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August 2011

Went The Day Well?

cast: Leslie Banks, Valerie Taylor, David Farrar, Frank Lawton, and Thora Hird

director: Alberto Cavalcanti

92 minutes (PG) 1942
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum DVD Region 2

RATING: 10/10
review by J.C. Hartley

Went The Day Well?

Directed by the Brazilian-born Alberto Cavalcanti, who came to prominence in this country with the GPO film unit, this is a superb Ealing propaganda film from the middle part of WW2, which, for the most part, eschews drum-beating for suspense and action. I saw this a long time ago on TV and my memory of it was somewhat adrift. When the German parachute division take over the village of Bramley End, I recalled the villagers as gradually resorting to murder to free themselves, a resolution that aroused equivocal feelings in my younger self, as if the film was a companion piece to Powell and Pressburger's The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, made the following year. The latter film brought Churchill's ire for the suggestion that the only way Britain could win the war was to fight dirty. In fact, the villagers here end up taking on the Germans in a proper shoot-'em-up, but not before other methods have failed.

The idyllic village of Bramley End, one of those places we have a surfeit of 'darn sarf', is visited by a platoon of royal engineers, come to test the readiness of local defences in the event of invasion. Soon enough, despite the impeccable English accents, it is revealed that these 'tommies' are really an advance column of Germans, digging in to block British radio signals for the forthcoming Nazi invasion of Britain. Invasion plans had largely been put on hold by this time, following the Battle of Britain, so the film's message was largely to 'be prepared' rather than scare-mongering propaganda.

Local decent sort Mr Wilsford (Leslie Banks) secret 'pash' of the vicar's daughter Nora (Valerie Taylor, wow - she was in Polanski's Repulsion!) turns out to be a fifth-columnist. After a couple of mistakes by the imposters, continental sevens on a score-sheet for cards and a bar of Viennese chocolate, all pretence is dropped, and the villagers are interned in the church. The vicar is shot attempting to ring the bells to sound the invasion alert. The Home Guard, returning from an exercise on their bicycles, are mowed down by machine-guns.

Some attempts to sound a warning go wrong. A message on an egg doesn't get through, when the eggs are smashed. Local gossip and telephonist Mrs Collins takes out the soldier billeted on her with a face-full of pepper and the fireside hatchet, but is bayoneted for her trouble. Then naughty evacuee George (Harry Fowler, who made a career of playing spiv-like cockneys in later life) gets through to warn another local Home Guard officer; meanwhile, the villagers escape from the church and wreak destruction on their captors. Mr Wilsford gets what he deserves when Nora empties a pistol into him, but brave lady of the manor Mrs Fraser sacrifices herself saving the village kids from a grenade.

There is a framing commentary by a villager showing where the dead Germans are buried in the local churchyard, the only bit of England they got, the traditional offer to would-be invaders. The title comes from verse written for epitaphs for war-dead, and the original story is by Graham Greene. The film contains Thora Hird's first major film role, setting the tone for a career as a plucky no-nonsense lass. Cavalcanti is famous among fans of British horror for directing 'the Ventriloquist's Dummy' episode in the portmanteau feature Dead Of Night, also for Ealing, in 1945.

Extras on this DVD presentation include another short film by Cavalcanti, Yellow Caesar - a satirical look at the rise of Benito Mussolini, and an audio feature on the film from a BBC Radio 3 essay on British cinema of the 1940s.



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