Went the Day Well?, 1942.
Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti.
Starring Leslie Banks, Mervyn Johns, Basil Sydney, C.V. France, Valerie Taylor, Thora Hird and David Farrar.
A troop of German paratroopers invade the small English village of Bramley End.
A man greets the camera at the end of a tracking shot down a long country lane. “Hello there,” he welcomes warmly, showing little regard for the fourth wall. He stands beside a memorial with only German surnames. But this is in Britain, and Hitler never invaded the mainland. This is the story of the village in which that memorial sits, where German forces once infiltrated. “The Battle of Bramley End”, the old man tells us with patriotic pride.
So it’s one of those films, you’d think. The sort of film where everyone is quaint and polite, and overcomes the German foe with relative ease and joviality. Ealing Studios released it in 1942, while the war was still being fought, and the opening scene suggests such a propagandist tone. Small English village overtaken by a bunch of German paratroopers. It would play on people’s fears at the time; that anyone could be an enemy spy, and an invasion of Britain is imminent. A healthy dose of paranoia for a wartime nation.
The German paratrooper imposters speak with perfect English accents. There’s the occasional awkward moment, like when one of the village folk declares “down with Hitler” as a toast, or when one of the children references those “damned Jerrys”, when the Germans are standing right there, but they weren’t to know they’re being invaded. You kinda even feel sorry for those “damned Jerrys” in these moments, because they deal with the situation very politely, just sipping their drinks or glancing shadily downwards, not wanting to make the offenders feel uncomfortable.
Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), the traitorous village squire, assists the Germans in their efforts. He makes for a good chicken villain, deceiving all and then squirming as it unravels. Unfortunately, he has no character motive to explain his treachery. It’s not as though the Germans have invaded and he’s collaborating out of self-interest, nor is any reward mentioned for his help. It works in a paranoia sense, on the wartime viewer, because an explanation could limit their imagination in who could be working for the Germans. But it doesn’t work as well in a narrative sense. The exact same criticism can be made of “why invade Bramley End?”
The village folk are an affable bunch, and they all work together regardless of their difference in class. There’s a distinct lack of men in the village, because they’re off fighting in the war, and there’s a suggestion that the women are a quite taken by the influx of males in uniform. They’re isolated, too. Even though the surrounding towns aren’t too far away, the simple disabling of their local switchboard cuts them off completely. It’s a romantic thought watching it in a communication age, even if their circumstances are a little dramatic.
After a while, Nora (Valerie Taylor), the local vicar’s daughter, discovers the Germans’ true identity. A slab of ‘Chokolate’ falls out one of the paratroopers’ bags, and a few of her earlier suspicions are confirmed, forcing the Germans to reveal their intentions. The village folk are rounded up in the church, and, suddenly, Went the Day Well? becomes increasingly more expressive and dark, for it is night time now, and light is scarce. The elderly vicar is shot dead for refusing to settle down. He attempts to rouse the nearby Home Guard by ringing his church bell. The ding-dong is cut dead by a German’s gun.
From what was a rather cheery affair, the film takes a progressively violent route. Men are bludgeoned to death with wrenches; old women are stabbed by bayonet; five children are to be executed at dawn. The violence is not gratuitous. This was made in 1942, after all. But it is affective. The camera and lighting imply the film’s gore.
The village’s morale remains throughout despite all their thwarted efforts for retaliation. It makes the final stand, in the village’s manor house, all the sweeter. Those previously imprisoned in the church have escaped there, and they defend it against the German aggressors whilst awaiting reinforcements. Main and supporting characters continue to die throughout. Their attempts to fend off the Germans appear to be dwindling.
Charles Sims (Mervyn Johns), our narrator at the beginning, and for whom the entire film is technically a flashback, withdraws from the manor house window that he is defending. He occupies the foreground, whilst the prim lady of the manor, Mrs. Fraser (Marie Lohr), fusses behind. The shot is solemn and the shots in the distance become muted. Sims reloads his Tommy gun. “Last one,” he says reflectively to his final magazine. Then a woman enters the room with a cup of tea. “That’s what he needs,” remarks Mrs. Fraser warmly.
Without a drip of cynicism or irony! Both she and the film genuinely see the cup of tea as more important to Sims than more ammunition. Well, maybe not more important, but such a down-to earth outlook is ingrained within them. It’s what, along with the risqué violence, makes Went the Day Well? so enjoyable – pure, undiluted, matter-of-fact and just-getting-on-with-it Britishness.