Review for Went The Day Well (Special Edition)
There are 'war films' (like '633 Squadron') which were made after WWII and which bore little relation to reality - and there are 'war films' like this one made in the midst of it where the intent was entirely to get people to sit up and see the reality.
In Britain's sleepy non-coastal villages and towns the prospect of a genuine German invasion during World War II seemed pretty remote. And in any case - even if it did happen it would be like those cheery humorous songs ('Everything Stops for Tea') and it would all be a bit of a lark.
It was decided that Britain needed a shake up and films were just the way to do it. 'Went the Day Well' is unquestionably a propaganda film. The fact that it is wildly entertaining and absolutely gripping merely explains why it was such an effective one.
Based on a Graham Greene short story, the title gave little away - particularly as it posed a question. One which it hoped viewers would be able to answer positively each day after thinking about the film's central message.
The film starts in the quiet sleepy village of Bramley End in Hampshire (actually Turville near Windsor) where a regiment of 'British' soldiers arrive, supposedly on manoeuvres. Nothing strange about that is there? But why is one of the men so nasty to an inquisitive school-boy? ('He behaved almost as badly as a German!') And why does one of them carry some chocolate in their bag spelled in the German way? And what the devil are the men doing writing their card game scores with a continental '7' with a line through it. Oh dear. Could it be that they are …gulp…Germans?
Though it takes a while for the naïve villagers to cotton on, as soon as they so the cosy idyll of everyday life takes a sinister turn. Once they have been rumbled, they hold the bulk of the village as prisoners in the local church, shooting and killing the vicar who tries to sound the alarm via his church-bells. And that's just the start of the cruelty.
When some of the men make a run for it and the escape is foiled (one of the most trusted villagers is actually a German collaborator), they threaten to kill some of the village children as a lesson.
And when the post-mistress overwhelms the guard who is keeping her a prisoner she is brutally bayoneted to death.
There is even a scene where one of the films warmest characters throws themselves on to a hand grenade to save the children in the room.
The film goes from familiar Ealing cosiness to outright mayhem and outrage in moments. It is not comfortable viewing, though makes its point very powerfully.
Naturally the villagers are not going to take it lying down and before long they manage to start the fight back - with great courage and community spirit winning the day, where even the children of the village play a vital role.
Despite this being a quintessentially British film, its director, Alberto Cavalcanti was Brazilian by birth and moved to England in 1933. He worked originally as a sound engineer for the GPO film unit, and then as a short film Director for Michael Balcon before making 'Went the Day Well' which was actually his very first feature.
This new edition boasts a careful re-mastering and, compared to a vanilla 'newspaper freebie' version that I already have, it looks excellent. The Blu-Ray, I imagine will look even better. It's by no means a perfect print (this is a very old film after all) but when it's good, it's very good with a deep contrast and rich blacks and lesser speckle than the freebie version.
There are also a couple of very worthwhile and entertaining extras. 'Yellow Ceaser' is a 22 minute documentary made by Cavalcanti which takes a look at the 'bullying and cowardly' life of Mussolini, using archive footage to tell the story of the 'Yellow Ceaser's' life. It's a fascinating if slightly less than impartial view which sets out to tell the tale of a tyrant by showing the tendencies towards such behaviour pretty much from birth.
The second extra is a charmingly formal reading of an essay on War Time cinema (BBC Radio 3 The Essay - British Cinema of the 1940s) which originally aired in September 2010) which is an audio only piece and runs for 15 minutes. It features 'Went the Day Well?' very heavily by way of illustration.
'Went the Day Well?' is an excellent film in its own right but also fascinating as a sample of British wartime propaganda. This handsome new edition is clearly the one to go for and is thoroughly recommended.