Cast & Crew
C. V. France
The residents of a British village during WWII welcome a platoon of soldiers who are to be billeted with them. The trusting residents then discover that the soldiers are Germans who proceed to hold the village captive.
C. V. France
Went the Day Well?
Went the day well?
We died and never knew.
But, well or ill,
Freedom, we died for you.
It was used again in World War II memorials, and it sets exactly the right mood for the eponymous English drama directed by Alberto Cavalcanti at Ealing Studios in 1942.
Loosely based on a 1940 magazine story by Graham Greene called "The Lieutenant Died Last," the movie begins in a small English graveyard. There a neighborly fellow turns to the camera and introduces the tale, mentioning a battle that took place in the area and telling how surprised the townsfolk were to discover that German infiltrators were living in their midst. A long flashback then tells what happened over the course of one long weekend in the not-too-distant past. The people of Bramley End are going quietly about their daily routines, mindful of the war but unaware of the intruders lurking nearby. Since we've been alerted by the gent in the churchyard, we notice clues that the characters overlook - the way local dignitary Oliver Wilsford seems to be poking around where he shouldn't, for instance, and the slightly odd behavior of some soldiers newly stationed in the town.
As additional evidence accumulates, the residents form suspicions that soon become certainties. Why does one of the new soldiers have an Austrian chocolate bar in his kit? Why do men scoring a game write numbers in the Continental manner - with crossed sevens and elongated fives - instead of the British manner? Everything comes into the open when the soldiers herd the townspeople into a church for an announcement, then reveal themselves as German paratroopers preparing the ground for a full-scale invasion by their country's army. Now the locals must be as resourceful as humanly possible, seeking ways to subvert the enemy and get word to their own authorities outside.
The most striking and surprising quality of Went the Day Well? is the unsparing savagery that uncoils from the deceptively mild roots of the folksy opening scenes. One of the first people killed is the town's harmless old vicar, murdered in cold blood when he tries to sound an alarm by ringing the church bell. Later the Germans mow down Home Guard soldiers on patrol, prepare to slaughter a group of children to punish adults for disobeying their orders, and gravely injure a young boy who manages to escape with a message to the British army. Making matters worse, some of the countermoves improvised by the residents turn into decisive failures, as when a young woman sneaks a plea for help into a box of eggs scheduled for a delivery that never happens, and when a message slipped into a visitor's pocket winds up being eaten by a mischievous dog. Despite such setbacks, the citizens of Bramley End land some resounding blows of their own, and they too can be savage. In what might be the film's most astonishing moment, a quick-witted woman talks soothingly to a German soldier, then throws pepper into his eyes and bashes in his skull with an axe, the only weapon at hand. Similarly shocking is the death of a society matron who saves the lives of others by sacrificing her own to a hand grenade. These are cases of improvised warfare with a vengeance.
Ealing was famous as a comedy studio before World War II, but Went the Day Well? was planned as a piece of benign propaganda meant to warn the British public about the very real threat of invasion by Nazi forces. That particular menace had subsided by the time the film arrived on British screens in December 1942, but the war was still raging and no one knew for certain that the Germans would lose, so the movie still served as a morale-boosting reminder that ordinary folks needed to keep up their courage, resilience, and tenacity in the face of ruthless foes who still posed mortal dangers to the world. More generally, the film celebrated the fortitude, community spirit, and old-fashioned pluck that Britons prided themselves on throughout the war.
Seen today, Went the Day Well? benefits from the nonstop energy and efficiency of Cavalcanti's directing, the crisp on-location camerawork by Wilkie Cooper, an unobtrusive score by the renowned composer William Walton, and sensitive acting by an excellent cast. The standouts include dapper Leslie Banks as the perfidious town squire; Basil Sydney as the leader of the German paratroopers; C.V. France as the vicar; Thora Hird and Elizabeth Allan as the women who cook up the egg-message scheme; Muriel George as the postmistress who dispatches a German with pepper and an axe; Hilda Bayley as the visitor with the hungry dog; Marie Lohr as the self-sacrificing dowager; Mervyn Johns as the chap who introduces the tale; and Edward Rigby as a likable poacher, one of the few elements from Greene's story to survive in the movie adaptation.
The film reached American theaters in June 1944, now called 48 Hours, since US audiences wouldn't recognize the original title as a famous quotation associated with the war. The reviewer for the New York Times saw it as a sort of western, writing that it "starts calmly," then builds momentum and culminates "in a blaze of shootin' and killin' the likes of which haven't been seen since Jack Dalton and his Horse Marines gave the Indians what for," referring to a trailblazer of the Yukon gold-rush days. Although this misses the movie's point, the critic acknowledges that even American viewers will keep saying, "This is all in fun," while gripping their armrests in suspense. More recently, the picture has been cited as a source of Jack Higgins's 1972 novel The Eagle Has Landed and John Sturges's 1976 movie based on it. Decades after Britain's darkest hours of the 1940s, Went the Day Well? remains a first-rate war movie and a vivid embodiment of the time and place that produced it.
Producer: Michael Balcon
Screenplay: John Dighton, Diana Morgan, and Angus Macphail; from a story by Graham Greene
Cinematographer: Wilkie Cooper
Film Editing: Sidney Cole
Art Direction: Tom Morahan
Music: William Walton
With: Leslie Banks (Oliver Wilsford), C.V. France (the Reverend Ashton), Valerie Taylor (Nora Ashton), Marie Lohr (Mrs. Fraser), Harry Fowler (George Truscott), Norman Pierce (Jim Sturry), Frank Lawton (Tom Sturry), Elizabeth Allan (Peggy Pryde), Thora Hird (Ivy Dawking), Muriel George (Mrs. Collins), Patricia Hayes (Daisy), Mervyn Johns (Charlie Sims), Hilda Bayley (Cousin Maud), Edward Rigby (Bill Purvis), Johnny Schofield (Joe Garbett), Basil Sydney (Kommandant Ortler, aka Major Hammond).
by David Sterritt