At Christmas, 1913, the two Rappard boys and their grandmother (May Robson) bring a cake to the Brussels nursing home where the English matron, Edith Cavell (Anna Neagle), is caring for their dying mother and many small children. The prayer is for peace, but in a few short months war has spread over Europe and the oldest boy is sent to fight.

He is taken prisoner, but escapes to the nursing home because he hears that Germans are shooting prisoners. Cavell, with a network of friends including the boys' grandmother, the barge-owner Mme Moulin (ZaSu Pitts), and a dignified Countess (Edna May Oliver) help him and two hundred other wounded young men to escape into Holland and France.

By August 1915, Cavell and her friends are betrayed by a German spy and put on trial. Despite international pleas for her release or detention, she is shot at dawn on 12 October 1915. Linking nursing to religion, the priest who attends her final hours tells her, "it is God's will," while the hymn, "Abide With Me," sung in the final scene of her 1919 memorial service at Westminster Abbey, reminds viewers that she had been "help of the helpless."


Based in historical fact, this picture contrasts the uncompromising obligations of nursing, as commitment to helping to save lives, with the equally uncompromising but opposite duties of war, as commitment to brutality. Made in 1939--"without bitterness," it is said--when hopes for appeasement had not yet been abandoned, the German characters are accorded a dignity that they would not enjoy in Anglo-American movie-making for over half a century: an officer who has just ordered a firing squad to execute prisoners seems to sympathize with the outraged countess when he tells her sadly, "it was commanded"; another German officer who stumbles upon Cavell's activities bows gravely to her and withdraws in silence, her secret intact; he and other Germans later try to help overturn the sentence, which is cast as the secret obsession of one deranged officer bent on making an example.

The beautiful Anna Neagle's portrayal is stiff and dated, while the camera repeatedly lends her saintly premonition--a scarcely credible and partially out of focus woman of worldly sorrows, always calm and never afraid. The six decades that have elapsed since the making of this film may challenge young viewers' ability to relate to its themes; however, the messages about the professionalism of nurses, the brutality of war, and risks of commitment are enhanced by its surprisingly gentle handling of its German subjects and its gloomy but true end. Cavell was shot for performing her duty as a nurse.


Based on the story, "Dawn," by Capt. Reginald Berkeley.

Primary Source

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