Even forgetting the influence Fox News exerted in leading US public opinion to support Dubya’s invasion of Iraq, propaganda never had a very good reputation. But when Graham Greene is involved it might be worth a try. The case of Went The Day Well, the anti-Nazi message is in no doubt, but the film is no stodgy bowl of Ministry of Information pudding. British pluck is pitted against German dastardliness with electrifying results.
A small English village of Bramley End is sleepy, calm and barely touched by wartime. The quaintness of the setting finds a counterpoint in the reassuring introduction. We know from the start that things turned out all right, because the village church warden (Mervyn Johns) shows us a memorial to German soldiers in the churchyard, explaining, “Yes, that’s the only bit of England they got!” All may end well, but there is plenty of excitement, and even blood curdling violence, before the return to the still point.
Before the battle for Bramley End, a few lorry loads of Tommies turn up in the village requesting to be billeted with local people. Something seems fishy about them immediately and it’s not long before they are revealed as Germans posing as British soldiers in order to prepare for a full scale attack by the Nazis. While the tension builds up around the suspected German attack, the film introduces us to the villagers.
English villages are fertile ground for curious individuals and Bramley End is no exception. There’s a crafty but good-hearted poacher, a love-struck sailor and his sweetheart, a matriarchal post mistress, an outspoken northern lass (played by Thora Hird of Last of the Summer Wine fame), a creepy squire (Leslie Banks), and a handful of cheerful young cockney evacuees. Each character is drawn with a deft hand and they don’t descend into type.
Possibly the strength of the characterisation (and story) are made more understandable by having their origins in a being a short story by Graham Greene, a man who knew how to write. It could also be that the film was directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, a Brazilian director who worked in the UK for 12 years from the mid-1930s to the late ’40s. Cavalcanti was later blacklisted in Brazil as a communist and this could also account for the attention given to each member of the cast. On the other hand, perhaps it’s just the Ealing Studio touch.
The Jerries are first revealed as cads who aren’t afraid of slapping a lady, get drunk and drink coffee (while the villagers prefer a nice cuppa). Soon enough, we see that they aren’t merely rotters, but brutes. After the slightly woolly pleasantness of the earlier part of the film, the violence is even more shocking when kicks off it, especially when civilians have to defend themselves.
Went the Day Well takes its name from a First World War epitaph written by the scholar John Maxwell Edmonds. The film has a gripping story that keeps us guessing, despite the fact that we have been reassured that it all turns out all right in the end. It’s funny even when it’s serious, and usually serious even when it’s funny.
The DVD release also includes an early Cavalcanti short, Yellow Caesar, about the rise of Mussolini (1.37:1; PAL; MPEG-2; 00:22:31) and a BBC Radio 3 audio featurette, The Essay British Cinema of the 1940s: Went the Day Well? (Dolby Digital Stereo; 00:14:08). Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3 13th September 2010, presented by Simon Heffer.