WENT THE DAY WELL? —-startling British propaganda rouser from 1942, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti. Graham Greene’s short story “The Lieutenant Dies Last” was adapted and expanded by screenwriter team John Dighton (Kind Hearts And Coronets, Roman Holiday), Angus MacPhail and Diana Morgan. Made when there was still some worry about England being invaded by Hitler’s Germany, it serves as both a reassuring buck-up to the national spirit through its assortment of British ‘types’ and an extra-harsh depiction of the enemy as essentially bestial. The prologue and epilog are set in a postwar future, presuming that there had been an invasion attempt and that the Allies not only stopped it, but went on to prevail in the war. In 1942 that was still in doubt. *
England, WW2. Spring in the proto-Brit village of ‘Bramley End’ sees the locals warmly welcoming a platoon of soldiers, needing billeting during maneuvers. Soon enough, curiosity over odd behavior becomes suspicion which turns to shock when the troops are revealed to be a vanguard element for invasion, fully disguised, complete with deft English-speaking officers. As the residents—women, over-age men and kids—strategize how to fight back, they’re further burdened by a traitor in their midst. Do or die time.
The final mop-up (when real British soldiers arrive) has some clumsily handled action, but the preceding one-on-one bouts the villagers dole out and/or receive are pretty vicious for the time. Beyond the violence quotient is the culture clash.When the enemy are unmasked (hey, that’s not English chocolate!), their politeness veneer shreds to show a ‘Hun’ coarseness underneath, even down to gobbling food like hogs (Germans don’t have table manners!). They shoot the elderly pastor, in the back, during church service: hardly sporting. When one of the ladies accuses the occupiers of skewering children (a classic propaganda charge from the First World War), a ‘Jerry’ simply shrugs it off with “Babies on bayonets? What would be the advantage?”
The swinish turncoat is Leslie Banks (immortal as the man-poacher of The Most Dangerous Game). The gallant villagers include Valerie Taylor, Mervyn Johns (Dead of Night), Elizabeth Allan, Frank Lawton (later to skulk-abandon ship in A Night To Remember), Marie Lohr, Thora Hird and C.V. France. In a bit as a hamlet wee one is Janette Scott, age 3 in her first part: the daughter of supporting player Hird, the grown-up Ms. Scott would later face a different kind of invader in 1962’s The Day Of The Triffids. In key slots dispensing grunts, sneers and brutality as the invidious ‘Hun/Jerry/Boche’ are Basil Sydney, David Farrar (The 300 Spartans), James Donald (The Bridge On The River Kwai) and John Slater.
Along with a number of actors who’d become familiar, in the crew were cameramen Wilkie Cooper (Mysterious Island, Jason And The Argonauts) and Douglas Slocombe (The Blue Max, The Great Gatsby), along with composer William Walton (Henry V). Well acted, directed and written (bucolic humor blended in), the tense, surprisingly savage story runs 92 minutes.
* There were just a handful of British-made war films in 1942, because–well, there was a war on, and England had not been faring well waging it. Disasters in France, Norway, North Africa, the Mediterranean and Singapore, along with the Blitz, pressed Britain’s military reputation and national identity to the wall. The highest praise and box-office success went to Noel Coward’s tour de force In Which We Serve. Another entry was The First Of The Few/Spitfire with Leslie Howard and David Niven, both back in Blighty from Hollywood. Across the Atlantic, with the U.S. now in the fray, Britain was saluted that dark year in the huge hit Mrs. Miniver, and a few lesser items such as The Pied Piper. Even a famous detective was updated to fight the Nazis, so Basil Rathbone delivered snooty blows with Sherlock Holmes And The Secret Weapon and Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. None of these were as fierce as Went The Day Well?, which had the Germans portrayed with as much “the other” venom as American war movies used primarily on the Japanese.
Hindsight shows 1942’s routing of the German and Italian armies from North Africa, Japan’s naval debacle at Midway and the Russian victory at Stalingrad turned the tide so that January 1st of ’43 would look more promising than the previous unhappy New Year, but there was still a long, terrible way to go. Present-day viewing of war-effort movies made during the conflict draws flak and even censure over negative cultural depictions (Germany and Italy) and racial incitement (Japan). Yes, saying mean or stupid things to blanket indict an entire people is not a good thing. That said, it’s also instructive to factor in exactly what the Nazi and Imperial Japanese war machines were responsible for when fluttering your hands in safely removed outrage. Over slurs. Proffered in a previous century. During a life or death battle. For survival.