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Went the Day Well? Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 11, 2011 at 12:06 AM

    Went the Day Well? Review

    A quiet English village deep in the heart of the Home Counties becomes the scene for one of the most exciting and shocking works of wartime propaganda and patriotism in Alberto Cavalcanti's astonishing 1942 film, Went The Day Well? Made for Ealing Studios, and actually their second such piece of jingoistic work but, by far, their greatest, this dramatic warning of what could happen if Hitler's mob goose-stepped their way onto British soil is a deeply affecting and thoroughly rousing classic that doesn't get the recognition it so richly deserves. Based on the short story, The Lieutenant Died Last, by the great Graham Greene, the film has been digitally restored and released on Blu-ray for the first time by Optimum on this region B-locked disc.

    The Battle of Bramley End.

    With a man on the inside in the falsely respected and secret 5th Columnist Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks, who is a deadringer for Danny Huston), Kommandant Ortler (Basil Sydney) and his cruel Lt. Jung (David Farrar from Black Narcissus), speedily infiltrate the happy hamlet of Bramley End posing as British sappers on a 48 hour mission in the area. The real purpose of these German paratroopers is to block radio and radar communications before a spearhead invasion of England. Most of the men adopt deliciously upper-crust accents and manage to make themselves welcome in the peaceful village, whose population seem happy and reassured to have so many Tommies in their midst. However, little observations create some suspicion and unease in the minds of Nora Ashton (Valerie Taylor) and Mrs. Fraser (Marie Lohr), the denizens of the manor house. I mean, look at the way that soldier enjoyed twisting a young boy's ear after he caught him chancing a glance at the equipment in the back of their truck. Hardly proper at all to be abusing a child like that. What about the way these fellows seem to write their numbers, with a crossed 7 and a strange 5? Hmmm … that's just how the Germans do it, isn't it? And then there's that lovely big bar of chocolate in that nice Captain's pack that heroic Cockney urchin George Truscott (Henry Fowler) finds – or should that be spelled Chokolat, like it is in Austria? It's certainly odd even he does claim to have gotten it from Vienna.

    Still, it's better to be safe than sorry.

    So the ladies trot their mystery out to that dependable Mr. Wilsford. He'll know what to do. And then all hell breaks loose … as the Germans turn on the villagers with terrifying ferocity.

    The cast are uniformly excellent. Both Sydney and Farrar have fun with their duplicitous roles, chopping from one stereotype (stiff-upper-lipped English) to another (dastardly Hunnish) in the blink of an eye … and being quite remarkably credible as either. Farrar, especially, who gets to drift back into polite British officer mode once Cousin Maud (first seen and heard singing “Cherry Ripe” from Night Of The Demon as she tools on down the country lanes) comes to pay Mrs. Fraser a visit. Banks is typically sublime, and is marvellous at being both concerned for his fellow villagers, and the man that they all look up to, and yet complicit in so many of their deaths. He even seems to enjoy committing one sadistic murder, himself. Great and heart-rending performances from Patricia Hayes and Marie Lohr anchor the plight and resilience of a nation at war. And Taylor provides a haunting angel of vengeance that brings a touch of the tragically ethereal to the pot. But young Fowler is the breakout star as the determined and resourceful George – giving lip to the Germans and making a stunning run for help through the enemy infested woods, aided by the local poacher who fights a brave rear-guard action with his trusty shotgun. Lurking in the background is an uncredited Christopher Lee, but there's also The Great Escape's James Donald as a German corporal, long before he would switch sides and battle bravely against Hitler and the Japs … and the Martians in Hammer's awesome Quatermass And The Pit. As well as Christopher Lee, there is another horror and SF star in Janette Scott, who would appear in Day Of The Triffids, The Crack In The World, Paranoic and one of the remakes of The Old Dark House. Here, she is simply an adorable babe sleeping blissfully just before the bullets begin to fly during the final battle. And that's good old Tommy Trinder doing his bit for moral on the radio!

