Saturday, December 22, 2012


One of the most obscure World War One movies is I WAS A SPY, which was produced by Gaumont-British in 1933. The story is based on the real-life adventures of Belgian Marthe Cnockaert, who passed information to Allied agents while working as a nurse in a German military hospital during World War One. The film was released on DVD a couple years ago by VCI Home Entertainment.

The movie stars the exquisitely lovely Madeleine Carroll as Marthe and Conrad Veidt as the German Town Commandant. The cast also includes a number of well-known British talent from the era: Herbert Marshall, Edmund Gwenn, Donald Calthorp, Nigel Bruce, Eva Moore, and Anthony Bushell.

I WAS A SPY is very different from most WWI films in that the setting is a occupied Belgian town instead of the usual trenches or airfields. The incidents involving the Belgian citizens and their relationship with the German Army seems more akin to a movie about WWII. A number of scenes dealing with espionage would be pretty cliche about ten years later, but they seem original when placed in a WWI drama. This is not strictly a "war" film, due to the fact that there are no major battles staged, but the conflict is never very far away--in just about every scene there are German soldiers somewhere in the background.

Despite her usual patrician manner, Madeleine Carroll is excellent as Marthe. What makes her character unusual is that while Marthe is spying on the Germans, she's still also doing her best as a nurse. Marthe is even awarded the Iron Cross (as did the real Cnockaert). Her beauty and grace attract the attentions of the Town Commandant, played by Conrad Veidt at his villainous best. Veidt gives off an almost reptilian quality--one wants to cringe when he tries to seduce Marthe. But at the same time, Veidt never overacts and keeps the Commandant from becoming an over-the-top caricature.

Herbert Marshall's character works in the same hospital as Marthe, and he is a spy as well. Marthe falls for him, which leads to the familiar "duty before love" subplot. It is nice that Carroll does not act like a Mata Hara, and Marshall is nowhere near the typical dashing espionage agent.

Director Victor Saville keeps things going at a fast pace throughout the 86-minute running time. This is not a very well-known production--I had never heard of it until I saw it listed on Amazon. But it is certainly of interest for those who are WWI and history buffs. I WAS A SPY will also appeal to those who enjoy classic British Cinema, and classic British film performers.


  1. It's nice to see a WWI film set in Belgium and concerning the Belgian people for a change. That country was devastated by the Great War--I was fortunate to be able to tour the battlegrounds a few years back, and the history of that era is definitely still in the back of the Belgians' minds. The war cemeteries there recieve the most loving care I've ever seen. Thank you for joining the blogathon!

  2. Hi Dan. I have never seen this one, but you make me want to look for it. I always enjoy Herbert Marshall, who lost a leg in the war. Nigel Bruce was severely wounded in the leg, like Doctor Watson. Conrad Veidt became severely ill on the Eastern Front. Working on the movie must have stirred up memories of military hospitals. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  3. I have never heard of this movie and what an awesome cast! I want to see it now!!

  4. Thanks so much for joining in! Conrad Veidt was indeed reptilian when he set his mind to it. Ironic as, by all accounts, he was an incredibly nice man in real life. I guess it shows what a wonderful actor he was. :-)

  5. Wow, I really want to see this one after reading your review - Herbert Marshall is always worth watching and the Belgian setting is intriguing. Will aim to give this a look soon.

  6. This film sounds like more people should know of it, and you are certainly doing your bit to get it out there. My Christmas list keeps getting longer.

  7. This sounds like a terrific film. I've never heard of it before, but I know I'd like it. Thanks for the introduction to "I was a Spy".

  8. good movie, Madeleine Carroll was so good, a bit underrated and deserves to be discovered today, and I agree Veidt made for a great villain of this type even though he didn't go overboard.

  9. Indeed, an obscure film I tried to track... without success. The cast is outstanding, and the fact this is about a female spy makes it the movie even more interesting. Maybe some day I come across the DVD!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. The DVD is available through VCI Entertainment. It is a Region 1 release.