“Went the day well?
We died and never knew
But, well or ill,
Freedom, we died for you.
Went the day well?”
- John Maxwell Edmonds
On first appearance the little hamlet of Bramley End, England seems a placid and happy place; there’s a certain mournfulness that is apparent only upon closer inspection and introduction to a memorial plaque and a small graveyard in the middle of town. The town verger turns and speaks directly to the camera, a nod to the homespun worldview of Thornton Wilder, and begins to relate the tale of the Battle of Bramley End. Immediately the apparent tone of Went the Day Well? (1942), an early entry from the very same Ealing Studios which would eventually define its own spirit of British whimsy with comedies like Passport to Pimlico, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers, seems set. The verger leads us to a small graveyard whose occupants he reveals as a division of German soldiers who were defeated here in the Battle of Bramley End, the same way, as it turns out, that invading Nazi forces at large were defeated by British and Allied forces.
But wait—the movie’s framing device is set in 1942, the year of the movie’s actual release, when the real-life outcome of the war with the Germans was still very much in question. What gives Went the Day Well? (based on a Graham Greene story) a very real power is its embodiment of the sheer force of will that could allow for its existence in the first place. Its potency as propaganda is completely embedded in the fact that, at the time the movie was produced, that triumphant outcome over the German invaders was not yet historical fact but the merely the projection of the very plucky British optimism and spirit of togetherness in which the movie appears to be grounded. And what gives the movie its ferocious power as cinema is its subtle subversion of that surety of British fighting spirit, even as it functions as pulse-pounding propaganda, to reveal a portrait of a besieged citizenry both entirely vulnerable to enemy infiltration and, more shockingly, one with a capacity for violence barely hinted at on its whimsical surface, a violence more readily associated with the savagery of the enemy.
Directed with documentary immediacy by Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti (who three years later would direct the Michael Redgrave segment of the seminal British anthology thriller Dead of Night), Went the Day Well? posits a world of quaint charm into which the enemy finds his way with frightening ease. The convoy of soldiers which makes its way down the well-trodden paths leading to the village look for all the world like British troops. When their commander reveals to the townspeople the purpose to set up and review defenses in the area, and consequently presents a request that housing for 60 men be provided, the villagers, doing their duty for God and country, accommodate them with little question. It is soon revealed to the audience, and eventually more deliberately to the villagers, that the soldiers are in fact Germans who intend to use Bramley End as a gateway for an invasion of the whole of England. The rate at which the suspicions begin to trickle into the general populace provide the movie with its incredible suspense, as the familiar archetypes of domestic British comedy and drama—among them, the gossipy postmistress, the gracious, though condescending lady of the manor, the timid spinster, the ever-present, mild-mannered vicar, and the nosey Cockney—find the structure of their quiet rural life being undermined and overtaken by the forces of a very real evil.
Soon one of them discovers a suspicious chocolate bar embossed ”Chockolade-Wien” on the personage of a parachutist on maneuvers, and the veil hiding the true peril is lifted. For as easily as the German soldiers are assimilated into British country society, the very welcoming citizenry of that society, who pride themselves on their inclusiveness and upstanding tradition, will access a level of justifiable savagery in defense of that society that most would deny in pleasant company.
Went the Day Well? is that rarity in English-speaking war films, the thriller that seems rooted in the sweet-tempered satiric tradition which would emerge from the Ealing Studios, but whose roots extend terrible tendrils that wend their way through the history of English-speaking cinema. The films touched by its influence range from the magically placid, besmirched pastorals of Powell and Pressburger (A Canterbury Tale, 49th Parallel) to the acrid and vicious assessment of the (British) capacity for violence found in works as disparate as Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned, Mike Leigh’s Naked, the whole of the postwar British film noir movement, the delirious fantasias of British life coursing through the work of Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell, and even forward to the Quentin Tarantino of Inglorious Basterds, in its gamesmanship with European identity and its wild projections of a victory that was hardly secured at the time the film was made. The vision at the heart of Cavalcanti’s film is potent and unyielding enough to be shocking even to an audience well heeled in the range of potential viciousness, incivility and even transcendence ripe within all of those films; it is, amazingly, completely of its time and simultaneously capable of reaching out and appearing frighteningly modern some 60 years after it was released, a vision of cheerful patriotism and absurd humor in which the conservative forces of good reveal an uncomfortable affinity with the blood-red force of vengeance.
Rialto Pictures has mounted a beautifully restored 35mm presentation of Went the Day Well?, which premiered this past May at the Turner Classic Film Festival and is now settling in for a glorious week-long run at the New Beverly Cinema. The movie, not well known before this summer even in its country of origin, is being rediscovered as one of the great classics of the movies, and that reputation is both refreshingly free of hyperbole and richly deserved. Headed by a cast of great British character actors such as Leslie Banks, Elizabeth Allan, Basil Sydney, Mervyn Johns, David Farrar, Frank Lawton, Valerie Taylor and Thora Hird, Went the Day Well? is a thrilling and vital piece of film history, and the opportunity to catch it on the big screen is not one that should be undervalued. The film plays solo through the weekend (five shows on Saturday and Sunday), and to make the program even more attractive during the week, the New Beverly has paired it with three classics of postwar British cinema, all also by way of Graham Greene, that will illuminate and expand the experience of Cavalcanti’s superb thriller. You can see it Monday night, October 17, doubled with Carol Reed’s luminous and foreboding The Fallen Idol (1948), on Wednesday October 19 with another Carol Reed feature you may have heard of-- The Third Man (1949)-- and both Tuesday October 18 and Thursday October 20 with the rarely screened Brit noir Brighton Rock (1947), directed by John Boulting and starring Richard Attenborough, Carol Marsh and Hermione Baddeley. Whatever day you choose to see it, that day will indeed go well and with much pleasure at discovering a great, uncompromising classic of suspense that goes far toward proving that no one inspired the masses toward a noble cause of defense in World War II quite like the British, even so far as exposing with vigor and acuity the ruthlessness behind common civility that might be called up when stiff upper lips come face to face with the enemy.