SUBJECTS — World History: The Second World War; England; U.S. History, 1940 – 1945;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Disabilities; Female Role Model; Courage in War;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Citizenship; Respect.

AGE; 13+, Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, disturbing images, language, and smoking; 2019, 129 minutes.

A Note on Historical Accuracy: The film is historically accurate in its portrayal of the times and the individuals involved, particularly the accomplishments of Virginia Hall, Vera Atkins, Noor Khan, and Maurice Buckmaster.

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TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.

Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction;

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


This is a gem of historical fiction about the career of Virginia Hall, the most important female spy of WW II. In 1940, Ms. Hall, a U.S. citizen, volunteered to drive ambulances for the French Army. When France was defeated she enlisted in the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was sent back to France to work undercover.  When America entered the War, she signed up to work for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Returning to France again, this time for the OSS, Ms. Hall organized resistance fighters who kicked the Germans out of an entire department of France even before the American soldiers arrived. After WW II, Ms. Hall worked in various capacities for the CIA until her retirement in 1966.

Virginia Hall served the Allied cause despite the fact that she had lost the lower part of her left leg to a hunting accident at the age of 27 and afterwards was able to walk only with the help of a prosthetic limb (she nicknamed it “Cuthbert”). From 1940 to 1945 she served under cover in Vichy and, later, in Nazi occupied France with great effectiveness, fomenting, organizing, paying, and supplying the French Resistance. Ms. Hall participated in acts of sabotage that greatly assisted the Allied invasion of Europe that began in June of 1944.

Virginia Hall was the first woman to receive the American Distinguished Service Cross (for soldiers who display extraordinary heroism in combat with an armed enemy force). She was also awarded the French Criox de Guerre with Palm (for heroic deeds in combat) and inducted as an honorary Member of the Order of the Empire (for significant achievement for the United Kingdom).

The story of Virginia Hall is an inspiring tale of personal courage, overcoming disability, persistence, fighting sexism, allegiance to democratic values, and patriotism. The film also portrays other strong characters based on people who made outstanding contributions to the Allied cause in WW II: Vera Atkins, Noor Inayat Khan, Dr. Jean Rousset, and Maurice Buckmaster. Criminals Klaus Barbie and Father Robert Alesch are also shown in the film.


Awards: None.

Cast: Sarah Megan Thomas as Virginia Hall,, Stana Katic as Vera Atkins, Radhika Apte as Noor Inayat Khan, Linus Roache as Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, and Rossif Sutherland as Dr. Raoul Chevain

Director: Lydia Dean Pilcher


The film is an excellent way to give students mental images of France during the Second World War and to show British and later American efforts to stimulate and assist the French Resistance.  The main characters are patriotic Americans, Britons, and Frenchmen willing to risk torture and death to defeat fascism and defend democracy.


The movie contains disturbing scenes of Nazi brutality. Actually, the savagery of the Nazi regime is understated. (This can be corrected by a few comments from the teacher.)

There is a scene in which Noor Kahn’s mother, upon learning of her child’s death at the hands of the Nazis, goes into her house and screams out her grief.  This may be upsetting to some students, however, it exemplifies the great sacrifices that people made in WW II and it’s an important component of the message of the film.

Many characters smoke (although Misses Hall and Khan are not shown smoking). Most characters are shown appreciating alcoholic beverages, although none are shown consuming alcohol to excess. Ms. Hall takes Benzedrine tablets on occasion. Teachers can comment that only after WW II did people learned that smoking caused lung cancer and heart disease and that taking speed can lead to addiction (which fortunately did not occur in Ms. Hall’s case). While these problems are serious and need to be considered, with the exception of the historically accurate fact of Benzedrine use, they are all common to most films about WW II. Overall, TWM assesses this film as very beneficial.


Watch the film with your child and provide some of the historical background about WW II, along with cautions about Benzedrine use and smoking.  See Before Watching the Film below.


The film supplies much of its own background, including the following either in text on the screen or in a news report listed to by a character.

