' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Went the Day Well? (1942)

Friday, June 05, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Went the Day Well? (1942)

“Went the Day Well?” opens with a scene in which our gentlemanly narrator (Mervyn Johns) explains to the camera that Nazi Germany has already been vanquished in WWII, which, considering this is 1942, three years before V-E Day, marks it as something of a self-confident bit of British wartime agitprop. But director Alberto Cavalcanti is employing that chest-puffing against itself, creating a film that looks like conventional propaganda before coolly twisting into something much more insidious.


The narrator also advises us that the unit of English soldiers arriving in Bramley-End, a fictitious village, as the film opens are Nazis. Though this revelation removes suspense, it unnerves the otherwise genteel tone of these establishing scenes all to hell, witnessing the ease with which Hitler’s thugs blend in with its idyll. They so succinctly slip into the mannerly attitude of the locals with whom they converse, like the Vicar (C.V. France) and his daughter, Nora (Valerie Taylor), you can’t help but wonder what the locals might be hiding. You can’t help but wonder what we all might be hiding.

Naturally, of course, the enemy betrays itself, both with penmanship and chocolate bars. This doesn’t mean all of Bramley-End immediately deciphers the ruse, partly due to the treacherous efforts of the town’s squire, Wilsford (Leslie Banks), like a Nazi sleeper spy, who has the trust of the town but is actually working for the other side. Even so, upon realizing they’ve been compromised, if only by a few, they act, rounding up the villagers and imprisoning them in the church. Escape attempts are made. People are killed. No one is safe. Yet the tone still feels feathery and polite until Mrs. Collins (Marie Lohr), the kindly, portly manager of the post, the sort you picture with pies sitting on the windowsill to cool, puts a hatchet into a Nazi.

It’s a thunderbolt unlike any I can recall in cinema. And it’s made so much more prominent in hindsight, considering the conversation that builds to the killing, with Mrs. Collins offering her captor some food and making mention of the infamous bit of at-the-time propaganda that Germans were putting babies on the ends of bayonets. Her captor rebuts: “Babies on bayonets? What would be the advantage?” It’s remarkable because the film is essentially countering that wartime hype with a stunning dose of level-headedness from a supposedly all-evil, all-the-time Nazi. He knows that it’s just inflated poppycock to scare people. She doesn’t care. Fuck this guy.

From there, “Went the Day Well?” comes to resemble “Red Dawn”, John Milius's 1984 Cold War pseudo-epic in which Colorado teenagers form a makeshift militia behind enemy lines to counter a communist invasion. That film, however, was deadly serious and tenaciously nationalistic. That was straight-up propaganda with little subtext, preferring to wear its jingoist pride on its sleeve. “Went the Day Well?” is as essentially violent as “Red Dawn”, which is saying something for a 1942 film, but it’s more devious and much more terrifying. When Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey are firing machine guns, they're inviting everyone at home, young and old, to wrap themselves in the flag and make-believe take up arms with them; when land girls Ivy (Thora Hird) and Peggy (Elizabeth Allan) in “Went the Day Well?” take up rifles it is surreally comic. They’re gunning dudes down and literally keeping score. They may as well as be Frederick Zoller.


After its release, the film wasn’t so much lost as kind of forgotten, until a restoration in 2011 where it was re-evaluated to significant fanfare. And that seems right. It seems like a movie made less for reflection in a moment when the whole world was galvanized then looking back after the fact to note what such galvanization yields. It makes me wonder how people might view “Red Dawn” 60, 70 years from now. Perhaps it will look like Reagan-era ridicule when, in the moment, it felt, as Janet Maslin wrote for The New York Times in 1984, “incorrigibly gung-ho.” Take Nora, who transforms from a stereotypical spinster, like Anne Elliot in Bramley-End, into a ruthless assassin. When she discovers Wilsford is a traitor, she grabs a gun and, cool as a cucumber, marches right up to the bastard and puts a bullet in his head. You wonder how such a brutally violent moment got past stuffy British censors of the era and then it dawns on you – they were probably applauding Nora. After all, Wilsford’s just a kraut.

War movies so often want to spend significant time ruminating on what lies in - to quote 2Pac - the heartz of men. “Went the Day Well?” never ruminates. When it's on, it's on. At war, whatever the cause, all our blood runs cold.

1 comment:

John P said...

Just watched this movie and really enjoyed your review of it.
One point that I didn't really agree with, though.

"It’s remarkable because the film is essentially countering that wartime hype with a stunning dose of level-headedness from a supposedly all-evil, all-the-time Nazi. He knows that it’s just inflated poppycock to scare people."

Answering " What would be the advantage?" to the charge of bayoneting babies is not level-headedness nor "countering hype" at all. It shows the Nazi's chillingly callous efficiency at the expense of everything else including a moral compass. He doesn't deny killing babies because it is about as morally repugnant an act as is possible to commit, he denies it merely because logically there's nothing to be gained from it thus the implication is that if there was ever an advantage to be gained from it we can be sure he would have no qualms about doing it. In other words the Nazis will literally do anything to gain an "advantage". So, as a character pointed out to Colonel Blimp in another great British wartime movie, ( The Life Death of Colonel Blimp) against such an obscene enemy fighting fair is not an option, hence the axe to the head.
Propaganda of course, but subtly done.