing: John Shirley
Original Music: William Alwyn
Principal Cast: Virginia McKenna (Violette Szabo), Paul Scofield (TroyFraser), Jack Warner (Mr. Bushell), Denise Grey (Mrs. Bushell), Maurice Ronet (Jacques), Alain Saury (Etienne Szabo), Billie Whitelaw (Winnie), Anne Leon (Lillian Rolfe), Sydney Tafler (Potter), Michael Caine (Extra).
by Mel Neuhaus