Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
By Roderick Heath
World War II is rightly regarded as a renaissance period for British cinema. A rare mixture of necessity, duty, urgency, and cramped invention stimulated British filmmakers like Michael Powell, Carol Reed, David Lean, Humphrey Jennings, Anthony Asquith, and many others to create ambitious, dramatic, and relevant cinema with a new sense of purpose. Long virtually forgotten, Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? was a film I had only heard trumpeted by the English critic Leslie Halliwell before it recently made Time Out magazine’s list of the 100 best British films of all time. It well deserves disinterment and admiration. Cavalcanti, a Brazilian-born director with leftist allegiances, had made experimental and avant-garde films in France in the 1920s, and then moved to Britain to work on documentaries with the famous film unit run by John Grierson. He graduated to making features, including the excellent Nicholas Nickelby (1948), which can stand up with Lean’s concurrent Dickens adaptations, and the two best chapters in the otherwise overrated Dead of Night (1945), before his wandering and his politics saw him edge off the mainstream map again.
Went the Day Well?, based on a short story by Graham Greene, is very much a product of the wartime atmosphere, portraying the potential for grit and resistance in the average English community in the face of intimidation and violence. Yet in a way, it’s also timeless, a perfect blueprint not only for something suspiciously similar like John Sturges’ The Eagle Has Landed (1977), but also for any action thriller where everyday people take on invading villains, with echoes through Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) to Red Dawn (1984) to Die Hard (1988) and beyond. Went the Day Well? (the title comes from an epitaph by John Maxwell Edmonds) also shares some characteristics with some other good British movies of the period, like Asquith’s We Dive at Dawn (1942) and Reed’s The Way Ahead (1944), by depicting utterly ordinary people suddenly elevated into heroic roles by dint of necessity. Cavalcanti’s film is, however, a speculative fiction about the enemy coming right to the doorstep. The atmosphere he presents in the small, pacific village of Bramley End is very similar to what Powell and Pressburger captured for their A Canterbury Tale (1944), but whereas the latent communal strength of the latter film’s locale was chiefly spiritual, here it’s very literal.
The film commences with an interesting hook: using a first-person camera, Cavalcanti enters and explores the town, and comes upon church warder Charles Sims (Mervyn Johns) at what’s supposed to be some time after the war. Sims addresses the camera as if it’s an interested tourist, points out a gravestone marked with German names, and commences to tell the “famous” story behind them. Flashback to some time during the war, as a detachment of soldiers arrives in Bramley End, seemingly an ordinary group of sappers looking to ready the defences of the village in case of invasion. But they are, in fact, a force of Germans chosen because they speak English and can pass amongst them, some better than others, including their commander, “Major Hammond” (Basil Sydney), really Kommandant Orlter, and “Lt. Maxwell,” actually Jung (David Farrar).
The opening scenes carefully, but seemingly casually, lay out the persons and personas of the villagers as the strangers come into their midst: Hefty, cheery, local post office manager and telephone exchange operator Mr. Collins (Muriel George) and her shopgirl Daisy (Patricia Hayes); young sailor Tom Sturry (Frank Lawton) and his bride-to-be Peggy (Elizabeth Allan), a member of the Land Army along with Ivy Dawking (Thora Hird), charged with delivering milk in the locality; and hale, bossy lady of the local manor, Mrs. Fraser (Marie Lohr), who gets miffed when she finds out the local vicar, Ashton (C.V. France), and his spinster daughter Nora (Valerie Taylor) have beaten her to the trump of billeting the detachment’s CO. Nora has a secret crush on Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), the commander of the local Home Guard, who liaises between the soldiers and the townsfolk, and, with his fellow Home Guard officer Harry Drew (Ellis Irving) from the next village of Upton, shows them the layout of the town’s defences. Of the town’s troupe of evacuee children, George Truscott (Harry Fowler) is the most accomplished scamp, having made friends with Bill Purvis (Edward Rigby), the accomplished local poacher. These characters and many others all have a part to play in the oncoming battle.
