I’m continuing today, albeit after quite a delay, my series of articles on war-time British war films that started with my article on In Which We Serve. This article will look at another film I’m equally as fond of, Went The Day Well. Although visually it is not as interesting and certainly it is not very well known in North America at all, it is much better regarded in the UK. I personally first saw it on TV as an elementary school student and it’s stuck with me ever since.
Unlike great wartime British films like In Which We Serve, made by David Lean and Noel Coward, or A Matter of Life and Death by Powell and Pressburger, Went the Day Well was directed not by a prestigious English talent but by Alberto Cavalcanti, a Brazilian born filmmaker who never developed a great reputation later in life. He is solely credit by his surname Cavalcanti in the film, in much the same way foreign film professionals often were in those days. Hats by Cervantes, etc. I have to admit that unlike David Lean and Noel Coward, I know very little about Alberto Cavalcanti and his work. The only other film of his I’ve seen is the very well known British horror film Dead of Night. This is the one in which Michael Redgrave plays a ventriloquist tortured by the whims of his evil, sentient dummy. But despite never becoming a David Lean, Cavalcanti’s wartime film is just as effective.
Part of my interest in British wartime films is how they reflect the surroundings at the time. This is the same reason I have such an interest in Japanese films of the immediate post-war. You can learn a lot from watching how events are portrayed in a movie, and notice the fears and pressures acting on society at the time. Of course you can in any other time as well, but there’s something about the British wartime films. A cinematic stiff upper lip perhaps. Despite, or perhaps because of, the traditional methods being strained under the war, the industry managed to make a wonderful series of socially and historically relevant, elegant yet exciting films.
In terms of Went The Day Well’s historical significance, the situation at the time was really quite dire. The film was released in December 1942, but (from titles) we can tell it was written and set quite a bit before in the spring. At the time, the UK was still under the tremendous daily bombing of the Blitz and the constant threat of invasion. The Home Guard, a 1 million strong army of irregulars and those too old or unfit to serve, had been assembled, and were designed to help stall Churchill’s greatest fear : an assault on England by the Fallschrimjager, elite German paratroopers, who could capture a southern port to France and thus open the entire UK up to a large scale invasion by the German army. In essence, D-Day in reverse, several years previous.
While Went The Day Well is certainly far from an historical record of what happened, naturally such events never took place, it’s a fantastic record of the feeling of the time. The government was worried about the strength of German paratroopers, especially after their actions in the Battle of Crete. They were also worried about the training of the Home Guard and the vigilance of civilians after the UK’s air success in the Battle of Britain. Went The Day Then is something of a nightmare scenario, designed to both frighten, rouse and even compliment the British people.
The plot focuses on the small village of Bramley End. I assumed this was a fictional place, and indeed it is, but it’s quite hard to tell with English village names. Bramley End is an incredibly quaint little English village with stone walls, wide fields, cobbled streets and an ancient church. They’ve only one shop, and barely 8 children, some of whom are evacuees. An unlikely place for an assault by German paratroopers? Exactly the point, of course.
The way the Germans come into town is quite clever though, and begins to split the film up into a number of separate, interesting developments. The Germans are initially disguised as British soldiers, and as such the villages, caught up in taking care of the guests, offer them lodgings in all the important places in town. It’s interesting that English speaking German paratroopers used for misdirection became a reality in 1944-45 in the Battle of the Bulge, though the danger of this tactic was explored in this film two years before. Anyway, naturally the ruse is eventually discovered, and the locals start trying to organise a resistance.
An interesting element of the film I remembered from childhood (although I watched it again more recently of course) was the framing device. The film starts with a slow trek to the town, whereupon a local villager near the graveyard speaks directly to the audience about the Battle of Bramley End (which we don’t see for so long but always expect in the film) and a gravestone with German names. Though the film was filmed in 1942, he looks back on the year as if it were the distant past. The opening of the film gives a rather grim impression, in a graveyard, as the villager starts to relate the tale. While regarding the stone he says “They wanted England, and this is the only part they got”. The man returns at the end of the film for a closing statement, of course, although much too briefly.
I just like the idea that the film starts and ends in the future to the main story. It’s not quite The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but it’s much more interesting than many of the others. Notice all the great wartime British films, In Which We Serve, Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Went The Day Well and plenty more all play around with time. Somebody, and I’m sorry I can’t remember who although I want to say it was Andre Bazin, said that essentially there were two different kinds of films. Films about time and films about action*. And strangely it seems most good films do in fact involve time in some considerable way.
Another interesting part about the introduction is that it reveals the name. I had always mistakenly remembered that Went The Day Well was one of the things the German soldiers say that gives them away as German. In fact, I remembered that completely wrong, they do a number of things that give them away but that is not one of them. In fact the title comes from an anonymous poem which the RAF have adopted. A section of it comes onto the screen before the film begins :
Went the day well?
