By Helen Cox
Went the Day Well? is an unofficial propaganda film produced in 1942. Based on a short story by Graham Greene it realises a wartime nightmare as the small, fictional village of, Bramley End becomes overrun with Nazi invaders. Cut off from the outside world by their captors the villagers are left to overturn the forces of evil for themselves.
Although the setting is quaint and the accents often plumby at its core this film is deliciously dark with the director Alberto Cavalcanti unafraid to axe people to death, threaten young children and shoot priests to convey just how contemptible the Nazi forces were. At least, he’s not afraid to film character’s doing so; I should point out that Cavalcanti – to the best of my knowledge – has never done any of the above himself. As with most examples of propaganda there is a strange, conflicting undercurrent of ideas. Simultaneously people living in countries at war are expected to not trust anybody and pull together with those around them to defeat the true evil. Still, in a way, that must have been a dilemma that many people faced at the time and if somebody you had decided to trust turned out to be a spy, as happens in this film to great effect, it must have been an extremely difficult truth to deal with that not only caused you to question the allegiance of others around you but also your own judgement.
When it comes to wartime cinema this film is certainly one to watch but it’s fair to say that it is the story and engaging performances rather than the production values that keeps the audience enthralled. Rarely is there a departure from the standard medium shot, despite many an opportunity to vary the language of the camera, and when the director does use a close-up shot it tends to be focussed on a Brit smiling a little bit too excitedly after shooting down an enemy soldier. I’ve no doubt that a patriotic citizen of the time would be a little bit pleased for themselves for doing their duty but I’m not sure that in the midst of battle it calls for a full-on White Goodman-esque leer. Still, even this, admittedly, adds an amusing jot of colour from a 2011 perspective and I certainly wouldn’t deter people from watching Went the Day Well? on this basis as it is undeniably a thought-provoking and entertaining watch.
What Cavalcanti is clearly accomplished at, in terms of production, is the art of Mise en Scene. Our contemporary comrades stand in front of memorials to soldiers of the first World War reminding the audience of our history of resilience. Propaganda posters are surreptitiously pinned up about the sets and are made all the more poignant when the Nazis reveal themselves. This film is also alive with the look and feel and sound of wartime Britain. Everything from the jolly dance music spilling out from the wireless to the hum and of vintage cars oozes nostalgia making this film, if nothing else, a fascinating capsule of 1940s life.
Went the Day Well? Is now out on DVD and Blu-ray.
Look out for our special flashback feature on Ealing Studios in issue 3.