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Went the Day Well?

Entry updated 23 February 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (1942). Ealing Studios. Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti. Written by John Dighton, Angus MacPhail and Diana Morgan from a Graham Greene story, "The Lieutenant Died Last" (29 June 1940 Collier's Weekly). Cast includes Leslie Banks, Muriel George, Thora Hird, Mervyn Johns, Basil Sydney, Valerie Taylor. 92 minutes. Black and white.

This effective World War Two film is narrated by Charles Sims (Johns), a survivor of the brutal Nazi occupation of the village of Bramley End in 1942 (see Hitler Wins), who is only now telling us his tale from a point sometime in the Near Future after the German Invasion of England has finally been defeated, and the war has been won by the allies. The story is relatively simple. With the help of the local squire Oliver Wilsford (Banks), who is a fifth columnist, Germans disguised as British soldiers slip into bucolic Bramley End: but any attempt to remain covert is spoiled by their instinctive brutality. Several villagers – notably the brave postmistress Mrs Collins (George) – lose their lives; the squire betrays an attempt by the Home Guard to warn the world of the occupation, with more lives lost. Finally a young boy, though wounded, gets through to the outside world. In a final deadly battle, with further deaths vividly depicted, the British army defeats the Germans, and the treacherous squire is killed by Nora Ashton (Taylor), the vicar's daughter.

It cannot be expected that a film made for propaganda purposes should demonstrate much subtlety. As soon as their deception is exposed, the Germans are dutifully brutal; and the squire is, expectably, thoroughly despicable. That he is the only traitor in the village may demonstrate a public awareness that in Britain until 1939 at least a significant proportion of Nazi sympathizers were from the upper classes. Hitler Wins tales like D J Taylor's The Windsor Faction (2013) or Jo Walton's Small Changes trilogy are predicated on this circumstance. In Went the Day Well? the moments of doomed serenity before the penny drops and treason manifests itself are movingly filmed; the action is never grotesque, and indeed seems, more than half a century later, astonishingly restrained, losing none of its impact on account of that restraint. The score was by William Walton. Graham Greene's story was inevitably modified in the shaping of the film; its makers may well also have been influenced by Colonel G A Wade's British Home Guard pamphlet, The Defense of Bloodford Village (1940 chap), whose purpose was to give advice on how to resist a widely-expected invasion.

The film's title must have had a double impact for its first audiences. It is the titular first line of a well-known World War One "epitaph" poem (6 February 1918 The Times) by John Maxwell Edmonds (1875-1958); but uttered aloud as a "casual" greeting, it sounds rather like a German infiltrator trying to sound English. [JC]


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