Went the Day Well? (1942): A Special Kind of War Film

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To view Went the Day Well? click here.

It always warms my heart to see how many Ealing Studios films we have stacked around here at FilmStruck. Rivaled perhaps only by Hammer Film Productions, it’s one of the most-loved brand names in British cinema, especially in its native country, and one I’ve happily brought up in the past. Most people associate Ealing with the classic run of comedies that became major international successes (often starring Alec Guinness), but its legacy runs so much deeper than that. One of the very best Ealing films, Went the Day Well? (1942) is a perfect example of how to make a wartime message film that goes so far beyond propaganda and still works like a charm today.

Much of the effectiveness lies in the portrayal of an English village that represents all the facets and values that viewers would have found worth protecting. Each characterization is vivid and tightly sketched thanks to the snappy script by respected playwright John Dighton (who also worked on 1949’s Kind Hearts and Coronets), Angus MacPhail (who wrote Hitchcock’s 1949 classic Spellbound) and Ealing veteran Diana Morgan, who wrote another one of my favorites, the noir-ish period film Pink String and Stealing Wax (1945). With firepower like that you’d expect this to be an impressive 93 minutes, but on top of that, the original short story (“The Lieutenant Died Last”) was written by none other than Graham Greene, one of the past century’s finest writers and a film legend for having penned The Third Man (1949). Are you sold yet? And in case you’re wondering the single-moniker director, Brazilian-born Cavalcanti, was fairly new to Ealing, having just directed the fascism-themed 1942 short Yellow Caesar (which you can see on the stellar British Blu-ray of this film if you’re keen on importing) and, during his brief time at the studio, would go on to direct The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947), Champagne Charlie (1944), and the gorgeous Christmas party segment of the legendary horror anthology, Dead of Night (1945).

This film isn’t exactly what you’d expect if you’re used to the mostly peaceful villages occasionally disrupted by a murder or two a la Agatha Christie or some Jane Austen-style romantic upheaval. Bear in mind that this was made just as World War II was kicking into overdrive, which gives a daring edge to the opening with Mervyn Johns (also from Dead of Night) addressing the camera and noting from the near future that Germany has been defeated and sent scrambling at the end of the war. The premise is simple: some British soldiers arrive in the sleepy Bramley End but turn out to be German soldiers in disguise, laying the ground for a possible invasion from the coast. Each villager is pressed into action in ways both big and small, with violent sacrifices and betrayals making the defense of England a hard-fought but worthy battle at home.

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It’s fascinating to see this film in the context of a production that opened just as the Axis was experiencing some setbacks and Germany was declared enemy number one by the four main Allied nations. You’ll hear lots of interesting tidbits in the conversations that set up the story – keep an ear out around the 22-minute mark as David Farrar (from 1947’s Black Narcissus) gives a wry account of being in France on the eve of Dunkirk in 1940. The elegant décor and careful framing of this scene (lots of sparkling crystal and cozy furniture) is an effective counterpoint to the discussion of enemies lurking in plain sight, and it sets viewers up for the mayhem to come as the veneer of civilized society is temporarily flipped upside down with prim and proper English citizens getting shot and blasted apart by grenades. (Don’t worry, you can still watch this one with the kids and isn’t graphic, but it doesn’t pull any punches either.)

In requisite war film fashion, we’re also tipped off early on that there might be a spy in the village’s midst, and… well, I won’t flat-out spoil it, but anyone familiar with famous movie villains shouldn’t have a hard time figuring out which actor is the likely culprit. The way the film uses conventions like these and gives them a little tweak is, I think, part of why it’s still so appealing now, and the ferocity of the action in the final stretch is still capable of catching viewers off guard. More than a few critics over the years have noted the similarities between this film and Jack Higgins’ The Eagle Has Landed (both the 1975 novel and the film version a year later), though you can find traces of it in other popular works like Ken Follet’s Eye of the Needle. Strangest of all, I always see a fun association between this film and the Disney classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), which also shows seaside English villagers arming up for a possible German nautical invasion – except with the use of magic spells and talismans instead of good old fashioned smarts and elbow grease. You won’t find any marching suits of armor fending off Nazis here, but the vibe still feels similar enough to make these two films a fun double feature.

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If you’re a British film fan (and especially of Ealing films), this title is also a treasure trove beyond its status as one of the finest war-themed films of its era. The always colorful Dame Thora Hird was just a newcomer here when she got to strut her stuff and wield a rifle long before she became a sitcom regular and appeared opposite Alan Bates in A Kind of Loving (1962), and veteran stage actor C.V. France can be seen here in one of his few significant film roles near the end of his career as Reverend Ashton. It’s always fun to see the welcome Elizabeth Allen, who had appeared in Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire and George Cukor’s David Copperfield during her Hollywood glory days in 1935, and of course the biggest name here is Leslie Banks, who had worked with Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Jamaica Inn (1939) and would go on to Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944). These are just a sample of the thespian talents on display and almost everyone gets a juicy moment or two, with enough little touches and clever lines to make this a film you’ll want to revisit more than once.

Nathaniel Thompson

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5 Responses Went the Day Well? (1942): A Special Kind of War Film
Posted By kingrat : August 30, 2017 1:00 am

Thanks for writing about this splendid film. It was a huge hit at the second TCM festival. Cavalcanti’s career spanned several countries, and I can’t help wondering what some of these unknown films are like.

Posted By doug : August 30, 2017 1:11 pm

Nate, you have come closest to convincing me to try ‘Filmstruck’. This sounds like a film that I would thoroughly enjoy. Thank you for writing about it here.

Posted By swac44 : August 30, 2017 8:21 pm

I was lucky enough to see this on the big screen at Cinefest in Syracuse, without knowing much about it. Luckily when the urge to share it with friends at home struck me a year later, I was able to source the out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD. It’s just as astonishing on repeat viewings with moments of humour balanced by others of tension and heroism.It comes down to Cavalcanti’s mastery at handling the tone, which is also apparent in his other films I’ve seen, The Made Me a Fugitive also comes to mind. I’d be curious to know why his feature career seems to peter out into the 1950s.

Posted By SergioM : September 3, 2017 3:14 pm

A true revelation when I saw a restoration of it a few years ago at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. I have the UK Studio Canal blu-ray of it (sorry it’s region B folks) but it would be a perfect Criterion release. And you ‘ll be surprised how violent it is. Of course nothing close to today’s standards but still pretty shocking and envelope pushing for it’s time. Did it even get any kind of US theatrical release back when it was released in the U.S.?

Posted By Linda Sandahl : September 4, 2017 1:14 am

When Winston Churchill said “We will never surrender,” it was not just hyperbole. If English people had needed to fight the enemy on the beaches, as the Prime Minister said, they would have done just that. That’s the spirit of this film.
It’s astonishing but completely convincing to see cozy, pipe-smoking church warden Mervyn Johns cooly dispatch a pair of German soldiers, or the Vicar’s spinster daughter take revenge on the Nazi sleeper agent, or the lsdy of the manor, the wonderful Marie Lohr, dispose of a hand grenade to protect the village children. It reminds us that beyond those bowler hats and endless cups of tea and stiff upper lips and friendly bobbies we’re so familiar with in the movies, these people have spines of steel.

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