    Everyone takes it very seriously, and even if there still seems to be a few stock clichés floating about, we need to remember that when the film was made such things were anything but. The war was still raging and the threat of an invasion was enormously prevalent in the hearts and minds of the British people. So, in a much more accessible manner than the many chest-beating and staunchly anti-Nazi shorts and documentaries that were being released at the time, as well as more emotionally primal and direct, Cavalcanti's film was massively relevant to the outlook of a country shoring-up its defences and painfully aware that there could be enemies lurking within.

    But what makes Cavalcanti's adaptation of Greene's short story so memorable is its terrifying attack on the English way of life. Striking with precisely that “enemy within” tact and deviousness that the press and the radio kept banging-on about, Ortler's commando brigade takes over Bramley End and puts the civilian population under harsh and unyielding martial law. Once the jig is up and the Nazis switch over the Plan B, all politeness is dropped in favour of an eye-popping severity. Shouted at and abused, the villagers are stunned at this sudden turnaround – as are we, even though we knew that this was coming. A mother is wrenched from her kitchen as her baby screams in terror. All the jollity of that plucky Ealing style that came to be something of a standard is shattered in one devastating blow. The Germans round up the evacuee children and imprison them in the country manor, whilst the majority of people are herded, as hostages, into the church. A select few are allowed to remain in their places of work – the postmistress, for example – to keep up appearances so that visitors to the town, who would be missed too quickly if they were to be snatched as well, don't suspect anything is wrong. Machine-gun posts are set up on the country lanes, guards walk the perimeter of the village, staking out the fields and the woods, check-points are set-up to ward off any ramblers or snoopers. The village becomes a concentration camp and “Little England” is held to ransom.

    Babies on bayonets? What would be the advantage?”

    The alarming change in behaviour and temperament of the once so charming officers is a distinct sucker-punch that truly stuns you. And the fear and desperation on the faces of what once seemed like a community of 40's English village stereotypes is genuinely affecting. The mood-swing is palpable and, considering the skilfully harsh manner in which Cavalcanti has orchestrated this secluded, small unit invasion, we now understand that all bets are off, and that this pleasantly rustic and amusing little drama has suddenly become something else entirely. Poor Daisy, played by a young Patricia Hayes, is roughed-up when she can't find the coffee for her Teutonic babysitter. The quartet of happy-go-lucky Home Guardsmen are nastily gunned-down as they cycle back to the village after an afternoon exercise in the fields – one shooting of a squaddie very acutely similar to newsreel footage of the era in its stark realism. Even the hiding-away of dead bodies has a horribly explicit brusqueness about that hadn't been depicted before. But even if we think we have the measure of the drama, once this alarming reveal has taken place, we couldn't be more wrong. It is no surprise that the English aren't going to put up with this for long, but nothing could have prepared audiences for the startlingly violent second act. I've seen the film before, but even I'd forgotten the impact that its notorious murder-scenes have.

    This next two paragraphs contain major spoilers. Please return to them once you have seen the film.

    Expertly directed with an amazing combination of blunt documentary-style, film-noir and an undeniable leaning towards horror, Cavalacanti, who was a breath a fresh air in the starched and bogusly cheery trends of the times, stages several classic set-pieces with considerable and deadly aplomb. Muriel George's lovely gossiping Mrs. Collins offers her stern Kraut-keeper another sausage (“I know how fond of sausages you Germans are.”) but tricks him with a storm of pepper in his eyes. As he screams and scrambles about, blinded, she calmly and meticulously reaches for the hatchet by the fireplace and, in grim silence, goes to work on him. Honestly, if this doesn't find your jaw resting on the floor, the ensuing moment when she tries desperately to raise help from the telephonist in the next village, most certainly will. As she tries frantically to get through on the switchboard, the doorbell rings behind her, and she does not need to see the German soldier approaching from behind to know that he is there. Discovering the body of his comrade, he raises his rifle up above her and plunges his bayonet down deeply into her … before then casually dismissing the postman as though nothing has happened. This powerful scene may not generate exactly the same sort of stunned coldness in you that you get when you see Kirk getting hammered to death in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, but it will still leave you reeling in disbelief and shock. This is 1942!!!! It's a black and white Ealing film!!! You'll never write off vintage British Cinema as the sovereign of the Sunday afternoon snoozer again.

