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Film review
Nurse Edith Cavell
  1. R Wall,
  2. A M Rafferty
  1. Correspondence to Dr R Wall, Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery, King’s College London, James Clerk Maxwell Building, 57 Waterloo Road, London SE1 8WA; rosemary.wall{at}

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Directed by Herbert Wilcox. RKO Pictures, 1939; DD Home Entertainment DVD, 2008. 94 mins. Film; history of medical; Nurse Film; Nursing History; World War I; Belgium

Edith Cavell became famous posthumously for organising and assisting the escape of between 200 and 1000 prisoners of war (POW) from occupied Belgium during World War One. The release on DVD of a 1939 film about her clandestine activities provides a good opportunity to reassess the representation of nurses as heroines with Cavell’s selfless behaviour as thought provoking now as in 1915, and to highlight other figures in nursing in a history still dominated by Florence Nightingale.

Nurse Edith Cavell was directed by Englishman Herbert Wilcox and starred English actress Anna Neagle (later to become Wilcox’s wife). Anna Neagle was already a famous screen star in the UK. In her partnership with Wilcox, she had recently portrayed Nell Gwyn and Queen Victoria, and went on to portray Florence Nightingale (Lady with a lamp, 1951). She appeared as a nurse again, as the Matron in No time for tears (1957). Julia Hallam1 speculates that Neagle’s films about nursing perhaps did more than any of the government’s recruitment films to inspire British women to join the profession.

The film begins in December 1913, showing Cavell attending patients in the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels, where Cavell is Matron. Then the film fast-forwards through snapshots of the events leading up …

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  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.