Lady Smugglers in War-Time

Nurse Edith Cavell ... Image: dfkj ad
Anna Neagle (centre) smuggles escaped POWs in a civilized fashion. Image: The Telegraph

Edna May Oliver is our new hero.

We realized this when we screened Nurse Edith Cavell, a drama based on the true story of a courageous British nurse who helped over 200 Allied POWs flee Belgium during World War I.

This unusual war movie is about four not-so-ordinary women whose friendship propel them to defend their country by treating sick and injured POWs and sneaking them out of the country.

The smuggling ring is headed by the stalwart Cavell (played by popular British actress Anna Neagle), a nurse at the Berkendael Medican Institute in Brussels. (Neagle, incidentally, is almost too beautiful to be convincing in this role; however, she does bear a passing resemblance to the real Cavell.)

Neagle is joined by May Robson, a grandmother often given to hysterics, but is able to shelve the dramatics when necessary. The fabulous Zazu Pitts is the third member of the gang; she plays the amusing wife of a cargo boat owner who flirts with (and fools) German officers every time they unload “cargo” (read: escaped POWs) in Holland.

These characters are remarkable women, portrayed by terrific actors.

But our fave is Oliver, the fourth member of this consortium, a brisk, no-nonsense Countess who has little tolerance for silliness or idiocy. The Countess lives at Chateau Mavon, which seems to be comparable in size to the Pentagon. When her servants begin to panic with the sounds of approaching German cannons, they insist Oliver leave immediately. She may be killed! Oliver shrugs. “It would only be anticipating the inevitable by a few years,” she replies.

Edna May Oliver stares danger in the face and says, "Make mine a double." Image: lkdfj
Edna May Oliver (right) is unfettered by fear. Image: BFI

Whether Oliver is opposed to German occupation in general, or philosophically opposed to people more bossy than herself, it is hard to say. But she takes on the role of smuggler with relish.

In one scene, she visits a shoemaker to pick up forged ID papers. The shoemaker looks like a bit of a greasy character, but Oliver, in her expensive overcoat and sparkly earrings, pays no mind. She’s here on Business, so make it snappy with the forged papers, mac.

In another scene, a young man, claiming to be a POW, has come to ask Oliver for help getting out of Belgium. Oliver is compelling in this scene. She doesn’t speak; she studies the man evenly, asking only what he wants her to do. She then instructs her maid to take him to the kitchen where he can have something to eat. She adds, meaningfully, “And lock the kitchen so he won’t be disturbed while he’s there.” She then telephones police and asks them to arrest their own stool pigeon. She ain’t no fool.

Oliver is a perfect choice for a film with unorthodox gender roles. For instance, the heroes are women while the enemies are men. The women rescue men, instead of the familiar men-rescue-women movie scenario. The film also warns us that the German occupiers do not care if insubordinates are men or women.

Nurse Edith Cavell is a low-budget film, and can be a bit preachy at times, but it is a fascinating look at an incredibly courageous woman. We hope Cavell really did have a no-nonsense Countess as a friend, someone who was just like Edna May Oliver.

The Real Edith Cavell. Source
The real Edith Cavell. Image:

Bonus Trivia Fact #1: Nurse Edith Cavell premiered in New York on September 22, 1939, 18 days after the declaration of World War II.

Bonus Trivia Fact #2: There is a mountain named for Edith Cavell in Canada’s Jasper National Park.

Nurse Edith Cavell: Anna Neagle, Edna May Oliver, George Sanders. Directed by Herbert Wilcox. Written by Michael Hogan. RKO Radio Pictures Inc., 1939, B&W, 94 mins.

This post is part of the WORLD WAR ONE IN CLASSIC FILM Blogathon hosted by the delightful Movies, Silently and Silent-ology. Click HERE to see the other fab entries.




  1. Thanks for joining the blogathon! Great post–I hadn’t heard of this film before but now I need to check it out. The Countess sounds like she’ll be my favorite, too.


  2. I’m so happy you wrote about this movie. Nurse Cavell is a person worth remembering, even if the movie gets some of the facts wrong. I think Edna Mae Oliver’s character is based on a real lady, Countess Jeanne de Belleville. People warned the German authorities that executing Edith Cavell would blacken their reputations, and they were right. Thank you for sharing this with us.


  3. This sounds wonderful – thank you for bringing what’s clearly an over-looked gem to my attention. As I’m sure you might’ve noticed, I love films that think beyond the stereotypical ‘sisterhood’ and actually have something to say about female relationships. This sounds like a treat!


    • This film can be a bit preachy, but it’s so refreshing to see a real example of women’s friendship on screen…one that’s not based on getting – or getting revenge on – men. I hope you get the chance to see it. Cavell was a remarkable woman.


  4. My school had a house named after Edith Cavell, but I don’t know much about her life – definitely need to put that right by seeing this film and I should probably read a book about her too! You make this sound well worth seeing for the women’s friendship and heroism. Must admit I’m no fan of Edna May Oliver in general, but I’ve warmed to her more in one or two of the roles I’ve seen her in lately! Great piece, as usual!


    • I need to read more about Edith Cavell, too. You can’t really trust a movie to get all the facts straight, but I think the general story is correct. As for dear Edna, you might warm up to her in this role. Her character has a big heart.


  5. Fabulous piece! And now I need to see the film! And Edna May Oliver, oh my God. I fell in love with her the first time I saw her give Basil Rathbone the heave-ho in DAVID COPPERFIELD. She is definitely someone you’d want on your team. In fact if she were on your team you could pretty much go back to bed, secure in the knowledge she’d take care of everything…


  6. I definitely want to know more about the brave Nurse Cavell.

    Edna May Oliver was a wonderful actress who stole any scene she was ever in. Drums Along the Mohawk and the Penguin Pool Murder feature some great performances by her.


  7. I have’t heard about this movie until now. But it does sounds great… specially with the marvelous Edna May Oliver 🙂
    Thanks for the kind comment!


  8. I love watching movies that are based on a true story, and this sounds like a good one. I don’t think I would have been that brave either. Really makes you think. Your descriptions of Oliver as “philosophically opposed to those more bossy than herself” was great. I know a few people like that!:) Wonderful review, Ruth!


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