Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 release of Ealing Classics DVD Collection: Went the Day Well?, the fourth of four reviews covering Warner Bros’ Ealing Classics DVD Collection box set.
Went the Day Well? opens with Mervyn Johns addressing the camera directly. He shows a simple gravestone which denotes the presence of a number of dead Germans in the small village of Bramley End, and proceeds to introduce the tale that relays their fate.
By presenting the story of Went the Day Well? in flashback, the film immediately pronounces its propagandist aims. Made in 1942, and therefore during World War II, this tale of a small scale Nazi invasion in Middle England would probably have faced censorship problems if it had not from the start announced its happy ending. And yet, the film is remarkably dark in terms of propaganda, the output of Ealing Studios, and indeed 1940s cinema as a whole.
Moreover, director Alberto Cavalcanti uses this framing device to great advantage. His first feature length film in English (his career to this point having encompassed a number of works in his native France and the experimental short Coal Face for the GPO film unit), the director is remarkably assured in his dealing of the subject. The expected invasion doesn’t occur until half an hour into the picture, and as such Cavalcanti is able to toy endlessly with the audience during the first third. As well as the frankly daring casting of Leslie Banks as a fifth columnist, the dialogue constantly makes sly hints towards the less than benign activities that are occurring under a seemingly innocent military exercise. Set wholly in the village for its duration, Went the Day Well? therefore features a number of female characters, and it is in their lines of simple gossip (“Why you’re no better than a German!” and “I refuse to see anything sinister in an elongated five”) that a blackly comic edge resides. Of course, this playful nature and its implicit sinisterness also serve to produce a huge amount of tension as the film builds up to its inevitable violence.
It is from this violence that Went the Day Well? gains its true strength. Despite being made in 1942, the film pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to depicting brutality. Indeed, the idea of such a thing occurring in a small village is shocking enough, yet Went the Day Well? goes one step further and offers a number of genuine shock moments. The first death is that of village vicar (who, of course, has been introduced into the film at an early stage, so it is not simply an anonymous individual meeting his fate), and as the story progresses we are witness to a sudden ambush on the Home Front, and a genuinely appalling hand grenade incident. Moreover, it is nothing short of remarkable to see the female characters especially (including Thora Hird!) indulging in the cold blooded murder of their enemies via the use of whatever tool comes to hand, and doing so with such relish.
The film also proves remarkable when compared to those other “community spirit” Ealing films which were produced a few years later. Whilst the likes of Passport to Pimlico, The Titfield Thunderbolt and especially Alexander Mackendrick’s Whisky Galore! possess a worthy sardonic humour, none of them can hold a candle to the sheer blackness of the material on display in Went the Day Well? Indeed, it is also this quality that separates the film from other “Britain invaded” pictures, amongst which you can include Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s 1963 docudrama It Happened Here and the messy Jack Higgins adaptation The Eagle Has Landed. Whilst these films have their individual merits (though the former has considerably more than the latter), Went the Day Well? doesn’t sit too easily in their company. A more astute connection is with that of the horror genre, or more particularly, the slasher pic. Consider the slow building of tension during the opening scenes; the dispatching of characters via various stabbings, shootings and even an axe attack; the slightly upbeat ending despite all that has occurred during the film’s duration. Strange as it may seem, there is a genuine affinity with these and one all the more fitting considering its dealings with warfare.
Which, of course, marks Went the Day Well? as the finest of all the propaganda flicks that Great Britain was producing at the time. The likes of The Foreman Went to France and The Lion Has Wings are undoubtedly fine examples of British filmmaking, though neither of them attempts to deal with the horrors of war in such an explicit manner. Indeed, the filmmakers’ never forget that this is, above all else, a propaganda film, the final image being that of the Union Jack with the words “A British Film” emblazoned across it in capital letters.
Fittingly for the best picture included in Warner Bros’ ‘Ealing Classics DVD Collection’, Went the Day Well? is given the best presentation of the lot. Whilst there are no extras, as is the case with the other pictures, the picture quality is markedly superior. Of course, a film dating from 1942 is going to offer the occasional scratch and blemish, though these are remarkably infrequent. More importantly, the print remains crisp throughout, displaying Wilkie Cooper’s fine photography as best it can. Soundwise, the disc is equally fine, presenting the original mono with little in the way of hiss and remaining clear throughout. All in all, a superb presentation for a superb film.
This disc is only available as part of the Ealing Classics DVD Collection box set. The other titles featured are Dead of Night, Nicholas Nickleby and Scott of the Antarctic.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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