    Added to this we have a painfully graphic stabbing in the back during a botched escape attempt from the church. A terrifically taut and bravura sequence when a German is crushed by a great weight hanging suspended from the ceiling of the church cellar, and then a brilliant collection of clubbings and beatings as, one by one, the enemy guards are taken out by the villagers as they stage their merciless revolt. It is important and quite rewarding to see that the film doesn't pretend that normal everyday folk can just rise up and commit such horrendous violence with ease. The women who are forced into dire situations and still come out of it are visibly marked and emotionally scarred by what they have seen and done. As much as you wave a fist in the air each time a Jerry gets it, there is a sobering thought about what had to be endured in the first place to make it justified.

    I am a minister of the Christian Faith. I will take no orders from those who are the enemies and the oppressors of Mankind.”

    Just to remind us that the Germans are fiends in human form, as the press was wont to describe as being back in those days, they issue the terrible penalty for the prisoners' disobedience that five of their children will executed. Things like this would be shocking even if the film were made today, but back then this must have been traumatic for parents whose children had actually been sent into country retreats during the evacuation. A brilliant device is the fact that Lt. Jung, who makes this deadful ultimatum, is actually drunk on wine from the manor house. Only after the war would the facts about how the Germans conducted themselves during the Holocaust become clear – that many would drink themselves into a stupor to lessen the emotional impact of the terrible crimes they were committing. Prophetic stuff, then. It is also pertinent to note how the village priest (C.V. France) stands against their tyranny in the House of God and refuses to bow down to their evil commands. However, just like the religious men who stand defiant against the Martians in The War Of The Worlds and even the beast in Dragonslayer, their humanitarian devotion comes to nothing in the face of such heinous cruelty and hate. The Germans think absolutely nothing of putting a bullet in the preacher and shocking the congregation into submission.

    What do you mean the Home Guard have been dealt with?”

    You know what I mean.”

    The final battle sequence is just as extraordinary. Quaint country lanes, beautifully manicured lawns, picturesque little bridges and pavilions, and a wonderful hilltop windmill become a war zone as the villagers mount their campaign to retake their homes, and all under the sunshine of a vintage English summer. A gallant last stand action is fought in the country manor house, grenades blowing paintings off the walls and Tommy-guns chewing up the alabaster and the Wedgewoods. It is all very spirited, frantic and immediate. For every sparkling patriotic remark, there is a slaying to dilute that jingoistic fervour. A female defender is visibly shocked at having just killed someone from a distance. Young Thora Hird, playing a Land Army girl, can't wait to ping a Hun, herself! Frank Lawton's super-valiant sailor Tom, whose wedding plans have been slightly scuppered by the arrival of the Krauts, is the leading light of the defenders. It is touching to see him and his father battling, side-by-side, as they street-fight their way to the manor to rescue the captured kids. And, in one of British Cinema's landmark images, a shocking but heroic self-sacrifice offers yet another spellbinding moment that truly lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards. In his brief 2010 audio essay on the film that accompanies this release, Simon Heffer says that this film, and this moment in particular, cemented the fact that “we were all in it together”. The war effort was a great leveller, straddling the class divide and bringing nobility and gentry into the fray just as much as the commoner. This, at least, was what the film was trying to say, even if it was not strictly as accurate a fact as the makers and Heffer would like to maintain. But it is a superbly illustrative depiction of how people will fight as one when their community is backed into a corner. The film, as a whole, is just as much about the human spirit of camaraderie as it is about fierce propaganda.

    They're bound to have guards on the switchboard.”

