Sunday, 18 October 2015

Went The Day Well? (1942)

A superb wartime propaganda piece from Ealing and a classic war film, 1942's Went The Day Well? has its origins in a Graham Greene short story entitled The Lieutenant Died Last. Published two years earlier, Greene's story concerned a village poacher and Boer War veteran, who single-handedly foils the Nazis attempt to invade a sleepy rural English village. In the hands of Ealing writers John Dighton, Diana Morgan and Angus MacPhail, only the central premise is really kept, placing the action in fictional Bramley End (in reality, Turville, Oxfordshire) where the village squire Wilsford (Leslie Banks) has plotted with the Nazis, allowing a troop to surreptitiously arrive in the village disguised as British soldiers on manoeuvres, ahead of a full blown German invasion. The villagers are initially taken in by this recce group's perfect English, but  when they are eventually roused to the truth, they respond with a determined bravery, an impressive resourcefulness and some surprising ruthlessness.

It's a playful film and never more so than in the way it repeatedly offers its audience false hopes which are almost immediately cruelly dashed; land girls Ivy and Peggy (Thora Hird and Elizabeth Allan) smuggle a message written on an egg to the visiting delivery boy - but they're broken when the boy is knocked off his bike. The woman who is responsible, Mrs Fraser's visiting cousin (Hilda Bayley) is slipped a handwritten SOS by Fraser (Marie Lohr) - but frustratingly, the ditzy woman uses the note to hold in place her faulty car window. When it is dislodged, her pesky dog on the back seat quickly devours it.

But perhaps most cruelly of all, is the moment when one feel sure the tide will turn, the scene in which Muriel George's genial and stout old postmistress shows a surprising reserve of courage when she throws pepper into the eyes of her billeted German soldier, before violently finishing the blinded man off with an axe. Immediately after, she is attempting to place an SOS through to the nearby town's switchboard but her past gossiping means the girls there aren't keen to answer her straight away, allowing a German solider to exact his revenge with his bayonet. It's a remarkable scene, raising and dashing our hopes as well as stirring our senses in the most surprising of ways. I defy anyone not to feel something at her seemingly casual confession before she strikes out at her soldier concerning what she believes to have been her greatest misfortune - the inability to bring a child into the world. Her comment that she blamed her husband, whilst he blamed her, says so much in such a short space of time, of the still waters that run deep in seemingly provincial, ordinary lives. It's in that playfulness that the film's key message; the indiscriminate nature of evil, how it will take life regardless of dreams, ambitions or unfulfilled potential, can and will strike in wartime and that people must watch against it. I can only imagine how palpable such a sobering message felt in the hearts and minds of the audiences of the day.

Ultimately, it's down to plucky young Harry Fowler as evacuee George to break across country to raise the alarm in the town as Frank Lawton's sailor on leave leads the rebellion in the heart of the village. In its tale of ordinary villagers performing extraordinary heroics, Went The Day Well? both serves as a vital propaganda piece during the dark days of the invasion threat (although it was released somewhat after such crisis) as well as providing a comment on class in British society - it's no accident, that the middle class squire is the villain of the piece, whilst the poachers, village bobbies, vergers, land girls, children and housewives etc are on the side of the angels.

And lastly...

...You don't mess with a gun totin' Thora Hird!

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