Signs of the hidden beastliness of the strangers are discernible, as when a glowering radio operator, catching George fiddling with his equipment, grabs him by the ears and wrenches them, and when one gets confused over landmarks in Manchester, where he says he comes from. But no one quite notices until Collins loses a telegram she’s supposed to deliver to Mrs. Fraser and finds the soldiers have been using it to score their card game on; when Mrs. Collins gets it to Mrs. Fraser, Nora recognises the soldiers’ numbers are written in the continental style. Later, when George nosily pokes through Hammond’s belongings, he finds a bar of Viennese chocolate. Nora, alarmed, goes to tell Wilsford, not knowing that he’s the agent guiding the invaders.
The unassuming realism and homey portraits of the village life, intriguingly tweaked by the social changes necessitated by war are, of course, necessary to ground such a drama—the general absence of young men and the women taking their place in keeping the gears of the society turning; the Home Guard warriors taking time out from doing their delivery rounds; the blurring of class boundaries in the collective effort. Went the Day Well? was produced by Michael Balcon for Ealing Studios, the company that went on to make the canonical series of low-key comedies, and Went the Day Well? feels almost like a rough draft for those, that is, if the cast of The Titfield Thunderbolt or Whiskey Galore! were abruptly tossed into Saving Private Ryan. The screenplay, by Angus MacPhail, makes their interactions and quirks familiar and charming without being too forced and stereotyped; indeed, the film takes some delight in undermining the stereotypical roles which the people, especially Nora, seem faintly, uncomfortably aware of inhabiting, or generating a shock when they suddenly behave in fashions contrary to that character. True to Cavalcanti’s socially progressive bent, he’s interested not just in the need to defend a settled order, but also in the transformative capacities and secret strength of ordinary people working together. There’s none of the subtlety to the Germans that there is in Powell and Pressburger’s not-dissimilar The 49th Parallel (1941), apart from Jung and the decision to kill children. But really they’re the great unknowable Other; they could be aliens.
Whilst there’s a lot of patriotic sentiment in the characters and their reasons for taking a stand, it’s subdued to a terse, survivalist necessity, as the English respond to intrusion and bullying with a feral force beyond imagining. The film also has a real claim to being, amongst other things, a true early feminist work in context, as the ladies of the village get stuck in to warfare, murder, and espionage with grit and competence. For contemporary filmmakers who congratulate themselves for sticking a gun in a chick’s hand and calling it empowerment, here’s someone who did it long before you. When Nora’s keen attention provokes Wilsford, it precipitates the Germans showing their hand earlier than they planned, waiting as they are for a general invasion. The locals are rounded up into the village hall, where the gloves come off. Vicar Ashton, appalled and refusing to obey Orlter, tries to ring the church bell—the signal to the Home Guard of parachutists—and gets a bullet in the back.
Having to keep their presence secret for two more days until the invasion starts, the Germans allow some of the townsfolk to go about their business under supervision, and they begin a tragicomic campaign of trying to get word to the people who pass through the village. Peggy and Ivy paint messages on the bottom of eggs they give to a young newspaper boy. Mrs. Fraser tries to sneak a note into the overcoat of her chirpy chanteuse sister who passes through on the way to a performance: she finishes up using the paper to jam her rattling car-door window. The evacuee kids are rounded up and kept in Mrs. Fraser’s manor, but George sneaks out and makes contact with Purvis, who is only convinced of the veracity of George’s story when a few bullets smack into a tree by his head. As is often a theme in these sorts of dramas, the traits of the characters which seem oddball and individual, from young George’s scampering, to Purvis’s asocial knowledge of all the secret paths through the woods, to Mrs. Fraser’s proprietorial sensibility towards the town and Nora’s repressed, heightened awareness, become weapons in the war.