France falls to Nazi domination. Britain stands alone.

Winston Churchill hastily creates a spy agency to disrupt the Nazi war machine. Its mission in France: place spies everywhere to build resistance and conduct sabotage.

But there are no experienced spies for this new type of warfare. A call must go out to amateurs. The first few are dropped behind enemy lines to begin a secret war …

Inspired by true stories.

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed for the purpose of obtaining information on military installations and living conditions in occupied Europe, aiding resistance movements, and conducting sabotage. It’s main office was on Baker Street in London and, for those few people who knew of its existence, its employees were variously called “the Baker Street Irregulars,” “Churchill’s Secret Army,” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”. The SOE was dissolved shortly after the end of the war.

The training given to SOE agents was intensive. It is described by one historian as:

Every waking hour, the recruits were instructed, right down to simple table manners that would give them away as being British. They learned how to hold their eating utensils in the French way, with fork in left hand and knife in right, just as they’re set at the table. They had to be taught not to pour their milk into their teacups first but after the tea or coffee had been poured. Smoking was prohibited for women in France during the war, so female recruits who smoked had to do so surreptitiously. Any one of these simple missteps could be deadly under a watchful German eye. Pearson, pp. 68 & 69

Noor Inayat Khan:  The film’s portrayal of Ms. Khan is accurate, as far as it goes, but it only begins to describe the achievements of this remarkable young woman who  gave her life in the fight against Germany. She was born to Indian Muslim royalty on her father’s side.  Her mother was American, as portrayed in the film.  Ms. Khan was an accomplished musician and a published author, having co-authored a children’s book, Twenty Jataka Tales.   Ms. Khan’s book is still in print today.

Noor Khan said, “I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.” Visram, p. 142. Nazi torture failed to break Noor Khan and she made three escape attempts. As a result, she was manacled while in detention as a dangerous prisoner.   Ms. Khan was 30 years old when she was executed at the infamous Dachau concentration camp.  She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the MIB (mentioned in dispatches for gallant or meritorious action in the face of the enemy), and the French Croix de Guerre.

An important exchange from the movie between Noor Khan and Vera Atkins:

Vera Atkins: Why is this war your fight?

Noor: Because I am a British citizen and I grew up in France as my home.  I cannot just stand back and let the Nazis do what they are doing.

Vera Atkins: Is that all Noor?

Noor: Actually, I also wish that an Indian would win high military distinction in this war.  Because if a few of us could do something brave in the Allied service, it might bridge the gap between the Indians and the British.

This last bit of dialog is a paraphrase of the statement, quoted above, made by the real Noor Khan.

One of the most poignant scenes in the film is the exchange between Noor Khan and her mother just before Noor is to be flown to France.  Here is the dialog:

Noor:  You know I’ve been telling you that I’ve been training to go abroad. I have to go tonight.

Mother: Why? Where are they sending you?

Noor: You know we’re not allowed to talk about it.  … But Mom, we knew this was going to happen, didn’t we?

Mother: Please don’t go. Your family needs you here.

Noor:  I need your understanding. I have to do something.

Mother: Remember the Sufi saying? Don’t you know yet? “it’s your light that lights the world.”

Noor: Yes, that’s why I must go.

At the end of the film, the following notes appear on the screen:

After returning to France, Virginia Hall helped organize and arm three Resistance battalions, and reported on the enemy by wireless. Klaus Barbie never caught her. Virginia’s betrayer, Father Alesch was executed by the French.

Cited for her “rare courage,” Virginia was the only civilian woman awarded the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross in WW2. “Cuthbert,” her prosthesis, is memorialized on a Congressional Gold Medal.

After the war, Virginia tried, again, to become a diplomat. She was rejected. Later she became the first female agent for a new spy organization: the CIA.

Vera Atkins was honored by the British and French as was F Section’s head, Colonel Buckmaster. By D-Day, hundreds of their spies, working, with the Resistance and Allies, were running missions.

