Tuesday, 19 June 2007

'Went the Day Well?' Movie (1942)

Like me your probable response to this question on most days is 'no'. However, it gives me an opportunity to talk about another old favourite film, partly as a remedy to all the car and housing problems.

'Went the Day Well?' (1942) (known as 'Forty-Eight Hours' in the USA) was unique among wartime films. It was directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, his first film for the Ealing Studios, based loosely on a short story by the great author, Graham Greene, 'The Lieutenant Died Last' (an unfortunately uninspired title). It is set in a small rural English village called Bramley End, insignificant except that it is near an important communications tower. The film was made rather too late as by 1942 the threat of German invasion of Britain was clearly over, the threat had been genuine through the Summer of 1940 and even into 1941, but was effectively over following the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 and the outbreak of war between the USA and Germany in December 1941. The movie is sometimes portrayed as a simplistic film of good vs. evil, but as one would expect from something coming initially from Greene who also contributed to the screenplay, it is a lot subtler than that, something many people overlook. Do not read on until you have seen the movie as I give away a lot of the twists.

Uniquely for a wartime movie, the story starts after the war is over, it assumed that Britain has been victorious and an old man shows the audience a war memorial in Bramley End for 40 dead German troops and then takes us back to the incident that led to this. Portraying the war as over in this way was not done in any other film of the time, so this is one unique point. The story we are shown is that German paratroopers land in rural England and working with a local agent, the squire, Oliver Wileford aim to destroy a local communications tower ahead of the general German invasion. The film is filled with stereotypes of English rural life from the poacher to the post mistress to refugee children from London to local farmers and a sailor home on leave, yet a key figure of the village, the main landowner is shown as a traitor. Such division within the community was again not usually portrayed in this way. The German troops kill the local Home Guard platoon and begin to move on the communications tower which is vital to knock out to help the following German forces.

Bit-by-bit people in the village begin to work out something is going on. Most of the German speak perfect English and appear to be a British army unit, but the clever locals work it out. Like many villages across Europe, the villagers are locked up in the church and have to engineer and escape and fight back against the invaders. There are typical wartime scenes indicating that sacrifice can save the community. The poacher along with a London refugee scallywag tries to get a message through to neighbouring village but is shot, the boy gets through ultimately bringing home, showing that he can be redeemed by working for the good of the community. What is striking though is the level of violence and much of it by women, in itself rare for the time. Daisy at the post office, when she realises it is a German rather than an British soldier in her kitchen throws pepper in his eyes and puts a hatchet in his head, then is bayoneted by another soldier. The two Land Girls (women drafted to work on farms - one acted by Thora Hird, the first role in her decade-spanning career) barricaded in the manor house keep score of all the Germans they shoot dead and notably the uptight middle class Nora shoots Oliver who she has had a close relationship with, when she finds out he is a traitor. Mrs. Frazer the local busybody and organiser of housing the refugees grabs a live handgrenade thrown into the big house and runs into another room with it to save the children. None of it is a spot on the violence in the movies today, but it was unusual to have that level of personal violence. Ultimately the Germans' plan is thwarted by the arrival of regular British troops, but a lot of the defence of the village is down to the locals, especially the women.

The story was reused in 'The Eagle Has Landed' (a book by Jack Higgins in 1975 and a movie starring Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Jenny Agutter and Larry Hagman in 1976). This time the plot is to assassinate Winston Churchill whilst he is staying in the village of Studley Constable (the village names in both films are typical of ones you find in rural England) with the force led by Oberst Kurt Steiner (Caine) who is being punished for defying the SS on the Eastern Front. Sutherland is an IRA man sympathetic to the Nazis, Liam Devlin, put in place to help, and has a sort of romance with Agutter's character, Molly Prior. As in 'Went the Day Well?' there is a local traitor, a South African woman Joanna Grey (South Africa was supposedly allied to the UK, being part of the British Empire, but many South Africans were sympathetic to Germany) who wants to punish the British for what was done to her family in the British concentration camps during the Boer War. Though ultimately Grey only kills the silly US Colonel Pitt (Hagman). It is interesting that through Devlin and Grey and having Steiner seem very human, there is criticism as much of the UK's history as of Germany's.

What this 'remake' shows, is that the basis of a good story is enduring and that war reduced down to a local level engages with more people than it does on the grand scale (see 'Saving Private Ryan' for another example of this). Even by the 1960s real war stories had been exhausted so the more fantastical ones were being explored (see 'The Guns of Navarone' (1961), 'The Dirty Dozen' (1967) and 'Where Eagles Dare' (1968) in particular). 'Went the Day Well?' was not a success at the time, but its story and characters have endured and it is probably better loved today than in 1942. Well worth watching if you get the chance.

1 comment:

Rooksmoor said...

As of this week, 'Went the Day Well?' has just been re-released in UK cinemas so if you want a slightly different movie experience I heartily recommend you go and watch it; you will not regret it.