Monday, January 27, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Carve Her Name With Pride" (1958)

One often encounters oddities in movies that would appear to have fallen out of the head of an addled screenwriter. But then they turn out to be true, or at least a lightly fictionalized version of the truth.

Such was the case of "Carve Her Name With Pride," a dramatization of real-life British World War II spy Violette Szabo, who was dropped into German-controlled France for several important missions. She was eventually captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp, where was executed. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross, which roughly parallels our Congressional Medal of Honor. Szabo became only the second woman to earn that honor.

There's a scene after Szabo has been selected and trained by the Special Operations Executive and is about to be sent on her first mission when she is asked to select "her poem." This was a method of exchanging coded messages based on memorizing a poem, with certain keywords used for cryptography. She selects a poem written for her by her late husband, a French soldier who was killed in the war, "The Life That I Have," which is a bit of gooey romantic mush.

It sounds like a bunch of movie-making hooey -- except British agents really did use code poems, and "The Life That I Have" was one of the more famous choices. The only thing false about it was that it was written by Leo Marks, a famous cryptographer, and not Szabo's husband.

The film stars Virginia McKenna, a major Brit star during the 1950s and '60s, who won a BAFTA award for another WWWII movie previously featured in this space, "A Town Like Alice." She earned another British acting award nomination for "Pride," providing another strong, resolute performance.

McKenna's physicality contributes greatly to her success in these roles as a woman in dire circumstances who finds her courage through harsh experience. She is a willowy beauty, thin almost to the point of emaciation, with fine porcelain features and blonde hair. She doesn't look very tough, so when she excels in hand-to-hand combat training or wields a machine gun with great aptitude while mowing down Germans, it naturally makes the audience want to root for her.

About the machine gun scene: this apparently was a bit of Jessica Lynch-style propaganda trumped up by the military and passed along into the movie. In most likelihood, Szabo was captured when she ran out of ammunition. According to her Wikipedia page, German reports about the incident record no casualties.

My chief complaint about "A Town Like Alice" was that it included a love story with little relevance to the rest of the movie, and the same thing happens here. Szabo falls for Tony Fraser, a fellow agent played by Paul Scofield, and they end up working together. There is one touching scene after they've been captured where the men and women are separated on opposite sides of a barn, and they reach through the slats of wood to hold hands.

In general, though, the romance feels like something tacked on to give the film more feminine appeal.

Her treatment at the hands of the Nazis is rather cruel, and the movie is rather bold in depicting the fact that she was tortured -- though the camera is a little circumspect when the actual brutality begins, panning away while we hear her moans of pain. The filmmakers also aren't shy about showing how bedraggled Szabo looked after her interrogation, with McKenna looking positively wretched and, if possible, even thinner.

Directed by Lewis Gilbert, who helmed several James Bond films along with a number of very good movies, shows a steady hand for the material, keeping the focus on McKenna and how she reacts to everyone around her. He co-wrote the screenplay with Vernon Harris based on the book by R.J. Minney.

"Carve Her Name With Pride" is a serviceable piece of mid-century romantic drama with an espionage angle, featuring another memorable turn by Virginia McKenna. Perhaps as I traipse through her filmography, I'll come across a movie where wasn't made to mack on some chap needlessly.

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