Recently I’ve been working my way through Mark Cousins’ epic documentary THE STORY OF FILM (2011), and have been struck by just how many important and game-changing films in the history of cinema had their origins in political propaganda. From D.W. Griffith single-handedly inventing an entire toolbox of filmmaking techniques, to Chris Marker’s outstanding ¡CUBA SI! (1961) (guerrilla filmmaking at its best, I sadly can’t choose it here as it rightly made its way into Derek Malcolm’s top 100). In a way this makes perfect sense: with influence and resources a government is far more likely to call on the services of a visionary like Leni Riefenstahl rather than a journeyman director to create their folk myth or cult of personality.
Based loosely on the short story ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’ by Graham Greene, WENT THE DAY WELL? is an entertaining yet alarming piece of wartime propaganda, a field that includes such diverse films as CASABLANCA (1942) and THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943). ‘DIRECTED BY CAVALCANTI’ as the opening title informs us (like all talented Brazilians, he didn’t need a first name) and produced by Ealing studios, all the Ealing archetypes are here: the crusty old vicar, the poacher with a heart of gold, and the cheeky cockney urchin (“Do you know what morale is?” “Yer, somefink what the wops ain’t got”). The opening monologue spoken directly to camera by Mervyn Johns’ church warden, puffing on a pipe contemplatively in his churchyard, seems to indicate that we are in for some standard cosy Ealing fare, but what follows subverts that expectation entirely. From this opening we know the set-up before the unsuspecting villagers: a squadron of German soldiers masquerading as Royal Engineers infiltrate the sleepy village of Bramley End in the first stage of a full-scale invasion of the British isles. Presumably these fifth-columnists are a hand-picked selection of the Wehrmacht who speak the best English, although later on there is one feckless chap who lets the side down somewhat by struggling to remember the English for ‘no’. “They wanted England,” Johns tells us, pointing with his trusty pipe down to a grave in the churchyard, “and this is the only bit of it they got.”
There are two main ways in which WENT THE DAY WELL? serves effectively as a piece of wartime propaganda. The first and most obvious is the way the Germans are portrayed as emotionless and cruel drones as opposed to the courage and humanity displayed by the English villagers. There is a scene where the village postmistress asks if there is any truth to the rumours about the Germans sticking “babies on bayonets”, apparently a common myth during the First World War. “Babies on bayonets?” deadpans the German soldier, “what would be the tactical advantage?” The British censors might have banned all horror films for the duration of the war, but you could imagine these lines delivered by Arnie’s T-101. The second is more subtle but probably more important. The Germans are assisted in their plot by the traitorous village squire and coordinator of the local Home Guard Oliver Wilsford. This tweedy Quisling is played with great slime and sneer by Leslie Banks, and it’s in him that the film turns into a cinematic version of the ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ posters. The villagers accept the squadron into their homes, offer them food and beds, without any questions, and even when the plot is discovered their efforts to take back their village are constantly undermined by the spy within their ranks. The message to the masses seems to be: trust no one.
What’s most startling is quite how violent everything gets as the village folk begin to fight back. The vicar is executed in full view of his congregation for trying to ring the warning bell. The Home Guard, returning from training exercises, are torn down in seconds by machine gun fire. But the villagers respond in kind: the aforementioned postmistress beats the soldier to death with an axe in her sitting room, and it’s unnerving to see Thora Hird, in her film debut, gunning down enemy troops from a distance with a rifle, only to miss one and exclaim “Oh! Can’t even hit a sitting Jerry!”. It’s ‘Dad’s Army’ directed by Sam Peckinpah. Cavalcanti doesn’t skirt around the issue, the implication is that the villagers have themselves turned into monsters due to what must be done in the face of the enemy. Operation Sea Lion, the Nazi plan to invade the United Kingdom, had actually been abandoned in 1940, but to British audiences in 1942 the threat of invasion must have still seemed very real.
Alberto (for that was his mysterious first name) Cavalcanti had an eclectic career making films in his native Brazil, France and Britain. He would go on to direct the famous Michael Redgrave ventriloquist segment in the Ealing anthology horror film DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) and the grimy London gangster thriller THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE (1947), starring Trevor Howard.