We died and never knew
But, well or ill
Freedom, we died for you
From here we get into the film proper, and jump back to the first of the fateful days in which the fictional battle took place. Though not directed by Michael Bay, the movie does make frequent use of day and date stamps on the screen, to let you know when everything is taken place, as though these made up manoeuvres were of great historical significance. Almost immediately the faux Tommys are on the scene and the plot is afoot. I’ve always had a half-chuckle at the accents of the Germans. Almost all of them speak in a posh London accent, the idea that RP English is easiest to copy by Germans is probably quite true and funny to see played out.
The first act or so of the film is quite Columbo-esque. We know within a few minutes that the soldiers are in fact Germans, the jig is up for the audience almost as soon as it began. Doing away with whodunnit make the rest so much more interesting to watch. Of course the villagers give the soldiers the benefit of the doubt over almost everything, but it’s funny to see how what catches the Germans out is not someone finding a Nazi identification card on them but a series of very small cultural differences.
For instance, in the interests of drama, one soldier cannot speak English very well. When his landlady mentions that it’s “not very comfortable for you here, is it?” the man responds flatly “No”, coming across as very rude, although really just confused by the way the question was formed. In another scene, a vital clue is a piece of paper on which the Germans were keeping score of their card game. One lady notices that the men have been writing their numbers in the European fashion such as “continental 7s”, that is a 7 with a dash across it as they do in Germany and France. This scene leads to one of my favourite lines in the whole film, when the haughty Margaret Dumont type in the village exclaims :
“I refuse to see anything sinister in an elongated five!”
Naturally there is a fifth column at work, and in the nicest man in town is the head of it. I like that it shows the rich are the most susceptible to infiltration by the Nazis. Movies like Hitchcock’s Saboteur and to some extent Notorious make the same assertion and I’m sure it’s true. The character of this traitor, Mr. Wilson, is nicely contrasted (though never directly so) with the presence of the working class boy George who has been evacuated to this country down from London thanks to the Blitz. Naturally the boy is down to earth and daring, taking people as he finds them, where as Mr. Wilson is a stuck up cad of the highest order. Eventually, it is the boy who manages to bring help to the town.
The evacuated boy also leads to one of the other lines of the un-PC times that made me burst out laughing. When asked by the Dumont impostor “Do you know what morale is?” the boy responds “Yeah, it’s what the wops ain’t got!” so cheerfully. And don’t expect anything even handed in this propaganda picture. All the Nazis are animals. They eat by tearing things to pieces with their hands and stuffing their over full mouths until things fall out. They beat children to the horror of the British and their final desperate plan is to execute a bunch of kids at sunrise (once again, a great use of a limited elite force, I must say).
So naturally this is to excuse the brutality of their murders, which in the mid point of the film are quite shocking. It’s no wonder the director went into horror. Perhaps the best is when the kindly old lady we’ve followed through much of the film chats to a German guard, then blinds him with pepper and hacks him to death with a hand axe! Certainly no murder is shown to be easy and it’s always interesting how much more vibrant the violence in an old picture like this can be when it’s stored up and released like this, even without a drop of blood. Likewise the ambush of the Home Guard by the Germans seems particularly brutal because they are on bicycles and singing or whistling. Cavalcanti understands this, if they were marching or in a truck it wouldn’t have been the same.
The last act, when the largest stretch of action breaks out, is actually a bit of a hodge podge. Cavalcanti doesn’t have as good an idea for this kind of material as he does for individual murders, and the fact that the two sides are dressed alike makes some of it a bit confusing. The lack of the final act plan by the Germans beyond killing the children somewhat hurts the finale. As does the epilogue, over all too soon, as the villager who welcomed us to look at the grave barely gets time to half repeat himself before a giant The End smacks him in the face.
So it is a bit scrappy toward the end, and you can’t help but feel what it might have been had Cavalcanti gone all the way in any of his directions, in mystery, horror film or action picture. But as it stands, it’s undeniably a classic of British wartime cinema. I’ve read some criticisms on the internet (I’ve never heard any such as this in real life) that the film did not go far enough in its grim picture of a small occupied town. But I think these commentators aren’t quite taking in the circumstances. 1944 or 1945 was a wonderful time to explore just how bad things might have been, when things surely would not get there. 1942 could not afford to be unrelentingly dark, when times at home were so grim.
I usually speak here about the availability of the picture, but I’m not entirely sure of it in North America. In the UK, there is a DVD available and it’s of average quality. Alternatively, you can search your listings next year around VE Day and hope it comes up. I heard that it was recently made public domain, but I’m not sure if that’s true at all. Any roads, it is thankfully available for cheap on DVD, unlike some of the other films I’ve spoken about here, so please do check it out if you get the chance.
*This quote is not mine of course, in fact it’s not even a quote it’s a badly remembered paraphrase, but I always took it to mean that films generally fall into two types. Films in which you start, and something is happening, and you get excited and it keeps happening until it’s over. And films in which the now is not as important as looking at a range of times or experiences, and then coming to some conclusion or final emotion about what you’ve watched. I can’t say for everyone which is better, but for example I could understand it’s partly why Godfather Part II stands out above The Godfather, or why anyone interested in films can’t not watch Alain Renais or Wong Kar Wai, as annoying as they might get. It’s not a certainty though, it’s just a film theory you might hear batted around if you sit in a lecture and stay awake.