Violette Bushell (Virginia McKenna) in 1940 lived in London with her parents (Jack Warner and Denise Grey) who wished to make a contribution to the war effort, so her mother, being French, asked her to invite a French soldier around for tea to lift his spirits. Therefore Violette and her friend Winnie (Billie Whitelaw) sat in Hyde Park and looked around for any prospective candidates, settling upon Etienne Szabo (Alain Saury) who was delighted to receive their attentions and willingly went with them back to the Bushell residence. Over the course of the next few days, he and Violette really clicked and made up their mind to be married as there was no time to dawdle with the conflict raging...
However, Violette's contribution went further than simply cheering up foreign servicemen, as we found out in one of countless war movies made in Britain from the nineteen-forties when the battles were waged up to the seventies by which time the genre was waning, to be intermittently revived but never with the same gusto as those earlier efforts, especially in the fifties when Carve Her Name with Pride was created. It was very much following in the footsteps of a huge hit from eight years before, the Anna Neagle vehicle Odette where she took on the role of a real life spy in Occupied France, and so the services of Virginia McKenna, being a popular star of her day, were secured.
Also, it was made by many of the same team who had enjoyed another huge hit, the Sir Douglas Bader biopic Reach for the Sky, so they evidently sought to repeat the formula here. Obviously with any of these some artistic licence was used, so just as the rather caustic personality of Bader was toned down for the film, the actual ordeal that Violette went through tended to be depicted in the form of more stylised imagery to preserve the delicate sensibilities of the decade's audiences, though we were left in little doubt that she was drawing on great reserves of bravery. What she didn't look like was McKenna, as Violette was a petite brunette and the actress was a willowy blonde, but few were complaining at the time.
After all, watching a homegrown celebrity act out the activities of a real heroine was perfect viewing, and if they could wipe away a tear at the end and emerge from the cinemas contemplating not only Szabo's deeds but those of the generations who had lived through the Second World War, so much the better. That sense of national pride not in what royalty or military top brass had achieved, but the benefits the ordinary Brit had brought to their country was at the heart of a work such as this, and though McKenna had an aristocratic manner about her thanks to the charm school tutelage she and others of her formative years had been put through, we could still think, yes, Virginia's one of us, not least because we could see it was genuinely her performing the training, wielding the weaponry, and slogging through the poor conditions.
Actually, the story was picked up from where they could present Violette as a woman of the people in scenes that were lighthearted and almost fun, but as tragedy was brought to bear we gained an idea of more character building in the young woman (she was just a teenager when she met her husband-to-be, though McKenna did not quite convince as that). As the drama wore on, director Lewis Gilbert adapted it to various techniques, so the training exercises had a comedy bent, when the lead reaches France an espionage adventure was put into play, sort of the type that was spoofed by sitcom 'Allo 'Allo in the eighties and nineties, and by the time of Violette's second, less successful mission the imagery owed quite a degree to the noirish thrillers from out of Hollywood and indeed France. If there was a drawback, it was that British reserve, so it was too late in on until we felt Violette as depicted here was getting her hands dirty, and the noble suffering took over as a method of martyrdom that really should have gone without saying. Still, it was respectful and notable for centring on a woman when the war movies of the fifties were very much male biased. Music by William Alywn.
[Network's DVD from The British Film collection has a restored print, and as extras a commentary from McKenna and editor John Shirley, a trailer and a gallery.]