This 1958 British movie set during the Second World War tells the story of the courageous Special Operations Executive agent, Violette Szabo. It’s based on R.J. Minney’s book of the same name which is itself based on fact.
Violette’s parents were a French mother and an English taxi-driver father who had met during World War I. She was born Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell in Paris on 26 June 1921 and that’s where she spent her early years. Some time later the family moved to London where Violette attended Brixton Secondary School until she was fourteen. She found work as a hairdressing assistant and then as a department store sales assistant.
The movie doesn’t cover that early part of her life but it picks it up around this time, when she was a young woman working in London. It was on 14 July 1940 that she met Etienne Szabo, an officer in the Free French Army, at the Bastille Day parade in London and after a whirlwind romance, the couple were married just 42 day later on 21 August.
Their happiness seemed complete when Violette became pregnant with their daughter, Tania, but then Etienne was sent to North Africa where he died at the Battle of El Alamein in October ’42. He never saw his child.
It may have been for reasons of revenge or simply because she felt she had to do her bit for the war effort in the hope that her husband’s death wouldn’t have been in vain but whatever the reason, some time after receiving this tragic news Violette agreed to work for the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
She underwent intense training in everything from weaponry and explosives to cryptography and unarmed combat and on 5 April 1944 with little Tania tucked up in bed under the roof of her parents’ house, she was sent on her first mission into German-occupied France. Together with an SOE colleague, her task was to reorganise a resistance network that had been broken up by the Nazis and under the code name “Louise”, which also happened to be her nickname, she led the reformed group into blowing up a railway viaduct. Despite being picked up and questioned by a suspicious Gestapo, she was released and managed to return to England on 30 April. Mission accomplished. She’d proved herself to be courageous, capable and reliable.
Unfortunately, her second mission wouldn’t go quite so well. She was flown into central France on 7 June ’44, the day after D-Day, with the task of coordinating the activities of the local Maquis to sabotage German communication lines to aid the Allied invasion of Normandy. She was riding in a car that came upon an unexpected roadblock and after a brief running gun fight, during which she remained behind to allow her Resistance accomplice to escape, she was captured and taken for interrogation to Limoges.
Refusing to give up any information, she was transferred to Gestapo headquarters in Paris for further interrogation and torture but she remained uncooperative to the Germans and was moved to Ravensbrück concentration camp in August ’44. There she endured hard labour and malnutrition. Having been reunited in Paris with two recently caught fellow agents whom she had befriended during their initial training, Lilian Rolfe and Denise Bloch, the three women were executed by SS firing squad in February 1945. Violette was just 23 years old. Her body was cremated in the camp’s crematorium. The film ends with her daughter Tania, accompanied by her grandparents to Buckingham Palace, accepting the George Cross from the King.
As a movie, it’s perky and, in the right places gripping. Director Lewis Gilbert, whose career spanned six decades and included titles like Reach for the Sky (1956), Sink the Bismarck! (1960), Alfie (1966), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Educating Rita (1983) does a great job in pacing the action. Virginia McKenna who plays Szabo in a BAFTA nominated role, really got her teeth into the character and spent weeks training physically for the part. She manages to portray Szabo with a realism that leaves you feeling terribly sad as the end credits roll and yet so thankful to her and all those other individuals who gave their help and in many cases, their lives, to defeat Nazi Germany.
I remember (albeit a little vaguely now) what I was doing when I was 23 years old and it certainly wasn’t dodging bullets, blowing up viaducts and having my body scarred by torture. If you’ve never seen this movie or heard of Violette Szabo, then I recommend you check it out. She was a true heroine and paid the ultimate price for the risks she took but her memory will live on.