Directed by Cavalcanti; produced by Michael Balcon
It’s Whit Sunday, 1942, and the little English village of Bramley End is about to experience the Second World War first-hand. A unit of British soldiers arrives to conduct an exercise; the officers and troops are billeted among the villagers, strike up conversations, develop friendships. Little do the people know that these soldiers are Germans, intent on securing landing and drop zones for the vanguard of an invasion. Soon isolated by their enemies, shop-keepers, tradesmen and housewives must fight like soldiers themselves to save their country.
While undeniably a propaganda piece, Went the Day Well? is a superior example of the genre. It gives an initial impression of unoriginality: the characters are village types, the dialogue is what one would expect to hear in a film about a small rural community (compare it to the realistic but imaginative dialogue in A Canterbury Tale). But from this uninspiring start, the movie evolves into something exciting and involving.
An interesting feature is that there is no surprise about who the soldiers really are. We are told by a villager (Mervyn Johns), speaking to the camera at the start, what will happen. The fact that the preamble takes place after the war ends (at some fictional future, since the film was made in 1942), allows us to see that all ends well. But there is suspense nonetheless. Numerous attempts by the villagers to summon help, once they realise who is in their community, come to naught, and the viewer is left hoping that the next try will succeed.
Though the Germans are treated as vicious caricatures, the script redeems itself with the handling of the English characters. They become people the viewer quickly comes to care about. Bramley End itself is something the viewers likes and wants to see kept safe. There are scenes of countryside and rural tranquility, sounds of birds, and children playing; all evocatively handled.
But the writers (the screenplay is from an original story by Graham Greene) and director do not shrink from destruction. The movie wants to display just what war means - or, more to the point, just what must be sacrificed to keep one’s home free. The body-count is high, and not just among soldiers. This too was deliberate: the fight for freedom costs, as the monument observed on the church wall to the dead from the First World War testifies. We today may scoff at the idea of a curate with a sub-machine gun, or a young bride shooting at attacking Germans, but the truth was not much different: millions of uniforms were filled by bakers and lawyers, farmers and lords of manors.
The actors are largely unknown today. Johns is perhaps the most recognisable; Leslie Banks plays a fifth columnist (again, I give little away here) and Thora Hird, later a very popular fixture in British television, is a Land Girl. (Her daughter, Janette Scott, was the female lead in the recently reviewed Crack in the World). But each is well fitted to his role.
A film whose stature has grown since it was first released, Went the Day Well? is a remarkable and successful low-budget crowd-pleaser, and should please the lone viewer, as well.