The really startling quality of Went the Day Well? is in the potency and pointedness of its violence; whilst, in deference to the censorship of the time, there’s little actual gore on screen, the viciousness of what does happen is certainly not as aseptic as it often was in lesser war films, and indeed still packs a wallop, as the bodies piles up,and likeable characters are killed off with unsentimental rapidity. The Germans ambush the local Home Guard, blasting them off their bicycles and shooting the wounded in the back with revolvers. In a simply amazing moment, Mrs. Collins, treating the German charged with keeping an eye on her and the exchange to a meal, abruptly tosses a pot of pepper in his face and then wallops him in the face with a hatchet. Desperately trying to contact the exchange in the next town, she’s ignored by the gossiping girls there, and before they answer her, another German arrives and bayonets her. Purvis dies in a hail of bullets trying to cover George’s escape after taking out a German with his shotgun, and even the kid catches a bullet in the leg and squirms away in the mud. Mrs. Fraser, to stop the other evacuee kids being killed by a hand grenade, snatches it up and dives through a doorway; she’s blown to pieces, but saves the children. Ivy and Peggy, wielding arms with aplomb, propose keeping score of the Germans they shoot. The film possesses a kind of heady emotional heft under the stiff upper lip resolve, building to a head most brilliantly when Nora, knowing that Wilsford is a traitor, a fact he’s managed to keep hidden and to undermine the actions of the others, calmly takes a loaded revolver from the arsenal Tom has assembled, marches downstairs through the manor, and fills the villain with lead.
It’s not just amazing this stuff got by the British censors, who were notoriously fusty (they banned all horror films for the length of the war), but fascinating how much the film revels in the dreaded, apocalyptic spectacle of warfare erupting in England and consuming its populace. The film is both reassuring in the sense that it aimed to depict a scenario in which the difficulty in conquering Britain would be in the individualistic determination of its citizens, and also deeply disturbing in suggesting the way violence lingered so omnipresent in the age that its actual eruption might have been considered a relief. On at least one level, it’s almost less an entertainment than a training film, Cavalcanti emphasises the physical effort the English characters have to muster to overcome their humanist instinct, but also the determination they display once engaged, as displayed by Mrs. Collins as she fights a sobbing fit after killing the German, but resolute to make the vital telephone call that will bring rescue. The evolution of Nora, who seems at first a kind of Celia Johnson-esque sufferer, into a punitive assassin, both plays on and subverts that image of resilient formality, racking up the payment for a betrayal on both the personal and political levels. This hits a hysterical note that resounds elsewhere, most literally when Daisy momentarily gives in to a fit of blind frenzy after seeing Tom and his father (Norman Pierce) kill two Germans in front of her. There are more than hints of the expressive avant-gardist Cavalcanti had been in the bristling scenes of explosive violence and the portrayals of emotion and action clashing fiercely. It’s apparent on a tactile level in the suddenly rupturing of placid, almost bland shots in the character interactions and the quietly revelatory, documentary-like explications of the village geography, with sudden, intense displays of furious cutting, ultra-close-ups of pain-distorted faces and thrashing limbs, and swooping motion in and out of the frame.
There’s humour to alleviate the ferocity, particularly in the reaction of the children, who seem less fazed by invasion than the adults, and the excruciatingly chirpy song “Cherry Ripe” is as amusingly employed here as in Night of the Demon (1957), sung by Mrs. Fraser’s sister as she obliviously trundles to and from the captive town. The excellent cast works in harmony throughout; it’s amusing to note that Lawton and Allan, playing partners here, had played mother and son in George Cukor’s David Copperfield (1935). Tension ratchets up to impressive degrees in the finale as the villagers are forced into action when, after an escape attempt, Jung announces the occupiers will shoot five children in the morning for punishment. That proves a real mistake, as a core guard of the Sturrys, Ivy, Peggy, Sims, and some others manage to overpower and outwit their guards and fortify the manor house. The Germans planned to use that house themselves, necessitating an assault on the manor as real British soldiers close in, precipitating a battle to the death. Nora’s killing of the traitor in their midst as he tries to open up the house to the Germans only temporarily keeps the enemy from literally invading the living room, and the heroes, anticipating perhaps their children in If… (1968), rain death upon their enemies to the last bullet. It’s an exhilarating and hair-raising end to a masterpiece of its kind, but it also proves that an inspiring film can be alarming as well.