Made at the height of World War Two, Went the Day Well is a British film that deserves revisiting from time to time. What probably started as an Ealing film destined as much for propaganda as entertainment, has become recognised- after a long period of critical neglect – as one of the finest war films made during the conflict itself.
Although released in 1942, the presumption of the plot is that the war is now over, and Hitler’s invasion of Britain has failed. It starts in the churchyard at the fictional village of Bramley End (actually filmed at Turville in Buckinghamshire) where a villager (Mervyn Johns) shows the audience a mass grave of German soldiers. ‘The only piece of England they got’.
We then flash back to the ‘Battle of Bramley End’. Set against a fictional invasion of England, a group of Germans disguised as British soldiers infiltrate the village as a vanguard. Now this might sound very familiar to admirers of Jack Higgins’ later classic book and film The Eagle Has Landed. (see blogs passim). And there are certainly similarities, though Higgins takes the initial premise in interesting new directions.
After seventy-four years it’s probably hard to appreciate the effect a screening of this film might have had on contemporary audiences. A picture postcard village, the kind of image we all have in mind when we think of rural England, taken over by Nazis, who act with some considerable brutality as they round up the villagers and herd them into the lovely old village church, even killing the vicar as he attempts to ring the bells as an alarm.
Two years after the Battle of Britain, and Hitler’s aborted invasion plan Operation Sealion, the British people might have been feeling safe from any thoughts of Nazis storming through English country lanes. If so, this film must have stunned its early audiences out of their complacency.
And not just Nazis. Fifth-columnists as well, traitors prepared to work with Hitler’s invading troops. In a stunning piece of casting (no spoiler here, for this revelation comes early in the film) popular British film star Leslie Banks is cast as the traitor. Although he’d played villains before, this revelation of an English village squire being in league with Hitler probably added to the shock value of the film.
In point of fact there was never the reality of a mass pro-Hitler Fifth Column in Britain, as there had been in some other countries in occupied Europe. But there were a number of potential traitors. Making Leslie Banks the traitor, so very English, good-looking, his character well-loved in the village, was inspired casting.
The idea of a Fifth-Columnist coming from the British Establishment is not at all far-fetched. After the evacuation of the British army at Dunkirk, when Britain was forced to stand alone against a possible Nazi invasion, a number of English landowners pressed for surrender in the hope of holding on to their vast estates. A few had considerable sympathy for the Third Reich. I used this idea in my own pre-war set thriller Balmoral Kill.
But just when the village of Bramley End is sealed off by the invaders, the villagers show unexpected courage and start fighting back. You can almost hear wartime audiences cheering by this point. I won’t spoil it for you, but I think it’s fascinating that the most gentle of the villagers are the ones forced to take the most violent actions.
The film is shot in magnificent black and white, which aids the period feel, and is based very loosely on a short story by Graham Greene, called The Lieutenant Died Last. Apart from Leslie Banks and Mervyn Johns it boasts a cast of magnificent British actors, including early appearances by Thora Hird and Harry Fowler. The direction by Cavalcanti, so familiar a name to so many fans of Ealing pictures, gives a tenseness that rarely relaxes its grip.
Went the Day Well is one of the best accounts of a Britain caught up in a terrifying war where the threat of invasion and occupation had never gone away.
There never was a Battle of Bramley End, of course, but there might have been.
Although Britain suffered badly in the Blitz from aerial attack, there was no ground invasion as there had been in so many countries around the world. But as you walk through our countryside today and see the preparations for defence against attack; the tank-traps, pill-boxes and defence lines, all covering killing-grounds that were fortunately never used, or look into the history of the Home Guard, you come very close to what might have been.
The title of the film by the way, comes from an epitaph poem written in 1918 by John Maxwell Edmonds, which has been used since then on so many British war memorials, often misquoted from the original. As this is also the anniversary week of the opening of the Battle of the Somme, I quote it here in its original form:
Went the day well?
We died and never knew.
But, well or ill,
Freedom, we died for you.
When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrows these gave their today.
Here’s a link if you want more information about the film: