Went the Day Well? Review

Went the day well?

We died and never knew,

But, well or ill,

Freedom, we died for you.

—John Maxwell Edmonds

Went the Day Well? is told in flashback from a framing sequence, in which a villager (Mervyn Johns) talks to camera from a church graveyard. The reaction of the film's original audiences can only be imagined, as the film was released in 1942, when the outcome of World War II was far from certain, and here was a scene set in the then near future, after the end of the War, after Hitler “had got what was coming to him”. (Therefore you could say that this is a war film that flirts with science fiction of the alternate-history kind. Another one that does, in a very different way, is Inglourious Basterds, for reasons I won't spoil for you if you haven't seen it.) Its value as propaganda is obvious – and no doubt that's why the War Office loaned the services of men of the Gloucestershire Regiment, for which they are thanked in the opening credits. Value too as reassurance – just as well, as Went the Day Well? is far from reassuring under the surface and one of the darkest films to have been made by Ealing. You have to wonder if there were German films made at the time in which characters look back from a Third Reich victory. In that timeline, there's no doubt that Went the Day Well? would have been banned for many years, if not decades. Quaint period piece it is not. This is an Ealing film with, amongst other things, an axe murder.

After this prologue, we move back to wartime. In the sleepy English village of Bramley End, most of the non-juvenile or non-elderly menfolk are away fighting. Then there arrives a platoon of Royal Engineers led by Major Hammond (Basil Sydney). The villagers happily put the soldiers up, but soon suspicions are aroused. Stockport-bred Land Girl Ivy (Thora Hird) is surprised when a Mancunian soldier has not heard of Piccadilly (the Manchester one, not the London one). Continental-style elongated fives and slashed sevens raise eyebrows. For Major Hammond is really Kommandant Ortler, and his soldiers are a group of paratroopers at the advance of a planned invasion. Cut off from the outside (a plot point that would no longer hold water in later years with such new-fangled things as trunk dialling, let alone mobile phones – all calls have to be made through an operator), the villagers fight back.

An early shock moment is the shooting of the vicar (C.V. France), when he tries to ring the church bells to warn neighbouring villages. And when the villagers do fight back, Brazilian-born director Alberto Cavalcanti (billed simply as “Cavalcanti” in this his first feature) probably goes as far as contemporary censorship would allow in showing how they do just that, and with what gusto the villagers – including and especially the women – take to killing Germans with whatever comes to hand. As Anthony Nield says in his review of an earlier, 2003 edition of this film, many Ealing productions emphasise community spirit, but none quite in the way that Cavalcanti and his screenwriters (John Dighton, Diana Norman and Angus MacPhail, adapting a short story by Graham Greene) show it here.

As a film, Went the Day Well? is a very assured piece of work, strongly cast, with a careful build-up of tension in the first half before its release in the second. Wilkie Cooper's black and white camerawork is crisp and William Walton contributes a rousing music score. (Christopher Lee, who was twenty at the time, apparently has an uncredited role, but I didn't spot him.) With Turville, Buckinghamshire, standing in for Bramley End, this is very much a British film – as the Union Jack-backed end credit puts it – indeed an English one, and like some of its studiomates, it's quietly but decidedly subversive in what it shows us about ourselves.


Went the Day Well? was previously released on DVD in the UK by Warners as part of a boxset with three other Ealing Films. This dual-layered standalone release from Optimum uses a restoration by the BFI National Archive in conjunction with Optimum and its parent company StudioCanal. In some ways this disc resembles a BFI DVD, in its soundtrack (see below) and the fact that it's encoded for all regions instead of the Region-2-only encoding that's ubiquitous for Optimum releases. (There is also a Blu-ray edition. The affiliate links on this review refer to the DVD, but for Blu-ray links, go here.)

As Went the Day Well? was shot in Academy ratio, the DVD transfer is naturally in 4:3 with no anamorphic enhancement. It's an excellent transfer, sharp and with the contrast and greyscale so vital to monochrome films looking fine. Grain is natural and filmlike. There is some damage, in the form of minor scratches – see the brief shot of the sky and electricity pylons at 11:32 for an example – but nothing too distracting. The film opens with the BBFC card with its 1942 A certificate.

The soundtrack is uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0, instead of the Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono that most other Optimum releases uses. This plays in mono, as the film soundtrack was originally, but it's a full-bodied track with a surprising amount of bass, particularly noticeable in the explosions and gunfire in the latter stages of the film. And another bonus, not usually found on Optimum discs, is that there are English subtitles for the hard of hearing.

There are two extras. The first is a short film that Cavalcanti made in 1941, Yellow Caesar (22:31). This begins with a (presumably) added-on caption which states that the film “was made two years ago as an assessment – it is revived today as an obituary”. Though I suspect those words were spoken, or rather written, with forked tongue. This is a propaganda piece in a different vein, being a short biography of Benito Mussolini, played distinctly for mockery, making use of archive footage edited together by a future director, Charles Crichton.

The second extra is audio-only, an essay by Simon Heffer originally broadcast on Radio 3 on British Cinema of the 1940s and Went the Day Well? in particular (14:17). It begins by saying that British cinema of the time was drab and parochial compared to the industries of such as the USA and France and credits Cavalcanti, who had worked in France (and for Jean Renoir) before coming to England, with adding an at times shocking realism to Ealing's output and also suggests that this is a harbinger of a new reality that elected a post-war Labour government.

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