    Then we'll take 'em by surprise. We've got two Tommy-guns and a revolver!”

    The similarity to Jack Higgins' bestselling novel, The Eagle Has Landed, is overt. Many, I'm sure, will come to Went The Day Well? and believe that it was actually remade as the film version of Eagle, starring Michael Caine, in John Sturges' 1976 actioner. The connections are, indeed, hard to ignore, although both films have striking differences as well (the Germans in Eagle have come to snatch Churchill, himself!), and both stand up as great war films in their own right. But what I find even more fascinating is that you can see tendrils of the film's inherent power creeping into other genres as well. A quiet, but hostile takeover of one's home-town by people who look and act like friends is the very backbone of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, which Jack Finney wrote in Collier's Magazine and was later filmed by Don Siegel in 1956 – the first of four interpretations. This is also the most unnerving facet of Night Of The Living Dead which, again, focusses on a small rural environment besieged by non-negotiable monsters. The innocent reverting to primitive violence when pushed to the limit by aggressors has been seen in everything from Straw Dogs to Red Dawn and even the more recent Hobo With A Shotgun, but, visually, there is a hint of Bramley End's uprising to be seen in Romero's later chiller, The Crazies, with its hard-line military clampdown on a once peaceful town, and especially with its scenes of little old ladies committing acts of ultra-violence in retaliation to a mindless and implacable military regime.

    Oh yes, this little Ealing war-flick has had a massive influence indeed. Brazilian-born Cavalcanti would go on to direct the best two stories from Ealing's classic chiller portmanteau, Dead Of Night (1945), “The Christmas Party” and the celebrated “The Ventriloquist's Dummy”, and he would even do excellent work on The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby (1947), proving that he had an extraordinary grasp of English social mores and literary traditions. It often takes an outsider to see things as they really are.

    So why doesn't Went The Day Well? gain a higher score, then?

    Well, although it is perfectly understandable and acceptable when the film came out, its very propagandist nature goes against it when viewed in the cold light day. I'm all for demonising a common foe when it is clearly for the greater good, but this means that once the masks are off, the Germans become vicious, brutish robots that are only one step away from the reckless spite of Orcs. Their clampdown is crucially horrific, but their lack of compassion and utter contempt for human life once the ruse is up is alien and clipped and patently unrealistic. Other elements fall away from the otherwise impeccable standard of the tense story. The sequence when secret messages are passed to unwitting visitors in order to alert the neighbouring villages is just far too cute, even if there are unmistakable traces of Hitchcockian suspense about them. I should concede, however, that having the same sympathetic character unknowingly destroy these pleas is actually quite a witty touch. The swiftness with which Nora and Mrs. Fraser suss out the truth about these strange squaddies is also a little bit too easy, too rushed. Cavalcanti could have dropped the hints with more care, suspicions being built up with a steadier climb of paranoid anxiety. The way that it is now it is almost as though he just couldn't wait to take the gloves off and let the killings begin. I know that it is no surprise for us to discover that the Bosh has landed smack-dab in the middle of a veritable Midsomer, we've known right from the outset what was going on, but we're enjoying the fake plummy accents, the pretence at etiquette and good manners, and the awkward attempts to “fit in” with the locals. It is almost a shame when the sham is over. Plus, once the fighting begins there is a lot of covert scurrying about as the villagers embark on retaking Bramley End, but the stealth approach is patently ruined by the ridiculously loud dialogue as they banter back and forth about what to do next and where to head for. At least a token gesture at whispering should have been made.

    All this said, though, Went The Day Well? is a simply superb war-time drama that keeps the thumbscrews turning and packs one helluva punch for a period picture. Marvellously acted and directed, this still seems fresh, intelligent and gripping. The fact that it pushes a few boundaries in terms of onscreen violence is the pip on one shoulder, whilst its ability to bolster a nation's pride and project an unbeatable sense of unified defiance is clearly the pip on the other.

    An excellent film, and one that I urge you see.