I’m going with the US title for this remarkable film, better known under the more poetic title Went the Day Well? in the UK. Graham Greene was an author and critic who know both his jobs well; his pithy reviews are a pleasure to read, but when he stepped up to the plate for cinema, he displayed the gift of character and plot that made him one of the 20th century’s greatest authors. This Ealing Studios propaganda film from 1942 was adapted from one of Greene’s stories and made with the primary purpose of warning the British public about the dangers of a German invasion, and did that job effectively. But as a film, it’s gained in traction over the years, and now seems to have a wider, less specific but still relevant message that chimes in 2020.
Went The Day Well? immediately grabs the attention by being set in a alternate or parallel universe; the film starts after the war is over, and a local crusty-type (Mervyn Johns) chats away to the audience about events from the past, and specifically a list of German names on a village war memorial. He’s standing in the fictional village of Bramley’s End, and the film then flashes back to show how the villagers resist an infiltration by German parachutists, disguised as British troops, who are hoping to block radio transmissions and therefore lay the way clear for Hitler’s invasion forces. With Patricia Hayes and Thora Hird amongst the villagers, most are cooped up as hostages in the village church, while the others try to figure out how to notify the unaware authorities of the invasion.
There’s no ‘good Germans’ in this film; made at the height of the war, that’s no surprise. What is utterly shocking is how violent this film is; the death toll would suit a John Wick movie, and the relentless hail of hand-to-hand killings has the remorseless feel of a slasher film. Even the humble postmistress uses an axe to dispatch one attacker; all of the deaths are tersely described, with no gore, but huge impact in their brevity. And Green’s dialogue is choice; ‘I hope you won’t come home with the milk,’ a woman cheerfully admonishes her husband, while a German thinks his cover is blown when someone casually remarks “I hope your side win.’ The language of the villagers is quaint, as is the notion of giving brandy as medicine to children, but the personification of the Germans is brutal. ‘I’m sure we can spare you a bullet, but the children must die,’ says one. ‘You would do better for yourself to accept your situation’ says another with chilling logic. Alberto Cavalcanti’s film spares us nothing; as children cower behind an upturned bed, a matronly schoolteacher picks a grenade off the floor and calmly locks herself in the linen cupboard; the moment is more shocking than anything CGI could render.
There’s bags of suspense here, particularly given that members of the village community are double-agents, and don’t reveal themselves even after the German forces have taken over. But the wider message, ‘think for yourself and question authority’ still works outside of the specific situation described; the villagers of Bramley End die fighting, and they pay the price for their lack of suspicion of their elders and betters early on. 48 Hours/Went The Day Well? was cannibalised for 70’s Michael Caine action movie The Eagle Has Landed, but the no-nonsense, can-do attitude here will never be replicated. World War II is long gone, but the dangers of authoritarianism remain, and this electrifying film should be essential viewing in 2020.
Thanks to Studio Canal for access to this restored film.