Haunted by the large number of spies missing at wars’ end, Vera spearheaded an investigation into their fates. She visited concentration camps, interrogated Nazi officials and participated in war crime prosecutions. Vera confirmed all but one had died. She said: “I could not just abandon their memory.”

F Section’s war contributions came at devastating cost: about one in three agents sent to France died, including thirteen of Vera’s 39 female agents.

Noor Inayat Khan was captured less than four months after she arrived in France. She was imprisoned for ten months before being murdered at Dachau.

Noor has been commended as Britain’s first Muslim war heroine. She was awarded Britain’s George Cross for refusing to abandon the “most dangerous part in France” and declining to give any information to the Nazis.

France honored her bravery with its Croix de Guerre.

“Noor,” a name of Arabic origin, means “light.”

Vera Atkins: As portrayed in the film, Vera Atkins, was a trusted aid to Maurice Buckmaster, head of the SOE “F” (for France) section.  She was the caring mother-figure for her female spies. She was born in Romania to a wealthy family of Jewish-German descent and educated in France. Her fiancé, an RAF pilot, was killed in action in 1941. Vera Atkins never married and was granted British citizenship in 1944. After the war in addition to tracing the fates of missing F Section agents and participating in war crimes prosecutions, Vera Atkins advocated for women SOE agents to receive recognition and medals for their bravery. She was instrumental in the British government recognizing the service of Noor Khan. Atkins herself received the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) and the Criox de Guerre. She was also made a Knight of the Legion of Honor by the French Government.

Klaus Barbie:  Commander of the Gestapo in the city of Lyon, Klaus Barbie personally tortured individuals suspected of being partisans, allied operatives, or Jews. Barbie was also skilled at surviving.  After the war, he secured employment by U.S. intelligence services to aid their efforts against communists. The U.S. facilitated Barbie’s escape from French justice and helped him settle in Bolivia where he advised various dictators on using torture to stay in power. In 1983 the U.S. formally apologized to France for protecting Barbie. That same year, after the fall of one of the dictatorships that he was assisting and the installation of a democratically elected government, Barbie was arrested and sent to France for trial. In 1987, he was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison. (The death penalty had been abolished in France in 1981.) In 1991, at the age of 77, having finally been brought to justice, the Butcher of Lyon died in prison of cancer.


Before Watching the Film: To fully appreciate “A Call to Spy,” students should have a general knowledge of the history of World War II. The following is a sample direct instruction to give before showing the film.

World War II began in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Nazi forces swiftly conquered Austria, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia, and Greece.

France, expected to be a bulwark against the German army, collapsed in June of 1940.  The victorious Nazis divided France into two zones: one in the North and West of the country, which was administered as an occupied territory, and the other in the South and Southeast, which was governed by a fascist government administered by Frenchmen but subservient to the Germans. This government was headquartered in a town called Vichy, and the area that it governed is called “Vichy France.”

After the fall of France in June 1940, the only thing that separated Britain from the Nazi armies was the English Channel, which was only 21 miles wide at its narrowest width. If Britain were to fall, the Nazis would control the entire continent of Europe.

At the beginning of the war, Britain lacked the military capacity to turn back the German conquests on the European mainland. The British therefore adopted a three-pronged approach to the war: a naval blockade of Europe, aerial bombing, and sabotage in the occupied nations. A month after France fell, Britain established the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to conduct its espionage campaign and, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered, to “set Europe ablaze.”

The film provides reasonably accurate portrayals of a number of  people who participated in the struggle over France in WW II.   They are Virginia Hall, Vera Atkins, Maurice Buckmaster, Noor Inayat Khan, Dr. Jean Rousset, Father Robert Alesch, Klaus Barbie, and “Wild Bill” Donovan.

Virginia Hall was an American woman who spent much of her youth in Europe and wanted to work as a foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of State. However, at the age of 27, she lost the lower part of her left leg to a hunting accident. When she recovered, Ms. Hall was fitted with a prosthetic leg. At the time, the State Department hired few women and was not about to hire a woman with an artificial limb. Ms. Hall’s repeated applications to be a foreign service officer were turned down.

