Directed with typical understatement by Lewis Gilbert, Carve Her Name with Pride introduces us to Violette, a carefree young woman from South London working at Woolworths in 1940, who’s given instructions by her French mother to bring home a French soldier for tea. Having found such a man in Etienne Szabo, the couple fall headfirst in love and marry just prior to Etienne being shipped off to another theatre of war. But two years later he’s killed in action in North Africa, leaving Violette behind with a small child, their daughter Tania. Bereft, Violette retreats from the world but no sooner has she opened up again she’s recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the elite wartime unit set up by Churchill to destabilise enemy actions from within. Speaking perfect French (having lived there as a child) and being a crack shot with a gun (thanks to her father) Violette’s talents are honed further with a gruelling course of training, and eventually she’s selected for a perilous mission to drop into occupied France and aid the local Resistance effort, knowing full well the penalty for an enemy combatant caught out of uniform.
Virginia McKenna stars as Violette, her golden hair and impossibly high cheekbones not really capturing the physical essence of the actual Violette (who was a brunette), but she certainly gives her all when portraying this working-class Saaf Landan girl who gets thrust into a web of wartime intrigue. This 1958 film could’ve easily been some jingoistic piece of dashing daring-do but it’s more sensitive than that, taking time to establish Violette’s intense relationship with Etienne before putting her through her through the emotional and physical meatgrinder that was to follow. That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom, as despite the ever-present spectre of Violette’s ultimate fate hanging over the film it allows itself some typically British slapstick during the training sequence, like the hilarious moment when she KO’s the CO. And yet this doesn’t feel out of place, if anything it makes what follows in France even more intense and suspenseful because of the contrast in tone.
Apparently not much is known about exactly how Violette was recruited into the SOE, but she’d had some localised military experience prior to being called upon which is not covered in the film. Indeed, it takes plenty of other dramatic liberties as pictures like this are wont to do, compressing several characters and events into a single timeline, with Paul Scofield as fellow SOE operative Tony Fraser being an amalgam of several she encountered, and the verse she chose for her code poem was not created by her late husband but came from a more prosaic source in real life: SOE codemaster Leo Marks. None of this diminishes the power of the narrative however, as the elegiac poem The Life That I Have proves to be a heartbreakingly poignant accompaniment to Violette’s story. It’s something of a cliché to refer to old British entertainments as having that traditional “stiff upper lip” feel to them, and while that’s true to an extent with Carve Her Name… it’s grittier and less emotionally constipated than you might think, like the nightmarishly-lensed scene when she’s interrogated at a sinister Gestapo HQ or the excellent run-and-gun sequence when Violette is forced to hold off a squad of German soldiers with only her Sten gun for company (McKenna handling the weapon like a pro). And the scene where her father (played by Jack Warner of Dixon of Dock Green fame) inadvertently discovers her true mission is a beautifully played moment as he realises the danger that his precious Vi is in, and as she's bound by secrecy he does the talking for both of them.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Violette died in the line of duty, her award of the George Cross being a posthumous decoration, and her end is played out in a stark, downbeat fashion, as well it should. We’re left to make up our own mind about what Violette was thinking about in those last moments as the movie doesn’t push us in any particular direction, being neither sad nor triumphalist. There’s no smirk of defiance on her face, no spit in the face of her captors, no loud proclamation of “God Save the King!”; just the resignation of a tired, dirty, brutalised woman whose bravery and commitment to her cause and her country has ultimately led to the business end of a German firing squad. And yet she stares them down, unflinching in the face of her destiny, as deep down she knew that it was likely to end up this way the moment she agreed to serve the SOE. The film ends with an almost unbearably moving scene when Violette’s fair-haired daughter collects her medal from King George, her proud grandparents looking on, and the final shot is a simple reminder of the post-war life and freedom which we all take for granted thanks to the sacrifice of people like Violette Szabo.
In 2013 Network inked a deal with StudioCanal to distribute some 450 classics of British cinema under the banner of ‘The British Film’ and this latest UK release of Carve Her Name... comes under that aegis, sporting an anamorphic 16:9 transfer for the first time albeit only on DVD and not on high-definition Blu-ray. Purportedly a brand-new transfer from “original film elements”, this black-and-white PAL 576i presentation is not without flaws but thankfully they’re mostly of the photochemical kind and aren’t to do with the disc per se.
The 1.66:1 image has a regular smattering of blips, nicks and ‘tram line’ scratches running the full height of the screen, along with reel markers every 17 minutes or so to give it that proper old-school favour of watching a print. But it’s quite stable and has a healthy amount of detail (optical degradation during the dissolves and blue-screen work notwithstanding) and the greyscale is nicely observed with excellent shadow detail and solid blacks, allowing the more contrasty moments to look very effective indeed. There’s a slight touch of sharpening but other than that there’s very little in the way of video-related or compression artefacts, and no silly deinterlacing issues either. The film starts with the classic Rank ‘gong’ logo but the time counter starts at 13 seconds, if you skip backwards using your remote you’ll see the original BBFC certificate at the head of the film.
Audio is original mono encoded in lossy Dolby Digital 2.0, and like the image it shows its age with occasional clicks and pops and muffled stretches of speech. But like most mono mixes there’s still a very balanced spread of dialogue, music and effects so you won't miss out on anything despite the low-fi nature of this track.
Extras are limited to an audio commentary by Virginia McKenna and film editor John Shirley (recorded in 2007 and carried over from the previous Network Special Edition DVD), an image gallery and the trailer. The commentary is a very stop-start affair as neither participant has seen the film in years and most of the time they’re just watching it unfold. The image gallery is perhaps more interesting, featuring theatrical posters, lobby cards, character portraits and behind the scenes shots.
Carve Her Name with Pride may well get an update someday as the trend for telling WWII stories seems stronger than ever, but this 1958 film will always remain as a fine tribute to the heroism of Violette Szabo. Network’s latest DVD features a new transfer which, although not perfect, is a decent upgrade over previous editions while extras remain the same as on their previous Special Edition DVD.