There are a few things that give me pleasure these days, other than time spent with my family of course. Things like having free time to pursue my interest in photography, or to browse in bookshops, particularly well stocked second hand book shops – usually called “preloved books” or “preowned” or “nearly new books”… Or the luxury of sitting in a movie theatre and seeing a really good film.
Yesterday my wife and I….or me and my wife, whichever term you prefer….went to our local Event Cinema in Havelock North to watch the world war 2 spy movie “A Call to Spy”, which is based on true stories about women spies who put their lives on the line, and often made the ultimate sacrifice, for the war effort in defeating Nazi Germany.
It originally premiered mid 2019 at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, but wasn’t released to major box office in the USA until late in 2020….hence the two dates in brackets in the main heading. Written, produced by and starring the very talented Sarah Megan Thomas in the main role of Virginia Hall – an American living in the UK who had ambitions to be a diplomat but was repeatedly turned down and was eventually offered the opportunity to help Britain’s war effort by becoming the first female spy to be dropped into France during WW2.
What made this even more admirable was that Virginia had a wooden leg, nicknamed Cuthbert. Curious but true. She shot herself in the foot during a hunting expedition when she tripped and her shotgun went off years earlier. She was an intelligent and incredibly brave individual who risked her life for the cause over and over during her time firstly in unoccupied France, then Nazi occupied France. She was a thorn in the side of the Germans, who gave her the nickname Artemis, was at the top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list and was considered “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” Klaus Barbie (SS and Gestapo officer) aka the Butcher of Lyon was quoted as saying “I would give anything to get my hands on that limping bitch”.
She set up a spy support network, named Heckler, in Lyon, where she became an expert in logistics, resistance organisation, assisting in the supply of money, munitions and weapons, helped airmen downed by German gunfire escape back to Britain, provided shelter and medical help, help break prisoners out of prison, took part in espionage….this woman was amazing. Small wonder then that after the war she was given the Distinguished Service Cross and became the first female agent of the newly created CIA Special Activities Division.
The movie isn’t just about Virginia Hall though, it’s a tribute to many other women spies and radio operators most of whom lost their lives in the service of King and Country, behind enemy lines.
Sarah Megan Thomas does a wonderful job of writing, producing and staring as the spy with the code names of Marie and Diane. She is ably abetted by Radhika Apte as Noor Inayat Khan – a pacifist Muslim radio operator (SPOLIER ALERT….who was caught and executed by the Germans after being held in Dachau concentration camp)……and this was the point in the movie that a solitary tear rolled down my cheek as I remembered visiting Dachau on a recent trip to Europe and recalled the eerie silence in the camp, despite the presence of hundreds of visitors, a feeling that I had never experienced before and never want to again….. and Stana Katic as Vera Atkins – female spy-master – an intelligence officer who worked in the French Section of the Special Operations Executive from 1941 to 1945…and who later was awarded the CBE.
It was a story long in the making and heavily researched by Thomas who searched through historic records and interviewed surviving family members of Virginia Hall before penning the script. It can’t have been an easy task as Hall was, as you’d expect from a spy, very secretive about her past and shunned the limelight. To quote Craig R. Gralley “Hall left no memoir, granted no interviews, and spoke little about her overseas life–even with relatives. She…received our country’s Distinguished Service Cross, the only civilian woman in the Second World war to do so. But she refused all but a private ceremony with OSS chief Donovan–even a presentation by President Truman.”
It’s a movie about bravery, persistence, selflessness, with action and tension about a group of heroic people who I had no idea even existed. We often see movies about the French Resistance fighters, some of whom were women, but I had no idea at all about the British (and American) female spies who put everything on the line. Hall herself had her cover blown and had to escape France over the Pyrenees, on foot, covering 50 miles over two days in the snow, in order to cross into Spain and then to Portugal to get a ship back to England (I’d struggle on two good feet never mind one foot and a wooden leg)…..and then retrained as a radio operator and went back into France. Bravery of the highest order….or insanity? Watch the movie and decide for yourselves.
Although there are men in the movie who also do a good job – including Linus Roache who plays Vera Atkins’s boss Colonel Maurice James Buckmaster OBE – it’s a movie primarily about women, not only written, produced by and staring women, but also directed by a woman – Lydia Dean Pilcher, with music by Lillie Rebecca McDonough. And bloody good it is too. Do see it. Link to movie trailer is below.