Desiring to be of service, loving France, and hating the Nazis, Ms. Hall, served as a volunteer ambulance driver for the French Army. After the Nazi victory in 1940, Ms. Hall went to England where she joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). She was infiltrated into Vichy France and worked undercover for more than a year. During that time she successfully developed a network of resistance fighters and provided them with money and weapons. When her first network was betrayed by a corrupt priest named Robert Alesch, Ms. Hall escaped to England just one step ahead of the Gestapo. To do this she had to make a harrowing trek across the Pyrenees Mountains, an effort that had proved impossible for some people who had the use of both of their legs.

The SOE thought it was too dangerous to send Ms. Hall back to France, now fully occupied by the Germans. The American had by then joined the war, and Ms. Hall volunteered to work for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA. Returning to France for the OSS, Ms. Hall developed, funded and armed networks of resistance fighters and engaged in acts of sabotage that so damaged the Nazi war machine that the Germans were expelled from the Haute-Loire Department (an administrative division of the French state slightly larger than Rhode Island) before the arrival of the Allied armies.

There is a reference in the film to the “Jedburgh teams.” These usually consisted of three agents, one from the American OSS, another from the British SOE, and a third from the country into which they were to be parachuted. The goal of the Jedburgh teams was to provide leadership to resistance forces and coordinate with the Allied armies.

Franklyn D. Roosevelt was president of the United States from 1933 until 1945. He led the U.S. out of the Great Depression and to victory in WW II. He was crippled with polio from the age of 39 but did not allow his disability to prevent him from running for office.

Vera Atkins was a Jewish refugee from Romania. Before the end of WW II, anti-Semitism was rife in Europe and present to a lesser degree in Great Britain and the United States. Vera Atkins worked for the SOE recruiting and handling their female agents. She faced distrust by her co-workers at SOE because she was from Romania, a state allied with the Germans in WW II, and because she was Jewish. However, she was always supported by Maurice Buckmaster, head of the SOE F (France) Section. [This last will help set up the anti-Semitic comments in the party scene where Virginia Hall and Vera Atkins meet for the first time.]

There are scenes in the movie in which Virginia Hall takes Benzedrine, an amphetamine, given to her by her handler at the SOE, Vera Atkins. It wasn’t until after WW II that people learned that speed could cause addiction. Fortunately, Ms. Hall did not get addicted to Benzedrine. (Remember, the speed that you get on the street or from friends, even if they say it is prescribed medication, can contain fentanyl that has killed many people who took only one pill or less.) The film also shows many people smoking. During WW II, the fact that smoking caused lung cancer and heart disease was not generally known.

Suggestions for Comments After Showing the Film:

Teachers can comment on the life after the end of the film of the various persons shown in the movie. Virginia went on to do stellar work for the OSS in occupied France paving the way for the Allied Armies. After the war, she worked for the CIA for the rest of her career. She declined public ceremonies for the awards she received to maintain her cover for covert operations.

Like Noor Khan, millions of Hindus and Moslems from India fought in the Allied cause during World War II. Many felt that if they proved their mettle in war, it would support the goal of Indian independence.

The scenes of torture shown in the film understate the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis on captured SOE agents and Resistance fighters. The Nazis would tear out fingernails and toenails with pliers, apply electric shocks to the genitals, and much worse. Some people died under torture. Yet, most SOE agents did not break and provided no useful information to the Nazis.

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1. What lessons can we take from this film?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response. Any reasoned response should be respected. Here are some possible responses. A teacher should guide the class discussion to cover the following points: 1) A society that tolerates prejudice and discrimination against groups of people denies itself the contributions that individuals in those groups could make. Virginia Hall suffered from prejudice as a woman and as a person with a disability. Fortunately, she had extraordinary drive and determination.  Assisted by the good luck that SOE was desperate to find female operatives, Ms. Hall was able to overcome those prejudices and serve the Allied cause.  However, many people will not be able to surmount the barriers of prejudice and discrimination nor will they have the luck enjoyed by Virginia Hall. As a result, they will not be permitted to live the life they want to live, they will not be able to realize their full potential, and society will lose the benefit of the contributions to the common good that they would have made.  2) The nature of heroism: believing in a cause or loving certain people so strongly that you will risk your life to protect them; despite the risk to yourself, acting to protect others. 3) We all owe a tremendous debt to people who have risked and often lost their lives to protect our freedoms.

2. Noor Khan’s mother accuses the SOE, saying, “All I know is that no one protected my daughter from harm.” The characters of Vera Atkins and Virginia Hall have no response. Remember that Noor Khan was sent into the field before her training was complete because SOE was in desperate need of a wireless operator in France. This may have contributed to her capture and subsequent execution. What does this tell us about what happens when people entrust their lives to organizations such as the military or spy agencies or more generally any large organization?

Suggested Response:

Sometimes mistakes happen and at other times operational imperatives of the organization will lead it to compromise the interests or the safety of its members.

3. Follow-up question: Give an example of a person depicted or mentioned in the film who died as a result of decisions made by the SOE.

Suggested Response:

a) Noor Khan (“Madeline”), who was sent into the field before her training was complete;  b) two SOE agents sent to France when the Maurice Buckmaster character ignored his assistant’s warning that the transmissions by the Nazis claiming to come from Madeline (Noor Khan) didn’t feel right; Buckmaster sent the SOE agents flying into a German trap, only the pilot of the plane escaped; and c) the members of Virginia Hall’s first resistantce organization in France who were betrayed by Father Alesch after he had been cleared as trustworthy by Vera Atkins and SOE.

4. Compare the heroism of Virginia Hall to that of Alexei Navalny who returned to Russia after the Russian government under dictator Vladimir Putin tried to poison him.  Alexei Navalny has now been imprisoned for life (as he says, either his life or the life of the regime).

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response. Any reasoned response should be respected. TWM’s suggested response is that they are both heroes, both willing to put their lives in imminent peril to oppose dictatorship. Navalny has no physical handicap, but that’s not relevant to the question.


1. What are the causes or people that you would risk your life to protect?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response. Any heartfelt and reasoned response should be respected.

2. What does the story of Virginia Hall (and of Franklin D. Roosevelt who had been crippled with polio before he ran for the presidency) tell us about disabilities?

Suggested Response:

A strong response should refer to the fact that they can be overcome with hard work, persistence, and luck.



1. Students can be asked to research and write a paper and/or make a presentation to the class on the lives of any person who worked in intelligence and espionage for the Allies in WW II, describing their early life, their work with intelligence and espionage, the benefits of their work, and, for those who survived, their lives after the war. Possible subjects of the essay can include:

Virginia Hall, Noor Inayat Khan, Vera Atkins, Maurice Buckmaster, Nancy Wake, Krystyna Skarbek, Lise de Baissac, Odette Hallowes, William J. Donovan, Forest Yeo-Thomas, Eddie Chapman, Juan Pujol Garcia, Fritz Kolbe, and Richard Sorge.

2. Students can be asked to write an essay describing Allied deception operations during WW II. Examples include Operation Mincemeat, Operation Fortitude, Operation Bodyguard, and the Ghost Army,

3. Students can be asked to write an essay on what they learned from the story of the life of Virginia Hall.

4. Students can be asked to write an essay on what causes they would risk their lives to promote or protect, describing the reasons for each. .

5. Students can be asked to research people with disabilities who achieved amazing things, pick one, and write a short biographical essay on his or her life.


Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.


There are many books on the spies of WW II that are appropriate for strong high school level readers. They include the books listed in the Bibliography. Others can be found on the Internet.



The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy, by Judith L. Pearson, 2008, The Lyons Press,

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell, Viking, 2019

Ayahs, lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain, 1700-1947, by Rozina Visram, Pluto Press, London, 1986, pages 139 – 143

This Learning Guide was written by James A. Frieden. It was published on October 9, 2023.

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